Gospel of bluegrass
Lewis helps spread the bluegrass gospel
Thursday, November 30, 2006
BY KIRA L. SCHLECHTER
Bluegrass might have originated in the South and Appalachia, but it certainly didn't stay there.
Singer/songwriter/fiddler Laurie Lewis heard it growing up in northern California in the 1960s and she's been spreading her take on the musical gospel from the Left Coast ever since.
"What I've tried to do is something that is sort of true to the way [Bill Monroe] initially pulled his sound together -- he took various forms of music and out of those forms made something that was the right medium for him to express himself," Lewis said.
Lewis has been performing with mandolinist Tom Rozum for almost 20 years and will do so at Sunday's Whitaker Center concert, which is sponsored by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society.
Her latest album, "The Golden West," showcases her crystalline voice and her stellar Right Hands band. The members have the most delicate touch on their instruments, giving the music a light, airy quality. They also turn in quality vocal performances of their own, such as guitarist Scott Huffman on his wry song "Hard Luck in Heaven" and Rozum on Jimmie Rodgers' "99-Year Blues."
Lewis spoke about the album and other aspects of her long and respected career in a phone interview from Lyons, Colo.
Being a female bluegrass artist in the genre's early development:
"It didn't occur to me so much that it was a male-dominated music form -- in many places, to the exclusion of women completely -- because in the San Francisco Bay area, that just was not the case.
I never really saw it as adversity. I had a booking agent, so I didn't know how hard she worked to get me gigs. But she did say she would call a festival and they would say, 'Oh, no, we already have our girl band, we don't need another.' There was sort of a quota."
On her singing:
"I love that mountain-y singing of Ralph's [ Stanley] and I listened to it a lot and I channeled a lot of his vocal nuances into my own vocal style. Things like the feathering at the end of a phrase or a certain kind of ornamentation."
Two songs about two women -- the breathless one swept away by love (her own "Your Eyes") ...:
"I almost didn't record that because I thought it was just too silly. It was so much fun to sing with the band. I have a criteria for songs: They either have to make me laugh or cry, so that one definitely made me laugh."
On the brazenly self-confident one who knows her man will come back (Jimmy Martin's "Before the Sun Goes Down"):
"It just struck me as so incredibly self-confident: 'I'm a complete screw-up and you can't stand to be around me. But I am so amazing that you're going to come back.' It's just a great song; there aren't too many like that."
Performing with Linda Ronstadt:
"I wasn't even thinking of asking her to sing on ["A Hand to Hold"]. But she heard me sing it and she asked if she could sing on it.
She does what's needed in the situation and for the song. She doesn't just do something because she can -- she does what's needed for each particular song, for each singing partner."
Bluegrass as a lifestyle:
" Bluegrass and folk music is very much interwoven in the day-to-day lives of the people who play it. Playing with other people, that's what makes it special. It's not a solo music.
It's a community music; it brings people together. The self-expression and the communication that comes from playing music together -- I can't imagine anything better than that."
On holding songwriting workshops:
"I really enjoy helping people get music back into their everyday lives. We are so used to, as a culture, being catered to for our entertainment needs.
So one of the things I love to do is spread the music gospel, that you can pick up an instrument and play with people and you can sing with people. And it's a wonderful, wonderful thing."
Won a Grammy as part of the 1997 compilation album "True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe."
Twice named female vocalist of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
1996 album with Tom Rozum "The Oak and the Laurel" nominated for a Grammy.
KIRA L. SCHLECHTER: 257-4763 or email@example.com
2006 PennLive.com All Rights Reserved.
March 9, 2006
During the past two decades, Laurie Lewis has established herself as one of the best artists in Bluegrass and American Roots music. Along with being one of the finest Bluegrass fiddlers out there, she's also is an accomplished singer, songwriter, guitarist, and bass player, as well as a bandleader and record producer. I spoke with her at her home in Berkeley, California, where, as a child, she first learned to play the Classical violin. "As soon as I realized that I could just learn by listening and play what I heard, a big door opened for me," she recalled.
As a teen in the 1960s, she attended many of the Berkeley Folk Festivals, getting to see some of the era's best Folk and Bluegrass musicians, including Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Greenbriar Boys. She also entered fiddle contests, twice winning the California State Women's Fiddle Championship.
"I'm a Berkeley hippie who fell in love with Bluegrass music and particularly Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers," she said. "In my own songwriting, I get really involved in the natural world, the nonhuman world. So that was something that I really responded to when I first heard Bluegrass music. And it was so much fun to play it with other people. To hear those particular instruments together is something that I've always loved."
