Kate Lee O’Connor is facing a long road back to the stage
Five years ago, Kate Lee O’Connor was just 24 years old and the lead singer and fiddler of The O’Connor Family Band when it won a Grammy in 2017 for Best Bluegrass Album. She put the gilded gramophone tchotchke in a bedroom, which served as a rehearsal room, in the Nashville apartment she shares with her husband, Forrest O’Connor.
This summer, the couple — now performing under the name O’Connor Lee — was set to play 75 Stutson, the one-time church-turned-event-venue in Charlotte. That was to be followed by a return a few months later to a larger venue, likely Kilbourn Hall, for shows setting up the October release of their debut album, “While We’re Here.”
It's a collection of songs that’s still a little of the O’Connor bluegrass, yet feeling more Americana, with the focus remaining on instrumentals and musicianship. Kate on fiddle and vocals; Forrest on mandolin and something he picked up only a few years ago, guitar.
Now, it’s almost winter. All of those plans have been set aside. Even those songs of the new album, which Lee conceded in a July interview — before the 75 Stutson show that didn’t happen — reflected her personal struggles. Success can be measured in Grammy hardware, but the new music added another layer to her story. One not so sought after.
“Recently I had kind of a bout with a mental health struggle, so that has made its way into our music as well,” Kate said back then. “So I guess anything that happens to us is fair game.”
Yes, Kate’s pain is our entertainment.
It began when she was 8 years old, a fiddle phenom growing up in Webster. She was taking antidepression medication to control her anxiety, diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I always had pretty severe OCD when I was a kid,” she said.
The drugs may have controlled it, but the depression and anxiety were not dealt with, only hidden. There have been two suicide attempts. The first was a couple of years ago. The second was in September and far more serious than the first, Forrest says, leaving Kate physically incapacitated.
Looking back now, Forrest concedes the cocktail of medications that have seemingly kept her going all of these years had a significant neurological impact on his wife.
“We probably just jumped back into things too quickly,” Forrest says. “And the pressure that would ordinarily be interpreted as – or like, handled more readily, as she has most of her life – became hugely triggering.”
Kate’s trip from a 9-year-old taking classical violin lessons to winning a Grammy was a quick one. She was playing Rochester-area coffeehouses at 11, then with the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the Hochstein Youth Symphony Orchestra. She was 14 when she formed her own bluegrass band, Kate Lee and No Strings Attached, singing and playing fiddle. The rest of the band was made up of guys in their 50s. They even released a CD, “Are We There Yet?”
She was in the 11th grade at Webster Schroeder High School when she played one of her songs with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. The piece, “On Your Way,” was co-written with her father, Bill Gurnow, and was orchestrated by RPO Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik.
On her way, after graduating from high school in 2010, to Nashville and Belmont University, studying commercial violin performance. That put her in the right place for session work and meeting the right people. She played at the Country Music Association awards and in the string section at a Rod Stewart and Stevie Nicks concert.
The string arranger who’d hired Kate to play the CMA awards knew Mark O’Connor, a seven-time Country Music Association Award-winning violinist, and suggested she might want to try performing and writing songs with O’Connor’s son, Forrest.
Out of the relationship came another band, Wisewater. The only thing moving slowly was Forrest. Worried about messing up the band chemistry, he waited six months before asking Kate on a date that didn’t include microphones. They married in 2017 at Geneva’s Belhurst Castle.
They didn’t have to look far when putting together their next band. The O’Connor Family Band, with Kate and Forrest handling the bulk of the songwriting and singing, would also feature Mark O’Connor and his wife, Maggie.
The O’Connor Family’s first album, “Coming Home,” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Bluegrass Albums chart. A highlight of the live shows was Kate’s howling version of “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” The Osborne Brothers had a big hit with it in 1956, as did Buck Owens later.
The O’Connor Family Band was playing with increasingly bigger names, on bigger stages. Opening for The Zac Brown Band, including two dates at Boston’s Fenway Park.
But trouble was always close at hand.
Kate’s antidepression medication led to stomach troubles, “So I quit my medication cold turkey, and pretty quickly became very destabilized,” is how she explained it last summer. “I had no idea how much the medication was doing.”
And her OCD came roaring back. She was shaking, lacking an appetite, and suffering insomnia. “Basically, your body is yearning for that substance, that chemical, and is not getting it,” she said.
