"(Laurie Lewis') poetic invocations of living nature are some of the most moving I've heard. ~ Barbara Kingsolver ~ from the liner notes of "Calling Me Home," by Kathy Mattea.
Laurie Lewis Brings Berkeley Roots to a Bluegrass Sound All Her Own, a KQED interview
Artist2Artist interview podcast with Laurie Lewis by Lisa Jacobi (full article).
California Bluegrass Association
Bluegrass Breakdown, March 2012
By Brenda Hough
Laurie Lewis has plenty of reasons to be excited these days: she was awarded the 2011 Performer Award from the Folk-Alliance Far West and her Bill Monroe tribute album, Skippin' and Flyin' has just been released. Laurie has been one of the most influential singer-songwriter bluegrass band leaders in the Bay Area and she sat down to discuss her eventful year.
BH: We're here with Laurie Lewis in her home in Berkeley to discuss her newest album that's a tribute to Bill Monroe. I love the cover of the album with you in stylish suit and a cowboy hat "skipping and flying" and taking big leaps. Were you on a trampoline?
LL: No, I can jump pretty high, but I had to jump about 100 times. Irene Young is a great photographer and she got a bunch of wonderful pictures. But there could be a little something wrong with every one because of course you're in the middle of flying through the air. So we picked that one. It was taken across the bay in the Marin Headlands. You get a lot of loft just from where it is.
BH: I thought it was a wonderful way to tie in with the title song with its "skipping and flying" in the chorus. Was this an adaptation of Bill's "Molly and Tenbrooks?"
LL: I think it actually predates "Molly and Tenbrooks." It's called "Old Ten Broeck" which is the name of the horse. In the 1870s there was a big match race between Ten Broeck who was an unbeaten horse in the east and Molly McCarty who was unbeaten out in California. Molly had to take the train out to Churchill Downs. Some people say it was the first Kentucky Derby but I don't think it was. It was a muddy track and she had just had a long train ride so she didn't do very well in the race. She was ahead and then Ten Broeck passed her and she quit. In the song it says, "we're going to bury ol' Molly in a coffin ready made," but she went on to win a more races. She had a bad day, but she didn't die. It's important to let people know that; it's not really a sad song. It was the happening thing, it was the Super Bowl event of the day. I think the Carver Boys recorded a version called "Timbrook." I think he was named after his owner who was Dutch. I learned it from Cousin Emmy on the Rainbow Quest TV show. How come no one sings the chorus? So I did a little research and worked up my own version of it.
BH: You have bluegrass elements in the songs but you're not doing a Bill Monroe sing-a-thon. Please share how you chose the songs. Were you thinking Bill would have liked this or were you 'channeling' Bill?
LL: If you listen to somebody and studied his music as much as I have, you internalize it. When I was thinking about his centennial year, I thought of all the ways he has influenced my music and one of them is the mining of the old time songs, reworking them in his own style. I thought that's something that I do, and I could do that too. Hence my version of "Molly and Tenbrooks" and "Fair Beauty Bright." He took songs from the country music stars like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and he reworked those for his own. That's what I've always tried to do and is one of the lessons I've taken to heart.
BH: Well, that's the folk process and sometimes we forget that and a lot of people get excited and say that it's not traditional. It's not exactly the Bill or Earl did it, and I like what you say about it being each person's interpretation.
LL: There are some great Bill Monroe songs, and it's wonderful to hear them reenacted. It's like a Civil War reenactment. I personally would rather hear the individual come through in the art. Bill felt that way too. There's a famous quote from him telling Peter Rowan "now you have to sound like Pete Rowan." Sound like yourself. Of course, how am I ever going to be able to imitate a man from Kentucky, I'm a woman from Berkeley.
BH: You've captured that sense of identity with what's around me. I can relate to this, and the other song that pulls some of that relation to your surroundings is the "American Chestnuts" song. Can you talk about that one?