And so she attached herself to the Bluegrass scene right away. "With my Classical technique, I was able to jump in with other musicians pretty quickly, that along with the fact that I had a good ear for music and was familiar with chord changes."
Lewis became a member of several traditional music bands, including two of the Bay Area's best, the Phantoms of the Opry and the Arkansas Sheiks. At that time, most of the Bluegrass performances and activities took place at a popular San Francisco club called Paul's Saloon. "There would be jams going on onstage and also in a couple of back rooms. If you wanted to put together a band and play, it was easy."
She met other Bay Area women with traditional influences and formed the Bluegrass group The Good Ol' Persons. She also helped put together Blue Rose, a Bluegrass combo that broke the traditional, male mode of Bluegrass bands with its all-female lineup. "It's a very slow process integrating women into a man's world and changing that world consequently. I look back and I'm glad that I could play a small part in helping women be accepted in major musical roles in Bluegrass. I certainly wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today without women performers like Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard having paved the way for me."
Lewis' recording career began in the 1980s with a group called the Grant Street String Band. She also began recording solo projects for Flying Fish Records. Her composition "The Cowgirl Song" was later recorded by Patsy Montana and has become the unofficial theme song of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. Kathy Mattea recorded one of Lewis' most popular songs, a Country ballad called "Love Chooses You," for her best-selling Willow in the Wind album. But it is as an interpreter of her own songs that Lewis most often touches people and leaves an impression. "When I started playing music, at first I didn't write," she said. "I was always looking for songs that really meant something to me and said what I wanted to say. There were certainly a lot of them, but everyone else was singing them, too. I wanted something more personal. So I started to write and it has become more and more important to me.
"Sometimes a song just falls out of thin air and you've got to catch it and write it down. And other times, a song is a real laborious effort; you have to work and think about it and live in that song. It's like planting a garden. You have to keep weeding and digging until something comes up."
In 1993, Lewis made her Rounder Records debut with True Stories. It featured her interpretation of Kate Long's "Who Will Watch the Homeplace," which was named song of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) in 1994. She has twice been named the IBMA's female vocalist of the year (1992 and 1994). "There was a time when the thing that you really had to do in the Bluegrass-Country scene was to move to Nashville," she said. "I just never could make myself do it. I think that my strength of my home being in the Bay Area turned out to be a career weakness for me. I've just always been happy and content to live in the backwaters."
Her 1995 duet project with her current musical partner Tom Rozum, The Oak and the Laurel, received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album. A mandolin player and vocalist, Rozum has toured internationally with Lewis and played on most of her recordings since 1986.
"The kind of music that I play is never going to be wildly popular," Lewis said. "It will never make MTV stuff or even something that people feel they can mass market. "But I really feel like I'm one tiny fraction of one percent of the people in the world that are able to make a living doing what I love to do. For that, I thank my lucky stars." Phil Reser is a contributing editor of FolkWax. You may contact Phil at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laurie Lewis: Committed to Being Me
Laurie Lewis is among the best known and best admired bluegrass musicians of either gender in the world. Two-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year, she is also a great fiddler and guitar player, an extraordinary songwriter and arranger and a hard-working and effective band leader. She has an astounding range of talents and interests (dance, violin making, long-distance bicycling, and more...). And above all, she is a caring person and a loyal friend. She recently returned from Boulder, where she completed a recording project in tribute to the late Charles Sawtelle.
Laurie took time from her overwhelmingly busy schedule to talk to WIB about the unique nature of the Bay Area, particularly with respect to bluegrass music and music.
WIB: I’m interested in when you first started playing music. Apparently, there was something magical happening in the Bay Area.
Laurie: I would say that was true. When I first started playing bluegrass, there was a very vibrant scene going on that was mostly centered around bands that played regularly at Paul’s Saloon. First and foremost was the Styx River Ferry, the band that opened up Paul’s Saloon to bluegrass. It was a little bit before my time. I think I came on the scene at their going away party.
In that band were Bob and Ingrid Fowler, Ingrid Herman was her maiden name. She was the daughter of Woody Herman. She played fiddle in the band and sang, and they moved to Nashville, along with their whole band.
So, the first time I went to Paul’s Saloon, there were women playing lead instruments as integral parts of a band. There was Markie Sanders playing mandolin and bass in the Hired Hands, of course Ingrid playing fiddle...they all played lead and sang harmonies. They worked, as anybody would, pulling their own weight.
