This time, the award-winning musician will give his audience a glimpse of what it was like to be a musical prodigy who rubbed shoulders with folk and bluegrass legends, while taking home national fiddle contest titles in the 1970s at the tender age of 12.
O’Connor will do this by reading excerpts from his upcoming memoir, “Crossing Bridges,” during the concert, scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 17, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
The performance is presented by the Park City Institute.
“I’ll take a seat and read a few pages from the memoir that is about the white, painted fiddle I got from a music teacher as a gift when I was a child,” he said.
Although the fiddle had been reduced to a barn decoration, it became O’Connor’s primary instrument — the one he used to win a string of national titles in the 1970s, all while becoming the youngest musician to sign a recording contract with Rounder Records.
“The fiddle hung in the Country Music Hall of Fame for 15 years, and while I felt honored it would be showcased in the museum, I asked for it back, citing a strong emotional tie to it,” he said. “It was a controversial request at the time, but they were kind enough to give it back.”
So when O’Connor finishes reading a few pages from his memoir during the concert, his wife, Maggie, emerges from the wings holding the fiddle.
“I take the fiddle and play a tune with all the microphones turned off,” O’Connor said. “I do that, because in the memoir I write about how the sound resonates from it, in spite of being painted white.”
The concert segment fits with O’Connor’s message about giving the gift of music during the holidays.
“A huge part of the magic of my childhood was that people looked at music as a gift,” he said. “If you were lucky enough to play music in the 1970s, it was better than being rich, because there was so much value put on that. In fact, many of the professional musicians I played with were poor, but they felt so full of richness because of the music.”
O’Connor is a strong believer in music education. He developed and teaches The O’Connor Method, a string-instrument technique for music teachers and students, and he and Maggie do student outreach programs, which he will do while in Park City.
“We were asked last year to consider doing one this year, so we worked hard to have a couple of days during the tour to do this in Park City,” he said.
The idea to write the memoir “Crossing Bridges,” which will be officially released on Feb. 10, is a story in and of itself, according to O’Connor.
“I actually took a couple of gos at writing a memoir 10 and eight years ago,” he said. “Both experiences did not result in a final book, but they were helpful to me as far as understanding my story through writers’ eyes. I learned what in my story as a kid would resonate with a reader, who is not just a musician, but a general reader.”
O’Connor put the idea on the back burner until his touring halted during the coronavirus pandemic.
“During the time off, we started doing these ticketed online shows from home that we called Mondays with Mark and Maggie,” he said. “We didn’t know how long we were going to do, but as it kept going, we developed a subscriber base who wanted to tune into the show every week.”
About 10 shows in, the couple knew they were exhausting everything in the repertoire, according to O’Connor.
“So we kind of dove deeper and mined earlier pieces that I had written,” he said. “We rearranged things and started writing new stuff, and used the Monday shows to workshop the new material.”
As the Mondays with Mark and Maggie continued, the couple decided to add some variety to the show.
“I would take five to 10 minutes of each episode and tell stories about my earlier life in music,” O’Connor said. “We got some incredible feedback from viewers, and decided on a post-concert Zoom session, so we could see the faces of our subscribers.”
During those sessions, fans told O’Connor to write down his stories.
“That gave me confidence, and since we were in the pandemic, I had the time to write,” he said.
To be sure he would tell the stories faithfully, O’Connor dug up his scrapbooks.
“I realized my mother had kept every newspaper clipping of me as a child, and I was covered in the press from age 11, when I started hitting the national scene,” he said. “Just seeing those clips and photos filled in the memory gaps.”
Many of the photos in the scrapbook that weren’t part of the clippings were taken by O’Connor’s mother.
“She was a wonderful photographer and never went anywhere without her Nikon,” he said. “She took pictures of the musicians performing with me or by themselves.”
Some of the musicians who are in those pictures — Merle Haggard, Roy Acuff, Steve Morse and the Dregs and Bill Monroe — directly influenced O’Connor’s career.
“I also met the future stars of the music business like Vince Gill and Marty Stuart, when we were in our teens,” he said.
O’Connor decided to publish his mother’s and other photos of him in a book called “A Musical Childhood in Pictures,” as a companion piece to “Crossing Bridges.”
The final piece of O’Connor’s memoir package is a CD called “Early Childhood Recordings,” a CD of never-before-heard field recordings that start when O’Connor was 10, and includes the final rounds of his national competition wins when he was 13 and 14.
“I had the great opportunity to have all my cassettes digitized by the University of Kentucky, and when I got the hard drive during the pandemic, I started pouring through these old recordings,” he said. “My mom kept everything, even the recording she took from the very first day I picked up the fiddle.”
While the CD, memoir and photo album details how O’Connor learned the songs and what he was thinking while touring as a child musician, it’s also a documentation of the American folk music scene in the 1970s.
“It was a fantastic period of music in American life,” he said. “It was a way I could make money for my family. And while there is a lot about all the trouble I got into while out on the road, it also has all the life lessons I learned. And I wanted to share those things.”
While O’Connor is focusing on the memoir package, he and Maggie will release the new songs they had written for their virtual Monday performances as an album called “Life After Life” at the beginning of 2023.
“It’s going to be a vocal album with us playing all the instruments as well,” he said.