LL: Being a Californian, I had no idea that there were these enormous trees growing up and down the Appalachians up until the early 1900s. In National Geographic magazines, the very last picture is a flash from the past, and one had a guy standing in the midst of these trees, just like the redwoods. They towered around him and he looked like a really tiny guy. I started doing some research and I was just amazed. These were major food sources for squirrels and bears and critters and for the Native Americans. An Asian chestnut blight came over and it spread like wildfire. The Forestry Department sent out an order to cut down all the chestnut trees. They're going to die; this blight is unstoppable. Save the lumber, cut the trees now. This may be a mistake, many of the trees may have developed a resistance, but who knows. Now there are people cross-breeding Asian chestnut trees and American trees and they have it down to 1/64th Chinese tree and the American chestnut trees are a lot bigger. So now they have blight resistance. But the trees they cut down were hundreds of years old, so it is going to be a long time before we see chestnut forests again.
BH: So they didn't cut them down to build log cabins or violins. All because of a government directive. So all that wood was made into furniture.
LL: I stayed in a beautiful manor house in Virginia that was all chestnut. Chestnut paneling. It's an interesting wood, it's not highly figured. The trees made very good lumber but not spectacular looking. It's almost like a boxwood. It's very smooth-grained.
BH: You were joined by almost two different bands - do you have an East Coast and a West coast band? (Note: Laurie also commented that adding Chad allows her to shift to guitar and put more focus on her vocals)
LL: The Right Hands started out with three of us on the west coast and our two North Carolina buddies, Craig Smith and Scott Huffman. We were having a great time playing. But Craig doesn't want to be on the road anymore and it's too uncomfortable for a guy who is 6'4" to fly around on planes in coach class. So we started playing with Patrick Sauber and Chad Manning out here. Todd started playing with Joan Baez so we found another wonderful bass player, Andrew Conklin. The recordings were done at that time when we were in flux. They're all great musicians I enjoy playing with.
BH: Andrew was doing a great bass solo to one of the blues songs on the album.
LL: It's "Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues." He does a great solo.
BH: And there's also that great yodeling. How do you do that? You must teach people how to do that in your vocal classes.
LL: People ask me that all the time. I don't really know how to teach yodeling except that you flip from your chest voice to your head voice. If you can't find the break point, it's hard to teach someone how to yodel. If you've been singing in a choir, you've been taught to disguise that break and make it all smooth. They're the ones that have the hardest time relearning where that is. When I was a kid I tried to pretend I was Tarzan so I've always been able to do it.
BH: You've also got some other female vocalists on the record - Linda Ronstadt, Kathy Kallick, Dale Ann Bradley.
LL: Linda and I had been singing "Dreams" and we got together a band and played at Wintergrass with Maria Muldaur - the Bluebirds. She just loved that song, so when I decided to record it, I asked her to sing on it. She had such a good time, she said "what else can I do?" I hadn't anticipated asking her to sing on "What's Good For You" but there was Linda, and how can you say no? She just nailed that one, too.
Kathy and I had sung "Carter's Blues" just sitting around at jam sessions for a number of years. And I thought that just feels so good. Nadine Landry, she's with Foghorn String Band. She's just great, she's got a great megaphone voice. She's got the right attitude for "I Don't Care Anymore," brassy and sassy.
BH: What about LewieToons?
LL: That's my studio. I'm doing a lot of production work. I produced half of Nell Robinson's first CD, Susie Glaze's CD, and Ray Bierl's, and recorded some of all of those here. I just did David Thom's new CD and it should be out shortly. I recorded all of that here.
I produced an album for the Midcontinent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wisconsin. We recorded all of that here. I think that turned out really well. I've got plans for more. I engineer it, I don't have all the outboard gear to mix it. I still prefer to take everything to a studio and pay a really good mixing engineer, so it isn't an open-ended process.
BH: I also wanted to congratulate you on your Folk Alliance Award.
LL: Thank you. It was quite an honor. They gave me the "Best of the West" award for 2011 and they pick someone every year. A couple of years ago it was Joe Craven.
BH: Well it is well-deserved. I know you've gotten awards from the IBMA and I hope some will come for this new CD. I think there's some wonderful things on it. I know folks will want to attend your release party on November 26th at the Freight if they are reading this before the event. Otherwise, be sure and check Laurie's website www.laurielewis.com for her next appearance near your location.