The chemical: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. “I can get very nerdy about it,” she said in the midst of this discussion of SSRIs.
“It’s taken a year and a half really to feel like myself again. And now the tricky thing is that, combined with COVID, I was really not having much social interaction. And so now it’s the struggle of reintegrating, which I’m sure a lot of people can relate to after going back to work after COVID.”
But what is feeling like herself again to someone who’s been on medication most of her life?
Kate described searching for things that would slow herself down. “Stuff I didn’t used to have, hobbies,” she said. “I used to only do music. I’m pretty thankful now I have other things I’m interested in.”
She took up painting. “I don’t really know what I’m doing, that’s part of the fun of it.” And she became the lord of an aquarium. Absorbing herself in the chemistry of the tank, and the biology of the fish who depend on it. The population soon swelled to over 100 guppies, “They reproduce like rabbits.”
Painting, and feeding her fish, were healthy distractions. This as the songs of “While We’re Here” — a title that seems a nod to the impermanence of life — were lying in wait.
“A lot of our songs, I don’t think they’re very, like, on the nose about mental health,” she said. “Someone might not even know that’s what it’s about. We might allude to struggles with that in our music. And also, how Forrest has helped me through it, and how it affects the relationship.
“It’s definitely informed the songs. I would say probably half of our new album, half of the songs, have some kind of sneaky reference to it. But it’s just not that overt.”
So the Grammy award is a reminder of some very good things that went hand in hand with tough times. “I actually get kind of, like, anxious looking at it, sometimes,” she said.
Anxious, perhaps, because after reaching that milestone of music so early in her career, and if Kate can recover to the point where she can record and perform onstage again, she will essentially be starting over. She is now dealing with, as Forrest calls it, “the PTSD of having gone through this for so long.”
The trauma of that post-traumatic stress disorder is reflected in the uncertainty in Forrest’s voice now as he outlines what Kate has been through. He says that, at some points, “we all felt like she had conquered it.” Her sense of humor was returning. She was set to play a show with the Grammy-winning bluegrass star Alison Brown. They were to join Steve Martin and Martin Short for a couple of shows.
Those plans proved to be overly optimistic. Kate’s health was a pendulum. While Forrest did play the dates with Martin and Short, Kate was not ready to return. She was on a cocktail of medications, Forrest says, “not all of it positive.”
“Her brain and body chemistry were really thrown off,” he says.
“With her brain chemistry being so destabilized, at the worst points, that just makes it impossible to do anything, let alone perform in front of thousands of people.”
Forrest gets it. He’s been through it himself. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are antidepressant drugs. “I’m on an SSRI myself as well, because I developed really bad anxiety in college,” he says. “For me it was, like, lifesaving.”
Kate needed lifesaving. She was vomiting several times a day, unable to sleep. And there were the suicide attempts. One two years ago, when Forrest says she was “not in the right head space” for the powerful medications she had been prescribed. Forrest suggests that perhaps the suicide attempt was a freak accident.
But “that was not the case this time,” he says of the second attempt in September. “There were 48 hours when we were not sure what was going to happen.” Kate had passed out and fallen on her leg, which was in an awkward position for about four hours until Forrest returned and found her on the floor.
She developed what’s called “compartment syndrome,” where the blood flow is interrupted, leading to nerve and muscle damage. She was admitted to the hospital in critical condition. There were fears of brain damage. The leg damage required four surgeries.
Kate is home now, but her ordeal is nowhere close to over. Forrest must change her bandages throughout the day. Extensive physical therapy and counseling lie ahead.
“So the physical impact of like, severe anxiety, can be pretty crazy,” he says. “And that’s what she’s had to deal with.”
The therapy will last six to 12 months, the medical bills are closing in on $200,000, and the couple has piled up extensive credit-card debt; such is the state of the American health care system. Forrest set up a social media fundraiser, which has hit its goal of $100,000.
Is Kate’s goal a return to the heady days of Grammy Awards? Does that even matter at this point?
“I have hopes for the future, and all that,” was how she saw it this summer, before those hopes faded in the fall.
“Even if that’s the only time that happens, that’s good enough, you know?”
Forrest takes hope a little further. “I’m confident she’ll get back there,” he says. “It’ll just take a little while.”