Mark O’Connor remains one of the most restless and rewarding talents in American music, a violinist with roots in the deepest bluegrass traditions who has, over a span of 40 years, merged stylistic elements of pop, jazz, world, and classical into a singular career. Simply listing three of his collaborators from among the more than 500 recordings he has participated in — Emmylou Harris, Yo Yo Ma, and Wynton Marsalis — makes the breadth of his talent and influence plain.
His latest project is the aptly titled Coming Home, a return to his bluegrass roots featuring a crack band centered around his family: his wife, fellow violinist Maggie; his son, Forrest, on mandolin and lead vocals; Forrest’s fiancé, Kate Lee, also on lead vocals and violin; with session players Joe Smart and Geoff Saunders on guitar and bass, respectively. Like his many previous band iterations, this group knows how to mix it up, adding elements of pop and progressive bluegrass to the 12-song collection.
Both Forrest O’Connor and Kate Lee are strong songwriters working independently of each other on the page while blending their voices organically in shared performances. Forrest’s “Coming Home” gives the collection its title and sets a classic bluegrass tone of wandering lost only to become found in the return to home. His voice in “I Haven’t Said I Love You in a While” resembles a young John McCutcheon, and the words have a similar feel to that master’s early songwriting, finding comfort in family values without giving in to myopic preachiness.
Kate’s “The Sweet Ones” offers the strongest in this theme, presenting a pair of older lovers reflecting upon the past in order to secure their future. “Well if only Father Time can heal our wounds,” Forrest sings, followed by Kate’s plaintive wish “Then Mama’s chicken soup can put things right.” Then, together they sing, “And maybe all the music that we shared / Can sing us back in love again tonight.” It’s an album highlight, as is “Blacktop Boy”, Kate’s cautionary tale of “a blacktop boy tearing through the heart of a dirt road girl”.
Kate shows off the power and range of her voice on the Osborne Brothers’ hit “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”, the album’s most raucous song. On this and all of the album’s 12 cuts, the band plays with an almost psychic chemistry. The requisite instrumental cuts shine in their arrangements, with “Fishers Hornpipe” giving Forrest an opportunity to show off his own award-winning chops on mandolin.
Mark is, of course, the anchor here, his fiddle playing so carefree yet rooted in whatever tradition he chooses to reach for. Fans of his playing will not be disappointed in this collection. Yet, it is a further testament to his skill that O’Connor leads the band from within the mix of instruments, not so much holding back as letting everyone around him shine. His fiddle playing is the backbone of every song, but he doesn’t need the glare of the spotlight to make it shine any brighter.
Coming Home is a true family affair and a triumphant return to Mark O’Connor’s bluegrass roots.