By David “Gus” Garelick
On May 12, 2008, noted fiddler, singer and songwriter Laurie Lewis appeared on my radio program, The Fiddling Zone, on KRCB Radio in Santa Rosa, California. I have been featuring traditional musicians of all types for over nine years on this program. Laurie had appeared on an earlier version of the show, in 2000, although I have actually known her much longer and had seen her at numerous fiddle contests, Bluegrass jams and festivals since the early 70s. It was a great pleasure seeing her again at a concert in San Francisco this year, prior to the release of her new CD, Live! Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands. I asked her to come back to “the Zone” and surprisingly, she was most eager to come back. It was a wonderful reacquaintance. I had prepared a list with scores of questions, but by the time we started talking, it was just a casual and friendly conversation, interspersed with musical selections from the new album. In the end, I promised I would try to get her back on the show a little more often.
Fiddling Zone: I can’t believe it’s been eight years since you were on the show. June 29, 2000.
Laurie: Well, I come back every eight years, whether you want me or not. In 2016, I’ll be here knocking on your door.
FZ: I’ll have to let you in. Eight years. That’s a lot of water under the bridge, or maybe I should say lots of miles. You are constantly traveling.
Laurie: Yeah, that’s true. For instance, this next weekend, I’ll be in Hollywood, Florida. And then I fly back to California to play at the Strawberry Festival, near Yosemite. Then, I fly back to the East Coast to a festival in Connecticut. After that, I’m back here in Sonoma County, doing a concert with Nina Gerber, Chad Manning and Paul Knight.
FZ: Well it’s work hard, play hard. And when you have the time, you take these incredible river trips around California and Oregon.
Laurie:We make sure we make time for those. Tom Rozum and I do raft trips on the Tuolomne in California, usually about three days. And sometimes we go up to Oregon to raft on the Rogue River. During the day, we’re on the raft, swimming and having a great time on the river. Then at night, we sit around a campfire and play music. It’s great fun, and there are just a lot of places you can only see by way of rafting. You get totally away from any sort of mechanized sound— you’re out there with the birds, the rattlesnakes and the river. I love it.
FZ: No boom-boxes, no planes.
Laurie: No boom boxes. But one year on the Tuolomne, there were some federal drug agents searching the canyons for marijuana growers. They had low-flying helicopters. That was absolutely terrible.
FZ: So, I guess you can’t get totally away.
Laurie: Well, fortunately it only happened once.
FZ: I don’t know if you ever wrote about that. But you have taken a stand on other social issues, such as AIDS research. You told me that you went on a bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for AIDS.
Laurie: I took that trip a few years ago. It was over 500 miles, but it was great. It took over 7 days and all we had to do was ride. Meals and lodging were taken care of.
FZ: Did you play any music at the end of the day?
Laurie: Not on that trip.
* * * * *
FZ: Since you were here last, you’ve released three or four albums of your own, plus one or two that you produced for others. In fact, the most recent one is a CD by a Bay Area musician named Ray Bierl, called “Any Place I Hang My Hat.” I really enjoyed that album and played it several times on this show. It’s good.
Laurie: It’s a great album. Of course, I’m the producer, so I’m not supposed to say that. But I really enjoyed working with Ray. I’ve known him for over 30 years and this album was long overdue. It’s got a wonderful mix of material, from cowboy ballads to swing and honky tonk. I’m glad I could capture it.
FZ: Covers all the bases: Western Swing, Blues, Old Time….
Laurie: He’ll sing ANYTHING! No borders.
FZ: Well, one could almost say that about your own music. You do Bluegrass standards, original tunes, “torch songs,” Tex-Mex songs, Western Swing. I don’t mean to pigeon-hole any artist, but how do YOU see yourself? People may associate Laurie Lewis with Bluegrass, but do you see Bluegrass as your primary focus?
Laurie: No, not at all. It’s true, people will say that the Right Hands are definitely a Bluegrass band. There’s no question about that. But we can really stretch those boundaries. And when I play with others, like my concerts with Nina Gerber, for instance, I can play almost anything. Those concerts can be like a living room jam session: Old Time, Country, Blues, Bluegrass, original songs, “torch ballads.”
FZ: We talked earlier about your time playing with the late Dick Oxtot and the Golden Age Jazz Band. This was back in the 70s, when I first met you. Oxtot was a San Francisco jazz legend and you were playing bass and singing jazz standards with some of the best trad jazz players in the Bay Area.
Laurie: And I just loved it. I learned a lot working with Dick and the horn players he had with him. It was eye-opening, or ear-opening, or mind-altering. All of that. I think I may still want to do an album someday with some horn players.
