By Kirsten Ferguson/For The Leader-Herald
The bucolic setting of the Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction — the location of the oldest farm in the Mohawk Valley — might be the perfect spot to enjoy the earthy roots-rock and down-home Americana of fiddler and singer-songwriter Sara Milonovich.
Milonovich grew up not far away on a crop farm outside Amsterdam still operated by her father and brother. The setting infuses her latest album, “Northeast,” which is filled with Milonovich-penned tunes about the realities of rural life, including the whiskey-soaked country weeper “The Sun’s Comin’ over the Hill” and road-weary bluegrass rave-up “87 North.”
Milonovich and her band Daisycutter will perform songs from “Northeast” tonight at the Schenectady County Historical Society’s Mabee Farm for a Howlin’ at the Moon concert series show at 7 p.m. with an opening set by local roots band Everest Rising, which organized the series.
“You notice when nature changes,” Milonovich said of growing up in the countryside. “You notice the seasons. You notice the light changing. You notice when the barn swallows are getting ready to leave. You know what that means. You know what’s around the corner. And I think that awareness is definitely reflected in my songwriting.”
The songs on “Northeast” are more universal in their reflections on rural life than they are confined to a certain geographic place or time, Milonovich said.
“The album was meant to feel as if it could have been set in a Hudson Valley town, or a mill town in Maine, or it could have taken place somewhere in Pennsylvania or Ohio or New Hampshire,” she said. “I hope some of that universality carries through. The stories that the songs tell could have taken place five years ago, 10 years ago or yesterday.”
As a songwriter, Milonovich draws from stories that might have happened to people she knows, or from random occurrences observed on the road.
“Even though they’re written from my perspective, and I feel like I can relate to them as a lifelong Northeasterner, they’re not
necessarily autobiographical reflections. That’s why we have poetic license to protect the innocent, including ourselves. Although no songwriter is innocent. We’re all terribly guilty,” she laughed.
From a young age, Milonovich was immersed not only in farm and rural life but also in a thriving local bluegrass scene.
“My grandparents on my mom’s side were part of the old-time bluegrass association in and around the Capital District,” she said. “They weren’t big players themselves, but they were very involved in the volunteering and organizing, and setting up the jams and the potlucks and the meetings.”
At the age of 4, Milonovich received her first fiddle from her grandparents.
“I started studying both fiddle and violin at a time when it was not trendy to be doing both,” she said. “I caught much grief from both sides. But I joined the Adirondack Fiddlers when I was about 7 and started playing with these old-timers for square dances, and learned a whole pile of tunes and learned how to play that way, really.”
By age 9, Milonovich was already leading her own band and enjoying a rising regional reputation as a skilled fiddler. At 16, she joined upstate Celtic bluegrass outfit the McKrells, recording two albums with the group and touring the U.S. and Ireland. She has been a side musician for top artists such as Pete Seeger, Eliza Gilkyson, and Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys — while also performing her own music and leading her own bands.
Milonovich’s classical training on violin — as well as the more improvisational, on-the-fly skills she gained while playing bluegrass fiddle — served her well when she became a featured player in the recent Broadway musical “Come from Away” for about five years until the musical’s run ended last year.
“I have classical training to thank for technique and intonation and being able to read music,” she said. “Fiddling gives you the ability to make connections by ear and it develops a completely different part of your brain. Learning how to substitute notes in a tune or add
variations or make it your own are steppingstones to being able to take a fast improvised solo in a bluegrass song, which is like jumping out of an airplane and hoping you pull your shoot at the right time.”
Performing with “Come from Away” on Broadway and then on the musical’s national tour required both skill sets, Milonovich said.
“There weren’t many people that could do it, because it was written in traditional scored-out notation, but there were sections based on traditional Canadian and Newfoundland music, so you had to not only memorize them but play them with the inflections of a fiddler while you were onstage.”
Milonovich got a chance to celebrate one of her early fiddle mentors this past weekend when she was the featured performer at the North American Fiddler’s Hall of Fame and Museum in Osceola on the same day that her mentor, legendary fiddle player Earl St. Onge, was honored as the New York state inductee.
“We set up a live stream so that Earl could watch the ceremony from his apartment because it was just a little bit too far of a drive for him,” she said of the 102-year-old. “That was a really special day.”
Fans who can’t make the Mabee Farm performance can catch Milonovich and Daisycutter at Caffè Lena on Sept. 7 when they will perform as a trio with Milonovich’s longtime guitarist Greg Anderson and multi-instrumentalist Boo Reiners. (For the Mabee Farm show, Daisycutter adds the great Daria Grace on bass and vocals.)
For Milonovich’s musings in blog form on life as a musician, and for her “fiddle tune of the week club,” wherein Milonovich digs into her personal archive of influential old-time fiddle numbers, check out her Patreon page at Patreon.com/SaraMilonovich.
The Week Ahead
- Legendary “This Is How We Do It” R&B star Montell Jordan headlines the Alive at Five outdoor summer concert series Thursday at Jennings Landing in Albany. 4:30 p.m.
- Trauma School Dropouts, along with Radio Radio X and Cacophone Records, host Summer School 2023, a punk extravaganza at the Fuze Box in Albany on Saturday with Hudson Falcons, Plastic Jesus and Wet Specimens. 7 p.m.
- Grammy-winning Irish-American fiddler Eileen Ivers performs at Music Haven in Schenectady’s Central Park on Sunday. 7 p.m.
Contact Kirsten Ferguson at [email protected].