There was Sue Erickson, who played guitar and was often a guest with bands at Paul’s Saloon. She was a songwriter, and used to be in High Country. She’s featured on the first High Country album.
WIB: When did you first go to Paul’s Saloon? Do you remember what year that was?
Laurie: I think it was 1972.
WIB: And at that time, had you already taken up the fiddle?
Laurie: I was working in a dance studio. I had not been playing music at all. But the husband of the director of the dance studio was really into the bluegrass scene at Paul’s, and was a bass player. He found out that I had played banjo a little bit when I was a teenager, so he wanted to get together and play. And I tell you, I pulled out my banjo, and I was awful. I was never any good, and by then I was bad and rusty.
But, in the course of getting together that time, he found out that I had played classical violin, and his eyes just lit up, and he said, "Why, you could play the fiddle!"
Just at that same time, a number of things happened. My older sister asked me to play music for her wedding. She was thinking I would play guitar and sing, because that’s what I had done generally when I had played music.
And I had also been carrying around with me, for years, this Chubby Wise instrumental album, called "Chubby Wise and the Rainbow Ranch Boys," with Hank Snow’s band. It’s a really, really great album. My dad gave it to me, he found it at this little music store in Berkeley and bought it for me when I was about 14. And so I’d always had this record, but I’d never really learned anything off of it. It had these lovely waltzes, and I thought, with my friend Geoff Berne’s encouragement, I can learn some waltzes, and Geoff can back me up. And so I did.
And that was it. As soon as I realized that I could just learn by listening and play what I heard, a big door opened for me. And right at that same time, Geoff dragged me over to Paul’s Saloon. There I heard all this wonderful music and these great fiddlers over there, and I was completely smitten. And with my classical technique that I still had from having played classical violin as a teenager, I was able to kind of jump in fairly readily. That, along with the fact that I had played folk guitar and was familiar with chord changes and had a pretty good ear.
Around the same time, the director of the dance studio had choreographed a dance to the singing of Brantley Kearns, who was a wonderful singer and guitarist, and fiddler, too. He played fiddle at Paul’s Saloon in various bands and was the first fiddler, I think, with the Phantoms of the Opry. So she choreographed this dance to him singing and playing guitar, and I just loved it. I was completely blown away by how beautiful it was. So I had this other kind of "in" to that scene, just because I had watched this whole dance get choreographed and set to music and had watched their live performances of it and was all primed. Everything happened at the same time.
And, at that dance studio, once a month, there were square dances held with an old time band. I don’t remember much about the musicians in that band, but I think it was people who went on to be part of High Woods String Band. They had moved back east. And people who became parts of the Arkansas Sheiks, who I later played with.
So, live music was all around me with women playing. So it did not seem like it was an odd thing or a thing that was so far out of my realm of possibility that I couldn’t do it myself.
There is something, I think, about the way the majority of people seem to be in our society today. They’re very removed from the idea that they can pick up an instrument and play it. They’re not around live musicians, they don’t have it in school, they just see it under bright lights on stage, where it seems like that only professionals should try. You know, "Don’t try don’t this at home." But it was not like that at all in the Bay Area.
WIB: And there was no thought that this wasn’t something that women do?
Laurie: No, there was no thought that that might be the case. There was the band High Country, which seemed, through most of its life, to be a bastion of male bluegrassness. They were very active in the Bay Area. But, if a female singer was in the audience, they’d always be invited up. And they also had a history of having a woman in the band for awhile - that was Sue Erickson.
High Country was the prototypical West Coast male band, but that does not mean they are the male macho band. It just so happens that they were more in touch with and in love with the real traditional bluegrass. They were followers of Bill Monroe, so they were not of the mindset that women couldn’t sing bluegrass or couldn’t play bluegrass, but that this is how they wanted it to sound, which is a different thing.
I have those same feelings. There are certain songs that I won’t sing, even though I love the songs, because I love them so much in their keys that are male keys. I love to play them. I love to hear them there.
WIB: When you first started singing, was it ever an issue. "You can’t sing that song in that key?" Did folks ever say that?
Laurie: It’s possible that somebody did, I wouldn’t say I’ve never heard that. Mostly there would be some grumbling, like, "Damn, why do I have to play this in D? I want to play it in G." Which means, mostly, it’s banjo players who have to play out of a completely other position. You know, you go from G to D, and it’s a major change. You cannot capo your banjo up seven frets and have it sound like the same thing. So they’d have to play out of a whole different position. So that’s where the grumbling came from, not from some idea that you’re not allowed to play something in another key.