FZ: You have often included a kind of “torch” song on many of your albums.
Laurie: That’s true. Some of my songs, like ‘I’d be lost without you” and “So Beautiful,” were directly inspired by my work with Dick Oxtot and with Jack Minger one of his great horn players.
FZ: Of course, you write a lot of great Bluegrass songs as well. Even songs with a Norteno flavor to it.
Laurie: I love those Norteno songs. When I was growing up, my family used to travel from Berkeley down to southern California to visit my relatives. We’d do this several times a year and drive through the Central Valley. I would usually be appointed the radio monitor in the family car, so I always found these great stations playing Mexican music. It would drive my family crazy, but it was all local radio and I just loved to listen to those close harmonies.
FZ: Sort of like the “Brothers Sound” that was so popular in Country music and early Rock ‘n’ Roll. Louvin Brothers and Everly Brothers and all of those. Even the harmonies of Buck Owens.
Laurie: There’s nothing like those old sibling duets. I don’t know if there’s much of that anymore in modern Country. I guess I don’t listen to very much contemporary Country music. But those old harmonies—that’s the greatest sound. And I love Buck Owens — yeah, we would drive right through Bakersfield.
FZ: So, of all these styles—Bluegrass, Brothers Duets, Western Swing, Jazz, “torch” songs—could you pick a favorite?
Laurie: No, I just can’t. That’s why I like to do such a variety of music. And I’m extremely lucky because I get to do what I love and make a living doing it. And what I love is a whole bunch of different styles. I know that makes record companies crazy, and booking agents, and radio programmers…Maybe it’s just not a very commercial way of doing things.
FZ: But if a festival promoter wants Bluegrass and hires the Right Hands, then you have to focus on Bluegrass.
Laurie: Yes, we play Bluegrass, but nobody is going to complain if we do some other things in the show. Once, I sold a CD to a guy at a festival and he came storming back demanding a refund because I had some drums on the album. So, rather than caving in and giving him a refund, I just stopped myself and told him: “OK, if you don’t like drums, how about exchanging it for this other album? There aren’t any drums on that one.” So, that worked, and he was happy.
FZ: What is it about Bluegrass music that attracted you in the beginning?
Laurie: That’s a hard one. So many things. One of the things I liked was the natural imagery in the lyrics. I can really relate to that. I am kind of a nature girl. Even though I grew up in Berkeley, I kind of lived in Tilden Park. I was interested in nature, and Bluegrass appealed to me. But so did the harmonies, that hair-raising Bluegrass sound. It’s kind of gone out of vogue today in modern Bluegrass.
FZ: You mean that “high, lonesome sound?”
Laurie: Yeah. That was it. And the way the instruments work together. They all have their roles and it makes a really beautiful, textured fabric: the banjos with the roll going, the chop of the mandolin, the bass on the one and the three, the guitar making short pointed comments, and the fiddle hovering over the whole thing—
FZ: Kind of glueing it all together.
Laurie: Exactly! I love it.
FZ: Was there any one group that really turned on you in the beginning?
Laurie: Well, a few of them. The first Bluegrass band I saw in the Bay Area was the Phantoms of the Opry, with Pat Enright on vocals and Paul Shelasky on fiddle. Pat’s singing really got to me, and I was lucky to play bass with the group before Pat moved to Nashville. And of course, I have to mention the “Kings” of California Bluegrass: Vern Williams and Ray Park. There was nobody like them. And Vern had the most beautiful voice anywhere. It could just cut—
FZ: It could break glass!
Laurie: Well, let’s put it this way: this was not a singing style for the faint hearted.
* * * * *
FZ: Let’s turn to your new CD. Why did you decide to do a live album?
Laurie: Well, we recorded three nights in a row and it all sounded so good, we thought: “We’ve just got to put this out.” Besides, there’s something about a live album. This is the way we really sound, especially Craig Smith on banjo and Scott Huffman on guitar. They’re both such fluid, wonderful players, and they play different every night. We’ve got to capture that sound.
FZ: Doesn’t the adrenaline rush contribute something to that performance, the stress factor?
Laurie: Yeah, and there are some real cliff-hangers on the album. But no one actually falls off.
