Erin Bonnie is taking what’s hers

Photo by Devin Clark.

Photo by Devin Clark.

Maybe it’s because she grew up in a small town in Montana, but talking with Erin Bonnie feels a lot like catching up with an old friend, or re-reading your favorite book, or listening to your favorite song. She carries a warmth that spills out the same way during a casual conversation as when she’s playing the fiddle onstage. 

Part of Erin’s charm also boils down to her bluegrass roots -- the kind where a kid learns to play the fiddle at four years old. Now a local bluegrass staple, Erin’s parents first signed her up for lessons as a little girl. After the formal classical lessons, she obtained a less formal bluegrass education at home: her father was in a bluegrass band and would bring her along to gigs or campsites where, when she was old enough, the two would “jam out.” 

“Part of the reason I spent a lot of time playing music with my dad,” Erin said, “is because there wasn’t a lot to do in my hometown.” In Arlee, Montana, the population is about 800, which means there was a huge sense of community, loads of family time, and a lot of music.

Photo by Red13 Studios

Photo by Red13 Studios

It’s touching to imagine Erin as a young fiddler listening to female Americana heroes like Emmylou Harris, Claire Lynch, Gillian Welch, and Alison Krauss. As she grew older, by listening to music onstage and recorded, Erin slowly learned the skill of improvising -- a technique that was lost on her with a classical fiddle education. 

Out of college (the University of Missoula, where she studied Resource Conservation), Erin was working at a coffee shop when Joy Kills Sorrow came through town. “I never knew music could sound like that,” Erin said. 

Inspired, looking for something more than she was finding in Missoula, and encouraged by her family, Erin auditioned for Berklee. She got in, packed her bags, and left Montana for Boston.

In some stories, this is the happy ending: the protagonist has reached the big city, a prestigious university, and all that is promised along with it. And in a lot of ways, Erin’s story reflects this: she got the degree, she recently recorded a full-length album, and she got married. But when she looks back on her time at Berklee, she was “miserable for a long time.” Far from family and missing the expansive landscape of her small town, she felt out of her element. 

More than that: a few friends and family in Montana died -- unrelatedly and not all at once, but it was enough to put Erin in a state of grief. She couldn’t mourn with her community, nor could she escape to the landscape she knew so well. While she didn’t admit it, I like to believe that Erin channeled her energy -- her sadness, her confusion, her grief -- into her music.

The Berklee program meant an expanding musical education for Erin: jazz ensembles, musical theater, and old time music. That expansion, emotional distress, and being in an urban landscape shaped her sound, pulling her away from the traditional bluegrass she grew up with. It also gave her a newfound anxiety for playing onstage, a feeling that Erin learned to grapple with by playing with Elisa Smith.

Now, Erin not only has her stage confidence back, but she’s also gained a hell of a lot of perspective. Playing at spots like Club Passim, Atwood’s, and Plough & Stars has reminded Erin that she loves sharing what she’s created with people. 

Her new album, which features 10 years of songwriting and a recording of the river behind her childhood home, is called “Take What’s Mine.” What that means, for Erin, is “getting out of a hard place, finding yourself, and not apologizing for any part of the process.” It also speaks to the idea that women can and should unabashedly take what’s theirs and never look back. The album cover will be a collage of artwork created by women across the country, from Arlee all the way to Boston. .

Erin’s songwriting comes from moments of subtle beauty or pain: a line in a newspaper, a sentence a passerby mutters, or a conversation in a coffee shop. “I don’t think songwriting has to be about ‘I’ as a person, instead it gives you a great perspective,” she said. She thought for a few seconds, looking out the window at the cars and people passing by.  She smiled. And while she didn’t need to say it, it seemed to settle in with her -- that she had quietly and confidently claimed what’s hers: her sense of self, the space around her, and her music. Of course, her music.

Photo by Devin Clark.

Photo by Devin Clark.

Hannah Weiner