WIB: It’s not as much fun.
Laurie: Sure. And, I’ve got to tell you, for some stuff it just isn’t as much fun! If you move a banjo from G to D, there are some songs that just do not work. Would you try to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown in D? No. It’s not going to sound right. You learn all those classic breaks, and you can’t play them. As a fiddle player, I never want to play "Can’t You Hear Me Calling" in any other key but G, because I love Chubby Wise, and I love those solos, and I want to play like that, and I want it to sound like that.
WIB: Tell me about Vern and Ray. Are they originally from the East?
Laurie: They’re both from Arkansas. They both moved out to California and worked for a long time and both moved themselves and their families to Nashville for a while, to try to make it in the music business. That’s where they did a couple sides for Starday, the famous "Cabin on the Mountain," with the incredibly great fiddle break, and Vern singing. And that just didn’t work out. They didn’t get work. Then Vern first moved back to California and Ray followed shortly thereafter. This was in the late '50s, early '60s.
So, I met them. I don’t recall the first meeting. I probably went to the Freight and Salvage when they were playing. There were often jams in the back room there – it was the tiniest little, tiny, tiny back room. I might have played with them some there.
Not too long after I met them, they quit playing music together, except on very rare occasions, and Vern got together his own band, the Vern Williams band, with his son Delbert and Keith Little. I ended up playing bass with that band for maybe a year or so. And I just loved it. It was so great to be a part of that rhythm section and in that band, and hearing that music from the inside.
WIB: Had you already been performing at that point?
WIB: And for him, the gender thing wasn’t an issue?
Laurie: I don’t think so. He’d always want to sing duets and want to play. He was just into playing the music, and didn’t seem to have a gender bias. It’s possible if you scratched the surface deep enough there was something there like maybe he wouldn’t want to be touring on the road with a female band member – I don’t know, because that never came up.
There are many different levels of acceptance. And also what works chemistry-wise in a band. If you’re all just living at home and you get together and play at a club or an occasional festival, that’s one thing. If you’re on the road in a van or a bus, traveling together for long periods of time and sharing hotel rooms, it becomes more difficult to be the only female in an otherwise male group. It creates all kinds of problems. You’ve got to have your own room, all kinds of things.
And then there’s also the sexual energy that enters into it - which is not always what you want in a touring band. It can be a pretty damn explosive thing.
WIB: I’m interested in Good Ol’ Persons. How did it come to be? Was there a conscious decision, a statement, to have an all-women’s band?
Laurie: We all met at Paul’s Saloon at jam nights. Jam nights used to be a Sunday night. I’d go over every Sunday. Often Barbara Mendlessohn, who played mostly clawhammer banjo, would come in.
There would not only be jams going on onstage, but there were a couple of back rooms, and there would be jam sessions happening in the various back rooms. If you wanted to put together a band and play a set or a few songs on stage, you could do that.
So, I got together with Barbara and Dorothy Baxter and Sue Shelasky, who was playing mandolin, and a friend who none of us really knew very well, who was Kathy Kallick. Barbara Mendlessohn went to the Sweets Mill Music Campout with Kathy, and Kathy sang some song in the car. Barbara had never heard her sing before, and she just flipped out. "Man, this is great!"
It was Barbara’s idea to start playing music with Kathy. Kathy didn’t drive at the time, and lived in San Francisco. Barbara and Sue and Dorothy all lived in Marin County, very close to each other, and I lived over in Berkeley. So we’d get together at Kathy’s place, and have a coffee klatch and play tunes. It really started out as a women’s support group. But we thought we should set a goal for ourselves, which would be to put together a set to play at Paul’s Saloon at jam night.
We went and played the set, and immediately Paul wanted to hire us for one night a week. And we said okay. But we only had one set’s worth of material. So we immediately had to start acting like a band and get stuff together. And we did it.
The band got a lot of press coverage and a lot of interest early on because it was all women. And even though there had been women in these other bands all along, there had not been, in the Bay Area, an all women’s bluegrass band. So it was a novelty. Everybody liked us. The women liked us because we were all women on stage, and the men liked us because we were all girls.
WIB: Who played what?
