Violinist Casey McGrath hasn’t been performing her musical mashup for very long, but that hasn’t stopped her from occasionally earning a little rock star status.
The classically trained musician nonetheless gets recognized “at random places like the gas station. Some guy yelled at the truck window, ‘hey, fiddle girl!’ ” said the Ottawa resident.
It happened again last week during an interview in the dining room of Ottawa’s Tangled Roots Brewing Company. Stacey Ryan saw McGrath — the musician, with her short, very blond hair, is hard to miss — and offered a few hugs.
“It’s musically genius. Her beauty astounds me. I’m not just saying that,” Ryan, of Ottawa, said of McGrath.
A Joliet native, McGrath has lived in Ottawa for about two years, lately near Skydive Chicago. The experienced skydiver is taking another plunge — one she calls “Fiddlerock!”
“It’s stuff people love,” she said, playing her fiddle (violin and fiddle are the same instrument) along with backing tracks or live vocals to songs by Adele, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and other pop and rock ’n’ roll tunes.
McGrath even plays a version of the classic rock warhorse “Freebird,” released nearly 50 years ago by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“It’s got guitar in it and I play violin in it. I love songs that have just lasted,” she said.
A few times a month, McGrath and her boyfriend, A.J. Johnson, head to Starved Rock Country venues with sound and lighting equipment operated by A.J. In front of listeners used to rock ’n’ roll or country, she offers a combination of rock and classical music.
“I realized my heart is in combining the two. That’s why I enjoy it so much,” McGrath said
At age 9, she started playing the violin in Joliet’s public school system. McGrath credits Pam Breunig, Kevin Carroll and Jesus Florido — music educators when she was attending Joliet Central High School — with helping her along.
McGrath didn’t take private lessons until she was 17. After graduating from Joliet Central, she earned violin performance degrees from Butler University, Indianapolis (bachelor’s degree), University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (master’s) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (doctorate).
For eight years, she was concertmaster for Aurora-based Fox Valley Orchestra, plus taught violin at music studios for 12 years and at Joliet Junior College for 10 years. McGrath decided to leave that work “so I could focus on my performance.”
“Fiddlerock!” made its public debut last year when she tried it out during an open mic night at Ottawa’s Dockside Bar and Grill. The evening’s host was singer-songwriter-instrumentalist Chris Farrell, who sometimes performs with the longtime Ottawa musician.
“Chris Farrell is a big part of me getting started. I owe a lot to him,” McGrath said.
“It definitely made me curious,” Farrell said of listening to McGrath at the Dockside show. “Your mind starts to work — how can I work with this person?”
They have had several shows together, and Farrell foresees a time McGrath will be presenting Fiddlerock! with a full band behind her.
Farrell and McGrath enjoy the spontaneity of their shows.
“She’s very quick to acclimate to a song. It makes the night a little more interesting,” Farrell said
“Playing with Chris is really helpful. He doesn’t tell me what he’s going to play until the night of each show. It’s great for improvisation,” she said.
McGrath recently posted "Fiddle Rabbit," a combination of four Eminem songs, on YouTube, and some of her other tunes can be found on her Facebook page, fb.com/mcfiddlerock, which also lists upcoming show dates.
A full-length album, with original music included, is among McGrath’s plans. She’s working with Ottawa musician Ryan Wotherspoon on orchestration and recording of backing tracks.
She hasn’t ruled out a return to classical music, but for now wants to see how far "Fiddlerock!" can take her.
“If I was in a place and really felt effective, I would say yes, given the right situation,” she said about classical music. “I really want to see how awesome I can be at violin. And it’s really where my heart is.”
On the way, McGrath would like recognition beyond gas stations and dining rooms.