Sara Milonovich and her fiddle may be traveling the world playing Americana roots music, but this upstate New York native says she will forever remain connected to the Mohawk Valley.
Born and raised in the town of Florida just southwest of Amsterdam, Milonovich now lives in Beacon, about 50 miles north of New York City. But her parents and other family members still live in Florida, and Milonovich is a regular visitor to their Montgomery County farm.
On Wednesday, she’ll return to the region to headline a benefit event, “Leap the Creek,” to be held from 6:30-9 p.m. at The Winners Circle Restaurant on Route 5 in Fonda. Proceeds from the event will go to the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, which was ravaged by floodwaters late last summer.
Playing with Milonovich at the “Leap for the Creek” benefit will be guitarist Gary Anderson (her regular accompanist and a member of Milonovich’s band, “Daisycutter”), Sundial Express with Daryl Kosinski and Linda Sheldon, and Gary Van Slyke. Fulton County historian Peter Betz will serve as the master of ceremonies.
‘Leap the Creek’
WHAT: Benefit performance for the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site
WHERE: The Winners Circle Restaurant, Route 5, Fonda
WHEN: 6:30-9 p.m. Wednesday
HOW MUCH: $10
MORE INFO: Tricia Shaw at 829-7516 or [email protected]
Milonovich began playing the fiddle at the age of 4 and joined the Adirondack Fiddlers at 7. At 16, she left Amsterdam High and started being home-schooled so she could spend more time as a musician. She performed with the McKrells for four years and during that time finished high school and headed to Fulton-Montgomery Community College and then Cornell University, where she got a degree in biology. She never stopped playing her music, however, and though tempted to head off to Brazil’s rainforest and work as a scientist, she opted to remain in the music field.
She has accompanied a number of top artists, including working with Pete Seeger on his Grammy-winning “At 89” album and for the past two years has primarily been working with Daisycutter, a group she formed with five other musicians.
Q: Which term do you use to describe your instrument — fiddle or violin?
A: Either or; it doesn’t really matter to me. It depends on the style of music you’re playing.
Q: Why did you start playing at such a young age?
A: My maternal grandparents, Thelma and Earl Harris, were big bluegrass aficionados, and they gave me my first violin. I was captivated by it. They were also founding members of the local chapter of the old-time bluegrass association which used to meet at the Florida Town Hall. Well, they would have jam sessions, and my parents and grandparents started taking me along. At one point, they noticed that I was really interested, so that’s why they bought me the violin and I began taking classic violin lessons. But I was always playing fiddle music, too. At 7 or 8, I was the youngest member of the Adirondack Fiddlers Association.
Q: Did you learn pretty quickly?
A: When you’re a kid everything is exciting and new, so I loved it. But the first few years learning an instrument, especially the violin, can be brutal. I always liked it, but I can remember the cat running desperately from the room whenever she saw the case come out, so I couldn’t have been that good from the get-go. But a few guys from the Fiddlers Association took me under their wing and I started doing some local gigs with them.
Q: Evidently, you really enjoyed performing.
A: I can remember a few early professional gigs I had and, yes, I loved it. I decided it was so much fun that I was going to be home-schooled so I could spend more time practicing and performing. At 16, I joined the McKrells and went on the road with them full time. I loved it, but eventually I left the area to go to Cornell.
Q: So you left the McKrells but you didn’t stop performing?
A: That’s how I paid for college, by playing gigs on the weekend. It was my college job and it worked pretty well. I did a lot of freelance and I also played with Irish songwriter Cathie Ryan. When I graduated I don’t know if I was going to forgo my music, but I was very interested in plant taxonomy and ethno-pharmacology. I wanted to be one of those guys that went into the rainforest and looked for plants with pharmaceutical application. But I needed a break after graduation, so I just kept on playing. I continued to play because I had so many opportunities so I never went back to science. I’ve been able to travel and make music and have wonderful adventures and it’s been very rewarding, but I still love science and biology. I have the utmost respect and interest for the whole scientific community.
Q: Along with the fiddle, you also use your voice. Did it require much practice to sing and play the fiddle at the same time?
A: It requires a good deal of practice because the thing [fiddle] is right there under your chin. It takes quite an adjustment, and it’s not at all like accompanying yourself on the guitar. But I always enjoyed singing, either in the car or in the shower. I started by doing harmony when I was playing with other groups, and didn’t really became a lead singer until much later on, after college.
Q: Do you play other instruments?
A: I do. I dabble a little bit with the mandolin, the viola, and I’m also playing the five-string violin. Most fiddles only have four, so it gives you the entire range of the viola and the violin at the same time. I also played the flute in middle school, and that led me to play various whistles and a bit of guitar when I was playing with the Irish groups.
Q: In November you spent the entire month in Eastern Europe on a tour that was sponsored by the U.S. State Department. What was that like?
A: John and Trish Miller [“Mountain Quickstep”] and I have played together for a long time now, and they went with us [Anderson was the fourth person making the trip] on our tour. It was a musical ambassadorship tour and it was all over the map. Sometimes we’d play in a small community center or a school for underprivileged kids, and then we’d be in these big concert halls in a major city. We went to Kosovo, Bulgaria, Moldova, which used to be part of the Soviet Union, and then we finished up in Turkey. We played all kinds of American roots music and had a great time. We’re looking into other opportunities to go back. We made some connections and new friends, so there’s nothing definite yet but we’d love to go back.
Q: In September of 2008, Pete Seeger released his “Pete Seeger at 89” album, and you were one of his accompanists. What was that experience like?
A: Well, we were tracking in the studio at different times, so I really didn’t work with him closely on that. But he lives in Beacon, and it’s really neat living in the same town. He’ll just be wandering around putting up fliers, he’s very approachable, and you could be in a coffee shop and he’ll often come over and strike up a conversation with you. If you like folk music he’s the one you listen to growing up. He’s responsible for a lot of classics.
Q: How often do you return home to the Amsterdam area?
A: If I’m not touring, I’ll go home and visit my folks quite a bit, especially in the summer. If I don’t have any gigs, I might even head up there, drive the tractor and help them out on the farm. My father is a first-generation farmer, and my brother is going to take over the place eventually. If you think being a musician is tough work, then try being a farmer. I love farms, and we need them. The more we can keep going the better. But I don’t see myself taking over the place. My brother can do it.
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