Laurie: Dorothy played guitar, flat-picked, played lead. She was very good, very Doc Watson-influenced. Doc was her main man. Kathy played bass, mostly, and Barbara played banjo and she also played hammered dulcimer and spoons. We were very eclectic. I played fiddle, and Sue Shelasky played mandolin. But soon, Sue dropped out and her brother Paul took her place on mandolin. The first time he played with us, he came in wearing a dress, and I think a wig, but it didn’t make any sense because he had this big beard. It was quite ridiculous.
WIB: How long were you with GOP?
Laurie: I was actually not with that band very long, maybe a year and a half, the first couple years of the band, and that was it. And the band continued to be together for another twenty years. I had a very small impact on the whole life of that band. People always say, "You were in the Good Ol’ Persons, right?" Well, yes, I was a founding member, but I was gone from that band by the time they did all their great music.
Kathy Kallick, Laurie Lewis, Barbara Mendelsohn, Paul Shelasky, Dorothy Baxter at Bay Records Studio, Alameda, CA, circa 1975, during recording of the Good Ol' Persons' first album.
-photo by Ken Green
WIB: Back to the recognition that there was a different scene or a different generation or a different something from the roots of the music you were playing.
Laurie: In the late 70’s or so, Hot Rize would come out here and play. They used to park their bus out in front of my house, and we would get together and have pickin’ parties. Pete Wernick wrote me a letter after one of these parties - it must have been about 1980 or so. He’d been traveling all over the United States, and he wrote that he thought the Bay Area was really unique in the way women were such an integral part of the scene. He was really impressed by it, and he thought it was very unusual.
Now, I hadn’t traveled elsewhere, so I didn’t know it was unusual. I just thought, well, yeah, this is the way things are supposed to be done. You know, I grew up in Berkeley, and it took me years of getting out of the area before I got over the feeling that everything was weird, everybody thought differently than I did, everything was strange. I realized after awhile that, no, I was the weird one, and that Berkeley was the strange place. And outside of modern European countries, there weren’t many places in the world that were like this.
You know how Europeans claim they can spot Americans all the time? When I was 16 I went to Europe for the first time with my family. Nobody thought we were an American family. They all thought we were maybe German or Danish or something. The way we dressed and the way we were was just different. But that’s what I grew up in.
WIB: So, in everything, there was a sense of being no boundaries.
Laurie: Yes, in just about everything. You know, male chauvinism was a part of life, even here you would run into it, but there wasn’t a sense that that little thing would stop you from whatever it was you wanted to do. Because out here it was a far smaller issue.
WIB: When you were playing with all women, what about the technical details?. Did you all learn the technical parts, deal with the sound and the equipment?
Laurie: I guess in the Good Ol’ Persons that sort of fell on me. I bought a sound system. Dorothy and I were definitely the more physical members of the band. It didn’t bother us to haul things, you know. Lift and tote and carry did not bother us. People would bring their own mikes and stands and cords, but the guts of the system were mostly Dorothy and me.
WIB: Did you have the most interest in the technical aspect of it, or the least intimidation?
Laurie: Maybe the least intimidation. No, it’s not even intimidation. I think it’s just that we were the most physically active. Dorothy and I were the ones who were into arm wrestling and Indian leg wrestling, and jumping and running and climbing.
WIB: What about making the sound system work? Was that something you were always interested in?
Laurie: Well, I’ve become more interested in it out of necessity. You have to understand how a sound system works and how to run one in order to communicate with the sound people, and to help make sound checks go as smoothly as possible. You have to know what you’re talking about. The whole thing is a learning process. It goes on and on. It is something I’m interested in, enough to pay attention to it. I’ve got to. As a band leader you’ve got to know that stuff.
In any given community, there are people who would most like to do the work in the kitchen, and there are those who would like to chop the wood. I was more of a woodchopper than a kitchen worker.
WIB: I once came across one of the Bluegrass Suspects albums. This one had members of Good Ol’ Persons, and it had Tony Rice, and Peter Rowan and Norton Buffalo. Was the Bay Area sort of a magnet for people from other places to come and do their music?
Laurie: Well, it really was for awhile - it was quite a hotbed. We probably have Grisman to thank for that more than anybody. Because David got together this great band and attracted Tony Rice and Mike Marshall, and he had Darol Anger in the band and Todd Phillips in the band. The fact that he was here and had such a drive to do this thing musically was exciting for these very hot musicians with a bluegrass foundation, but who wanted to stretch beyond the boundaries. And he created a focal point for them. And we’re just lucky to have him here.
WIB: Are there still places where everybody gets together and jams?