FZ: Do you have a favorite cut?
Laurie: That’s hard to say. Why don’t you play one of your favorites?
FZ: Well, we started the show with one of my favorites, “Texas Bluebonnets,” done so completely different from your original version on the Flying Fish album years ago. I liked that a lot. But another one I liked was “O My Melissa.” This is a song about Bill Monroe’s mother. It’s such an interesting perspective on Bluegrass music history, I don’t think there’s another song like it. Well, Bill does write about his Uncle Pen, but Melissa was Pen’s sister and she was supposed to be a great fiddler, too. Nobody had ever mentioned this. How did you hear about it?
Laurie: You know, I got interested in this from a biography about Bill Monroe, “Can’t You Hear Me Callin?” by Richard Smith. The book talks about Bill’s growing up in Western Kentucky. Bill’s father was not wealthy, but he owned some property, and Bill’s mother was the daughter of a sharecropper. There was little or no music in the father’s family, but the Vandiver family had plenty of singers, dancers and musicians. Apparently, Melissa Vandiver was a good fiddler, although her brother got all the credit!
FZ: Amazing story! Do you think there were any records of her playing?
Laurie: Nothing recorded, but I heard a very interesting interview between Alice Gerard and the Monroe Brothers—Bill, Charlie and Birch—done at one of the Newport Folk Festivals in the 60s, and recorded on Smithsonian Folkways Records. In the interview, all the brothers agree what a great fiddler their mother was. She had eight children and had to do chores all day long, every day. But she would keep her fiddle on the bed or sometimes out in the corn crib and grab it every now and then and play a tune or two. After the interview, Birch plays a fiddle tune he remembers his mother playing, which is the tune we use at the end of the song, “How Old Are you, Pretty Little Miss?” We try to play it just the way Birch played it, which is supposedly how his mother played it.
[FZ plays recording from Right Hands CD. A transcription of the tune follows this interview.]
FZ: The crowd is going wild at the end of that. Was that in Oregon?
Laurie: Yes, in Corvallis. We had Tatiana Hargreaves playing fiddle with us. She’s twelve years old and an amazing old time fiddler.
FZ: Her older brother is Alex Hargreaves, and he’s pretty amazing, too.
Laurie: I’m totally in love with his playing.
* * * * *
FZ: Let’s talk about Nina Gerber. You’ve done a lot of concerts with Nina over the years. How did you start working with her?
Laurie: I’ve known about her ever since she started working with Kate Wolf, in the 70s and early 80s. I can’t remember when I began playing with her, but it was probably after Kate died, in 1986. We did some concerts together. Nina is such a sensitive backup musician and such an expert on her instrument, she can completely surprise you and support you at the same time. It’s a wonderful thing. When my songbook came out, we put some tours together and went all over the country.
FZ: It’s a shame a CD never came out of that.
Laurie: We talked about that. Actually, that was my first idea of doing a live album. But we never got around to it. Not yet.
FZ: Meanwhile, you’ll be performing locally with Nina on June 6 in Sebastopol. Let’s give away some tickets right now. And while we do that, let’s listen to something you recorded with Nina on your Guest House CD, a song by Hazel Dickens.
FZ: Someone called in and wanted to know the story of your song “Love Chooses You.” Tell us about that.
Laurie: That was the title track on an album on Flying Fish, back around 1989. How did I write that? It was a hard song to write, I remember. I wrote the verses right away and I went through many different melodies, but nothing seemed to work. I sang it to my boyfriend at the time and he disagreed with the premise of the song. He said “No, it’s not true; love doesn’t choose you. I think I can choose.” Well, we argued about it a lot, and he couldn’t agree with me on my fundamental thinking. Maybe that’s why we split up. But finally, I got to a chorus, and it somehow came together. I was writing a lot of songs in three/four time, waltzes, and I just didn’t want this one to be another waltz. But, as you can tell, it turned out to be a waltz, and I guess when I had to surrender to the fact that this was going to be a waltz, BOOM, it all came together!
FZ: So, do you still believe love chooses you? Is this like the current cliché about “chemistry” between people?
Laurie: No, I never really thought about chemistry. But, we’ve all grown up with these romantic notions about what love is. Love and feelings and the human heart.
FZ: Isn’t the heart the center of love?
