Sean Orr: String Man
Who is Sean Orr you may ask? According to legendary musician Mark Rubin, “He’s a working fiddler, gigging this week I’m sure, who learned his tunes on the bandstand for the dancers and for the communities who requested them.”
Sean, with his fiddle, seeks to tap into that thread of historic cultural music that weaves through the many sounds that have survived over the centuries: Irish, Mexican, Polish, Anglo, Czech, German, and Cajun to name a few. It is this thread that keeps the “old” music alive despite the attempts to commercialize and popularize the sounds.
In the last decade you might have heard him playing Texas/Western Swing with his band Texas Gold at the Round Top Dance Hall, or playing Celtic music at Irish pubs and Renaissance Fairs, or at Sengelmann Hall playing roots Americana music with the Pettit Brothers, or anywhere else a string man is needed. Lately Sean has been lending his talents to Nathan Colt Young playing traditional country music and with Chris Rybak exploring another new musical frontier: polka and waltz music.
MUSIC AT ALL TIMES
Sean is a seventh generation Texian residing in Bastrop. He first picked up an acoustic guitar at the age of 16 for the main reason most teenage boys do, to impress the girls. As a shy lad, the guitar brought out his personality and enabled him to interact with other folks. As with many people, this writer included, he had a desire to have music around at all times. Sean found that music and playing the guitar generated a special contentment that remains to this day. He mentioned that when extenuating circumstances keep him from playing music for several days, he misses it.
The strings of the guitar seemed to like him, for in his late teens and early 20s his skill allowed him to play in multiple bands in multiple genres as his family moved around overseas and the southern United States. Sean moved from behind a tip jar to actually getting paid a decent wage by performing Urban Cowboy-style music with the Big Creek Bottom Band at the KC Hall in the Polish stronghold of Bremond.
At the age of 24 during his six-string journey through rock-n-roll, heavy metal, rock-a-billy, classic country, and bluegrass (including the banjo and mandolin), Sean felt that the guitar had given him all the satisfaction he could wring out if it and he was ready for a new path to follow.
When he had talked to other pickers about learning the fiddle it had been the general wisdom that if you don’t start on the fiddle when you’re very young, you won’t be able to master the instrument. So, in his mid-20s, Sean set out to prove the general wisdom wrong. He began taking violin lessons using the Suzuki method which is basic classical violin lessons. When asked the standard question of what is the difference between a fiddle and violin, Sean replied with Johnny Gimble’s answer: $10,000. He added that generally fiddles use steel strings and violins use gut or a nylon-like substance.
FIDDLER ON THE ROAD
After working through several lesson books, Sean got a call to join a band for a road tour. For a little more than a decade, he was a utility man, playing whatever string instrument the band needed. The bandstand became his fiddle classroom and the more he learned to play it, the more his passion grew for the fiddle and soon he only picked up the guitar when he had to for work. When he retired from touring and moved to Bastrop, he laid his guitar down and sought gigs as a full-time fiddler. This focus sharpened his talents and Sean blossomed on the instrument.
He picked up the guitar again professionally in 2011 after a friend had to drop out of a popular band because of carpal tunnel syndrome. Sean recently built his own guitar from scratch so as to achieve the sound and the spirit of the music he performs.
Sean was living in the Houston area when Cajun fiddlers such as Frenchie Burke and Doug Kershaw invaded the country music scene. Intrigued by the Cajun fiddle and with the encouragement of his fans, he began learning the Cajun sound. His followers helped by locating Cajun fiddle music and giving it to him. Soon the country bands he was in were adding Jole Blon and Mathilda to the set lists much to the satisfaction of the audience. While Sean was exploring this genre he was determined to keep the cultural spirit of the Cajun sound in his playing, resisting the “flash” that Burke used to entertain his audiences.
Sean had always been aware of his Scotch/Irish (Celtic) heritage, but only peripherally aware of its music. A friend was forming an Irish band and asked Sean to join. While learning the nuances of Celtic music, his cultural heritage began to awaken, and Sean began to feel the spirit of his Celtic ancestors stir within him. Sean became more aware of his personal heritage as personal connections from within his soul were awakened from their slumber. Sean kept exploring the origins of the music and refining the the Celtic rhythms and instruments until he felt that he could faithfully channel the spirit that lives within him.
As Sean’s reputation grew for his faithful playing of the music and his professionalism, he began getting calls for back-up music from a variety of recording artists. Lately he has been doing about 15 to 20 recording sessions a year. In recent years, he’s played on several CDs for Oliver Rajamani, a Gypsy Flamenco musician, that has received international airplay. He also recorded with a band called Lucky Bones out of Dublin (Ireland) that got airplay on Irish TV and other European markets. Closer to home, he also played on Two Hoots and a Holler's tribute to Doug Sahm that got airplay on Sirius Radio.
Presently he’s wrapping up some recordings for famed science fiction writer Michael Moorcock. With modern technology Sean has built a home studio, where he can receive music tracks via email and play his requested part on them and email them back. Celtic Texas, his only available solo CD, is a joyful jig through a combination of traditional Irish fiddle tunes with a little steel guitar and Bob Wills’ stylings. Bob Wills you may ask… where do you think all those fiddle riffs that his band played came from? BTW, when you get a copy of Celtic Texas, you can hear Sean performing on five- and four-string fiddle, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar, Oud, Bodhran, electric bass, voice, banjo and mandocaster.
After several decades of owning and playing many string instruments (currently over 30), Sean has found that the fiddling takes him into a Zen-like mental state no other instrument does. Old fiddlers talk about being “in the chalk” referring to the feeling achieved when the resin/chalk is flying up into the face of the fiddler and the fiddle seems to be taking them to unknown territory.
TRUE TO CULTURAL MUSIC SPIRIT
When you commit your life to music, there is always that little bothersome thing called money, that puts a crimp in day-to-day life. Sean has spent 16 years where his sole income was from music. He has played on Canadian and European stages and at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
Sean worked around that money problem by finding jobs associated with music stores and giving music lessons. This gave him the flexibility to play music at night or on the road. Along the way, he has taught music at higher-learning institutions including a guest residency fiddler at Texas A&M. With the better students, Sean attempts to pass on the spiritual or Zen aspect of music that he has found. When teaching, a great teacher learns along with the student by exposing the teacher to different ways of approaching music. Sean is a great teacher.
Now, that he has quit touring and lives in Bastrop with his wife and family, he teaches fiddle, mandolin, and banjo as a staff member of the Bastrop Academy of Music. Between several nights a week playing music in Central Texas and his home-based computer business Sean is in the cat-bird seat.
“Every kind of music has its tradition and I try to the find the spirit in it," Sean said. "The cultural music survives because of the spirit within it. If your gonna play it, play it with respect.”
When you listen to Sean play, while at times it's fun, but occasionally during solos he will mentally drift away from the bandstand as he plays the way the music tells him.
CATCH SEAN AT AN APRIL PERFORMANCE!
05 BD Riley's Pub, Austin 06 The 602 on Main, Bastrop 08 Hallet Oak Gallery, Hallettsville 12 BD Riley's Pub, Austin 13 Schroeder Hall w/Nathan Colt
Young 19 Sherwood Forest Faire, McDade 26 Fiddlers Frolics w/Chris Rybak
See dance calendar for details!