Laurie: Well, there’s a New Year’s Day party that happens where a lot of people go. There’s not a place like Paul’s Saloon anymore. It was a really important gathering place where there was bluegrass or some kind of related music seven nights a week, and if anybody was visiting town that’s where they’d end up, and it was always open a lot later than, say, the Great American Music Hall. Ralph Stanley would come to play at the Music Hall and then drop in at Paul’s Saloon. That would happen when the Grisman Quintet would play there, and they’d all just fall by Paul’s because it was in a direct line between the Music Hall and their Marin County homes.
But it looks like there is currently something of a renaissance going on in the bluegrass world out here. There are now three clubs that I know of that have bluegrass on a regular basis: The Atlas Cafe, Last Day Saloon, and Radio Valencia. I’ve been on the road so much that I’m really out of touch with the local scene. I look forward to exploring what’s happening now.
WIB: Did you start Grant Street shortly after you left the GOP?
Laurie: I quit the GOP in about early 1977, and Grant Street had our first gig in 1979.
WIB: When you started touring, did you encounter surprise that you were a woman band leader?
Laurie: I don’t know if surprise was it. By the time I started wandering about the rest of the world as a band leader, I already pretty much knew that this was what I did. I knew that this was who I was. I was already committed to being me, and the rest of the world would either accept me or not. And the fact of the matter is that I’ve gotten to play with so many great musicians that the world has been very accepting. That’s great. I feel like, when the old timers say, "Hon, you play like a man," that’s a compliment! I take it as a compliment. I used to laugh at it, and I still laugh at it, but it’s their way of saying, "We accept what you do, and we like it."
WIB: So, you haven’t encountered opposition or mistrust?
Laurie: Well, opposition, definitely. In any given festival, mostly festivals back East and in the South, they have a quota. Many festivals have a quota. Before Alison got so popular that she’s just completely out of the league of other touring bands, my booking agent would come across this attitude. This probably happened to Alison, too: "Well, we already have our woman band leader, or we already have our girl fiddler at the festival. We already have one, so we can’t have another." That used to be a sort of common thing. I could point out instances where that’s still the case. I think it’s a growing and learning experience for everybody, but it probably doesn’t help anybody learn to have their noses shoved in it.
WIB: Have you ever talked to anybody like Hazel Dickens, any of the previous generations, the ground-breakers, about this?
Laurie: Well, Hazel has talked about that at Augusta (the August Heritage Festival). Definitely, there was the women’s place in a bluegrass band, which was playing bass and singing tenor. Not easy for Hazel, although she played bass and sang tenor in a lot of bands.
WIB: Any conclusions, any final thoughts?
Laurie: The things I love about bluegrass are its really visceral qualities and the way it is so bare-bones emotional. It’s got this incredible energy. And I have to say there are not very many women who are willing to put that kind of energy into the music, it seems to me, and that’s an unfortunate thing.
WIB: Do you think that’s changing?
Laurie: I hope it’s changing. I think it is. I get really excited when I hear somebody who can flat cut it on their instrument, but then they often disappear. There’s a lot more pressures on women than on men in having a music career. Even if you decide not to have kids, if you’re trying to have a relationship, there’s a lot of other stuff that goes on there that makes it more difficult, I think. Kathy is very lucky to have Peter (Thompson). We all need a wife. "Get a wife!"
Interview by Jana Pendragon
Laurie Lewis wears many hats. Champion fiddler, bluegrass artist, chanteuse supreme, bandleader, songwriter, whitewater adventurer, teacher. A long- time favorite in the San Francisco Bay Area, this Berkeley resident reflects the many changes that have colored her life through her music, including the old Missouri fiddlers and the Tex-Mex music of California's Central Valley. When not making music of her own, she listens to a wide variety of artists including Walter Hyatt, Los Lobos, Bill Monroe and the thirties and forties stylings of Billie Holiday. Her solo release on Rounder Records, True Stories, is a highly acclaimed album that has won Laurie Lewis and Grant Street rave reviews as well as air play of their first video on CMT. As a performer Lewis is versatile, joyful and shares an easy rapport with her band and with her audience. As a person she is articulate, well-read, aware, and quick to laugh.
Jana Pendragon: True Stories is a very eclectic compilation of musical genres. You are able to mix bluegrass, cajun, jazz, gospel and honky-tonk without losing your identity or causing confusion. Why do you think that is?
