Forrest O’Connor: A name both Southern and Irish, local and foreign, rhythmic, unexpected. It’s a name that captures the personality and background of the man himself, a singer-songwriter whose path to singing and songwriting was in some sense predestined and in another sense very unlikely.
He is co-lead singer and one of the primary songwriters in the Grammy Award-winning country bluegrass band, the O’Connor Band featuring Mark O’Connor (his father), which is touring nationwide to support the release of their #1 Billboard Bluegrass album, Coming Home. O'Connor is the sole writer of three of the album’s 12 songs (and co-writer on a fourth), and although it is a small repertoire of published music, it has already made an impact. Upon hearing an early demo of one of the songs, “What Have I Been Saying?”, singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier (Faith Hill, Blake Shelton) invited him and his wife, Kate Lee, to join her on the Grand Ole Opry and at The Bluebird Café. The music video for another song of O’Connor’s, the title track (“Coming Home”), is in rotation on CMT.
In some ways, it is no wonder that O’Connor is in Nashville, breaking into the scene like his father did 30 years ago. The younger O’Connor grew up in Music City during Mark’s heyday as a session fiddler, when he was appearing on albums by everyone from Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan to Reba McEntire and Randy Travis, winning CMA Musician of the Year Awards year after year (he won every year from 1991-96), and selling hundreds of thousands of copies of each of his own solo albums – a rare feat for an instrumentalist. The Opry, The Station Inn, and studios around town became O'Connor’s playgrounds as a kid, and he soaked in the music of the era as one would absorb a language, subconsciously developing an understanding of it without thinking too hard.
“I was around a lot of musicians growing up, but that didn’t seem out of the ordinary – I didn’t know any different,” says O'Connor. “I liked most of the music I was hearing, but I had no idea I’d be trying to emulate it 20 years later.”
Perhaps that’s because much of O'Connor’s past seems like it belongs to someone else entirely. At age 12, he moved with his mother, Suzanne, to a three-acre ranch in Lolo, Montana, a small valley town with a population of less than 4,000. After relocating several miles north to the city of Missoula, O'Connor picked up the mandolin and, inspired by some combination of the mountain vistas and the band Nickel Creek, started teaching himself bluegrass tunes. During high school, music took a backseat to reading and writing; a self-proclaimed bookworm, O'Connor read voraciously and wrote short stories and poems on a regular basis. He also contributed articles to his local city newspaper, winning multiple national journalism awards before graduating as his high school Valedictorian.
In fall 2006, he enrolled at Harvard University, the alma mater of Bonnie Raitt, Tom Rush, and a number of legendary artists. As soon as he arrived, though, he felt like an outlier.
“I went there as much for the music scene as for anything else,” recalls O'Connor, noting some of the great folk clubs, including Club Passim, that were within walking distance of campus. “Since writing songs and playing mandolin didn’t give me much in common with other students, I spent a lot of time elsewhere in Boston trying to get into the music scene.”
During his last semester of college, O'Connor developed an intense anxiety disorder that unleashed itself almost literally overnight. For nearly two months, he was largely confined to his dorm room, missing a number of classes, venturing out mainly for meals and to turn in homework. He eventually gained control over the condition with the help of medication and therapy, but he believes that “dark” experience would eventually fuel him to write.
“I think my body was telling me to stop reading so much,” O'Connor laughs. “In truth, I think I just overworked myself, and I had to reconsider my priorities. That experience totally changed the way I thought about work, career, success, happiness, loneliness – everything.
“I think the mental struggles – my own as well as the struggles with depression and anxiety I’ve dealt with in my family – gave rise to some artistic voice in me I hadn’t really heard before.”
That voice remained quiet for a little longer while O'Connor worked on a Boston-based music startup called Concert Window, but in 2011, he finally decided to explore performing in a serious way. He started practicing several hours per day and attending open mics around Boston – usually three or four per week.
“Anyone who has been to an open mic knows you can sit there for like three hours before you get a chance to perform for three minutes,” says O'Connor. “But I loved it. I didn’t care how filthy the room was, how drunk the crowd was, how bad the sound was – for the first time, I felt like I was doing something that meant something.”
After developing a local reputation as not only a singer-songwriter but also an inventive mandolin player, O'Connor joined a couple local bands and appeared on several albums through late 2013, when he underwent another tumultuous period: He called off his engagement to his fiancée, whom he had started dating the first month of college – more than seven years before.
“I was in a relationship I didn’t feel right about for years, but out of fear, I hadn’t done anything about it,” O'Connor recalls. “With a wedding coming up, I forced myself to act, but it was an incredibly hard choice. You lose friends, you lose people who are basically your family. And the guilt compels you to reverse course, to go back and ask for forgiveness and try to make everything right again. The hardest part is convincing yourself not to go back.”
For months, O'Connor had been considering moving back to his hometown of Nashville, and the broken engagement provided the final impetus. After crashing on friends’ couches in Boston for a couple weeks, he bought a rusty old Toyota Corolla and drove 1,100 miles through the snow to start a new life.
Soon, it became evident that the frequent open mics and long practice sessions had paid off. Within weeks, O'Connor was sitting in regularly on Monday nights at The Station Inn, one of the top country/bluegrass venues in Nashville. In March 2014, he won the Tennessee State Mandolin Championship and started dating an accomplished singer and fiddler name Kate Lee. The two performed together later that month alongside Ricky Skaggs and other luminaries in a benefit concert for bluegrass guitar legend Tony Rice. In May, the two sat in with Emmylou Harris, and in June, they made their debut on The Grand Ole Opry, backing up Mary Gauthier.
Soon thereafter, the couple (now married) formed a duo called Wisewater, whose lone EP, The Demonstration, reached #13 on the iTunes charts in November 2014. For the next year and a half, they booked and played shows across the country before being absorbed into the O’Connor Band featuring O'Connor's dad, Mark. The younger O'Connor appeared on ABC’s hit series Nashville as well as at major festivals and venues across the country, including Dollywood, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, The Bluebird Cafe, Woodsongs Radio Hour, Music City Roots, Four Corners Folk Festival, Grey Fox, and the Grand Ole Opry several more times. He also signed his first record deal with Rounder Records (Concord Music Group) as a member of the O’Connor Band.
“Moving to Nashville changed everything,” says Forrest. “I had no idea how quickly I’d start actually paying my rent with money I’d made from clubs and coffee shops and, later, venues I’d been dreaming about playing for a long time. I also had no idea how quickly I’d find someone as amazing as Kate. Coming back home was the best choice I ever made.
“To me, though, this is still only the first chapter. I got a bit of a late start, relatively speaking, so I’m working harder than ever writing songs and trying to become better at everything I do.”
In October 2017, the O'Connor Band sat in with the Zac Brown Band for four straight nights and is slated to open a leg of the superstar band's tour in 2018.