Laurie: Heart and emotion. I’ll go along with that (laughs) But I’m not going to claim I know all about it!
FZ: Tell us how the song got picked up by Kathy Mattea.
Laurie: When that happened, I just felt great! It was the first time I ever really sold a song, and almost the only time. It was certainly the most successful. I had just recorded it in Nashville and I stopped at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, and sang it for the first time on stage there. Jim Rooney, who shared an office with Kathy Mattea’s manager, was in the audience and heard the song. He wanted a copy to try to shop it to Kathy’s manager. I was on my way back to California and I didn’t even have a copy. I referred him to Russ Barenberg in Nashville, my producer for the recording project, who he happened to know. And he followed up and actually called Russ, who had a rough tape of the song. So, they played it for Kathy’s manager and then Kathy heard it, and liked it and — the rest is history. But, looking back, I was so incredibly unprofessional about the whole thing. No copy, no tape, no lead sheets, nothing. But it came out on Kathy Mattea’s next album and I was very happy with it.
[FZ plays the recording]
FZ: You know, we’re almost out of time.
Laurie: I can’t believe we have to wait another eight years to do this again!
FZ: Well, maybe we can do better. What do you plan to work on before I see you again?
Laurie: God, there’s so much. I have songs I need to finish. And I’d still love to do an album with Nina Gerber. And I’d love to do an album with some horn players. Jazz standards.
FZ: Back to your jazz roots.
Laurie: I’d love it. And maybe even a fiddle album or an instrumental album. I don’t know if I have a lot to add to the world of fiddle music, but it would feel good.
FZ: When I first met you, you were only playing fiddle and we competed in contests and all that. But when you started writing songs, you were spending less and less time playing fiddle. And I kind of miss that. I really think you’re a very good fiddler.
Laurie; Well, thank you very much. I always tend to play guitar when I play my own music. I can supply the rhythm and Nina gets to fill in all around it. But one thing I like about the Right Hands is that I love playing fiddle with Craig Smith. When he plays his banjo, I feel like it just puts me exactly where I want to be. And that’s what I want to hear. In that band, I hardly ever play the guitar. I’m just the fiddle player.
FZ: I’d like to go out with one other song that I like a whole lot, from an earlier album. It’s called “The Singing Bird.” It has a wonderful fiddle part and wonderful lyrics. Did you write that?
Laurie: No, not at all. I believe it’s an old Irish song. I first heard it from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem back when I was a teenager. But part of it always stayed in my head. Not even the main part. I think it was just a section where the Brothers hummed a kind of background chorus, a secondary melody. And years later, I thought of that melody and how it would make a pretty good fiddle tune on its own.
FZ: So, you rearranged the song to fit the secondary theme?
Laurie: Yeah. I wanted to do something that sounded Irish and Appalachian at the same time.
FZ: And a song about a bird was something very special, too. You’ve covered birds in other songs, as well.
Laurie: I did an entire album called “Birdsong” for the benefit of the Audubon Canyon Ranch, in Bolinas, California. In fact, there’s a possibility I may do a second “Birdsong” album, with some other musicians. Another benefit album.
FZ: Well, you’ve covered birds, trees, rivers, and nature. You said earlier that it was the natural images in Bluegrass music that attracted you to the music. I guess we’ve come full circle. Let’s listen to “The Singing Bird.” And thanks for coming back to the Fiddling Zone.
Laurie: Let’s do it again soon.
Laurie’s website is: www.laurielewis.com. There, one can find a complete listing of all her albums, her songbook, her itinerary, her travel notes, photos, and much more information.
Gus Garelick produces The Fiddling Zone on KRCB Radio, in Santa Rosa, California. He is himself a fiddler and mandolin player. The Fiddling Zone is streamed on the KRCB website: www.krcb.org.
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.
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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 email@example.com.
Interview by Claire Levine
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?
Laurie: Yeah, I had played bass in the Phantoms of the Opry, and played fiddle in the Phantoms. And Vern would sometimes call me to play fiddle with him, but I was always so scared to do it. I really didn’t feel like I was good enough for that band. So I’d try to get him to get Paul Shelasky to play fiddle, or someone like that, and I’d wrangle the bass job. And then pretty soon, I got the bass job for a while. It was very wonderful. I really loved it.
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.]