Laurie Lewis: I'm not exactly sure... but I do know that I've listened -- it's obvious that I've listened -- to a lot of different styles of music. I love a lot of different styles of music. I've learned, say for instance, from singers in a lot of different styles. But, I'm not a mimic, I've learned techniques from singers but I always am aware that it's my own body creating the sound -- my own self doing it and so I think I'm not readily confused with anybody else. And I guess I'm just lucky that way. I used to think that a large part of it was that I've listened to mostly men singers. I mean, I've learned mostly from men singers so just having a female voice doing it sounds different enough that it doesn't sound like I'm imitating them... but, I'm not so sure if that's really true; I've learned a lot from women singers too and I'm just a person who's like a [laughs] bull dog of a person, I've latched on to my sound and I just hold on [laughs].
Pendragon: Your video for "Slow Learner" portrays women as strong fighters. The use of women boxing goes way beyond what we are used to as far as the image of women is concerned. What would you like to see change in how women are portrayed in videos and other media?
Lewis: I was wondering how CMT or The Nashville Network would relate to it -- if they would be able to, or if.. I just didn't know... well, I guess I don't think there should be any boundaries or any roles that should be "off limits." I mean, every human is an individual, very different from everybody else. I would love to see that whole spectrum portrayed in all media -- it's so much more interesting to see that than yes, okay, a woman can play this role -- she can be the victim, she can be the nurturing mother, she can be the lover... people are very complex and I think there needs to be room for that complexity to come through. It's difficult, it's just like musical styles, people want to put a label on the music I play and say it's bluegrass or something. But, very little of it is really bluegrass and every time somebody comes up with one of those labels I go, "Oh no, it's not really." I try and fight them all the way. I think it's kind of a losing battle, I think people are going to try and pigeon-hole... it's the human condition, we try to define things forever, we have to have heaven and hell [laughs] so that we can know where we are.
Pendragon: You use a lot of natural imagery in your songwriting, "Val's Cabin" being just one example. How do you relate to the natural world and what does it give you as a creative being?
Lewis: Wow, it gives so much to me. I can't say how much it gives to me. It gives everything to me. I really feel that we humans are animals on the earth; we try and forget that or avoid the issue or whatever, but I think it's really, really important to understand where we as a species come from and what our relation is with everything else around us -- to hold that as a very sacred thing. We're not very good at doing that, but to me that's really important and I look to the natural world for guidance and help in how to live my life. To me, it is the most beautiful thing... "I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree..." It's really true.
Pendragon: In addition to your training in classical violin, you studied modern dance. But as a singer you have had no "formal" training. Since a singer's instrument is the voice, how do you care for your instrument?
Lewis: My voice comes out of my body, therefore it is very important to me. I did learn quite a bit about singing, I think, in my dance classes because I learned how to relax muscles that aren't being used and how to really use muscles correctly. For instance, when I'm singing I know if I'm singing right. My body, the big muscle groups, the abs and the back, are really working hard to control the air coming out and the pressure, and that allows the rest of me to relax and to be able to deliver a song well. That's strictly from dance training that I learned that. In terms of taking care of my voice I try to drink lots of water and stay really hydrated. I don't smoke, I never drink any alcohol or coffee before a gig. I might have a beer afterwards if I know I'm not going to sing anymore, but that will trash my singing voice for the night -- good night! [laughs]. And I try to get enough sleep on the road, a really important thing and sometimes a very difficult thing to do. I try to stay in good physical shape so I'm strong... to me it's a total body philosophy. It's being centered inside your body... for me being centered inside my body is the way in which I sing the best.
Pendragon: Let's talk about the state of country radio. There was a time when you could hear hillbilly, bluegrass, western swing and other forms of traditional music on country radio. It's not like that anymore; in fact country radio seems to be becoming very narrowly formatted, closing itself off from anyone who is different, edgier, older. Less emphasis is placed on the music and more on the slick image and youth. What do you think?
Lewis: Stations have gotten much more narrowly formatted. I don't expect -- of course I would love to hear my music played on commercial AM radio -- but it's not something that I expect unless I were to sign with a major label. But, that's all beside the point. It's really true, everybody is getting much more narrow... it's a sort of marketing thing that people are doing. Which I don't understand because for me my favorite stations are... well, we used to have this very, very popular station in the South Bay called KFAT. They would play anything -- anything. They would play soul music, country music, bluegrass, jazz, anything they wanted to play. The DJs had complete free reign and it was an extremely popular station. Of course it got sold and the new owner said, "We can't do this, doesn't make any sense. We have to make this a Top 40 station," or whatever they did to it. I personally like being surprised. Maybe it's advertisers or people trying to sell something and they think what makes people like things is repetition, "If we play this song enough times they're gonna love it!" [Laughs.]
Pendragon: You had the opportunity to work with one of your heroes, Ralph Stanley. What was that like?
Lewis: Oh, he's such a hero for me, Ralph Stanley, such a hero. He's one of my very favorite singers in the world, his voice is spooky. So lonesome, so back-in-the-mountains sounding. He's just a wonderful and very deep singer and I've learned a lot from him. Being able to actually stand on stage and play with him was beyond my wildest dreams. Ralph was really very supportive, he said he really enjoyed my singing and playing and made me feel really good. He said he liked my singing because I have a lonesome voice.
Pendragon: Is there anyone you'd like to record one of your songs?
Lewis: You might laugh -- I'd love George Jones to record "You'll Be Leaving Me." I would love it if Merle Haggard recorded one of my songs, if I could hear him sing one of my songs I'd just die. Then of course there's the people I'd love to record one of my songs for monetary reasons [laughs], like Garth Brooks [laughs]. I think Garth Brooks recording an album of Laurie Lewis songs would be very nice! [Laughs.] Actually, I love it when other people do my songs, it makes me feel really good. It's really a treat for me. I've gone through this process, I've expressed myself and put it out there and somebody says, "Oh yeah, I relate to that so much I want to sing that." That happens to me with other's people's songs all the time.
Pendragon: There is a lot of spirituality in your work. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Lewis: [Laughs.] That's quite a question. Yes I do so consider myself a spiritual person. I do not practice any organized religion. I have very strong spiritual beliefs and in my everyday life I try and do the best I can. Whether that's making a decision about, "Okay, I know it's a drag that they don't recycle plastic in Berkeley -- am I going to go to Oakland and recycle this stuff or am I going to toss it out?" That's a spiritual decision. So my trunk is full of plastic that I've got to take to Oakland sometime. It can be things like that, which seems kind of a mundane level, but it's not. You've got to act on your beliefs. I try to live lightly on the earth and it is very difficult to be a performer and do that. I'm getting into planes all the time, that's against my religion [laughs]. But, what am I going to do about it? You have to make these decisions, these choices and I know that I'm here in the 20th century and I can't go live in a cave somewhere, I wouldn't like it [laughs]. I try to make my peace with being a 20th century person, trying to live in a way that is not harmful to the other beings around me and I don't mean just humans, the other creatures, plants and the earth.
Pendragon: If you could change one thing about the world, what that be?
Lewis: [Laughs.] Geez, what kind of an interview is this [laughs]. It's funny because I just read an interview with Merle Haggard where he says the main problem is overpopulation and I completely agree. If I could change one thing in the world it would be to make everybody understand that. To be sensible in their reproduction. Then we'd have a someplace to start working on everything else.
Pendragon: If you could meet anybody from history, who would that be?
Lewis: Oh man, can I think about this for a week and get back to you? [Laughs.] You know, the one person I'd like to meet, it's not a famous person, is Opal Whitely as a child. She was a very interesting woman. When she was five years old she started writing this diary. She grew up in an Oregon lumber camp with her parents. She was just a strange little girl who talked to trees and plants and animals and they actually talked to her. She kept this diary from the age of five until she was twelve, until her younger sister tore it all up. She kept all the little pieces of it and carried them around in a little box. When she was trying to get something else published when she was twenty, the editor asked her if she had anything else that she had written. She started crying and said, "I have this diary." She showed it to him in this box, all completely in pieces. They spent a couple of years putting it back together. It is the most incredible writing. I would like to see what that little girl was like. If you ever get a chance to read it just remember, The Diary of Opal Whitely. It's out of print, of course.
Pendragon: What do you see for your future?
Lewis: I have a lot of different recording projects I would like to do. I love performing and playing in my band. I would like to get to a level where it is a little easier, where we could have a road manager and a sound person with us all the time. I'm not looking for a lot or some major change or to break in and be the next Garth Brooks [laughs]. I think I have a great life and I love it -- it's really hard work, no bones about it, but I love it.
Pendragon: Have your dreams come true?
Lewis: I would say that certainly a dream came true playing with Ralph Stanley. I have lots of dreams and a lot have come true. I'm real interested in the ride. I want to understand myself and that is something I work at all the time. I want to be a better musician. It sounds cliche, but life is a constant learning experience and I want to stay involved, learning, growing for as long as I'm alive. I want to keep growing but I don't want to grow up! [Laughs.]