Singer songwriter Laurie Lewis has long been a purveyor of some of the most artful and sophisticated folk and bluegrass music. Seeing Things (Rounder) is this Bay Area performer's latest and most far-reaching effort. Backed by a terrific all-star cast, Lewis expands her horizons to include subtle elements of jazz ("Kiss Me Before I Die"), edgy, almost alternative folk-rock ("Visualize") and sweet ballads ("Angel On His Shoulder"). Other highlights of this exquisite album are the sprightly country-bluegrass stomper, "Blue Days, Sleepless Nights," and the stark yet beautiful version of the traditional "The Blackest Crow," featuring Lewis backed by the multi-layered fiddles of Daryl Anger. Perhaps the most compelling cut is her poignant cover of Tom Russell's "Manzanar," a touching ode to the Japanese Americans that were interned during the Second World War. (One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, http://www. rounder.com)
Kind of Blue
For years, bluegrass was easily one of the most male-dominated musical genres around. All the biggest stars were men, and their bands were all made up of "boys." Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys -- you get the idea. Talk about boy bands.
Sure, there were a few token female members of the club, like accordionist Sally Ann Forrester and bassist Bessie Lee Mauldin, both of whom played for Bill Monroe. West Coast hillbilly singer Rose Maddox recorded a fine bluegrass album for Capitol, but that was a one-shot deal. Back in the early '60s, when earnest young college students discovered the joys of bluegrass, about the only women playing the festivals were Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. They, more than just about anyone else, made bluegrass safe for females.
These days, it's hard to imagine bluegrass without women. Alison Krauss is probably the most famous female performer, but others, like Rhonda Vincent and Claire Lynch, are doing highly regarded work. Earlier this year, country singer Patty Loveless showed her affinity for the high-lonesome sound on the wonderful Mountain Soul, and in recent years Dolly Parton has gotten in touch with her hillbilly roots.
Then there's Laurie Lewis, a dulcet-voiced singer from Berkeley, California. On her Web site, she calls herself a "singer, fiddler, guitarist, songwriter [and] river rat," which gives you some idea of her many talents. (She has also been a dancer and a violin maker.) She may not be a household name, but she's well-known in bluegrass circles. Indeed, she won the International Bluegrass Music Association's female vocalist of the year award in 1992 and 1994.
Bluegrass was her first love, but Lewis has also recorded a number of albums, most of them for the Rounder label, that aren't so easily categorized. One of them, 1998's Seeing Things, is best described as "contemporary folk" or "new acoustic." But her most recent disk, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, is a spirited return to the music that first captivated her as a teenager.
"Of course, I've always loved bluegrass," she says from her home in California. "It's a music that's very near and dear to my heart. But I hadn't played in a bluegrass band, per se, since, maybe, the early '80s. And since then, I had just been doing all these different configurations. Seeing Things definitely had some songs on it that would never be called bluegrass." But, partly because she's always been known as a bluegrass singer, Lewis decided it was time to do an all-bluegrass album again.
Still, she hates being pigeonholed. "I'm hard to categorize, and it drives the record companies mad. But that's just the way I am." Some of her favorite singers are hard to classify. "I mean, look at Ray Charles. If he loves a song, he's just going to do it. And he makes it a Ray Charles song."
Lewis got hooked on roots music back in the '60s, when she had the good fortune to see legendary performers like Doc Watson, the Greenbriar Boys (another "boy" band!), Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis and Jean Ritchie at the Berkeley Folk Festival. About the same time, she went to a Byrds concert; the Dillards, a California bluegrass outfit led by banjo picker Doug Dillard, was the opening act.
"I thought they were the funniest," Lewis says. "They really appealed to a fourteen-year-old. I just loved them, and I wanted to play the banjo." Her father bought her the much-desired instrument, and she began taking lessons from a student at UC Berkeley. When her teacher went away for the summer, he left Lewis a box of bluegrass records, which she played over and over. The seed had been planted.
But Laurie makes the music she want's to. She's been active in the California Acoustic Music scene for years. A founding member of the Good Ole Person's, an outstanding Bay area Bluegrass Band, she left out on her own when that group disbanded and hasn't looked back since. She has put out several excellent Bluegrass albums. This album is not Bluegrass, It's acoustic music. Damn fine acoustic music.
Some of the highlights are the bluegrassy "Blue Day's, Sleepless Nights", the tender ballad "The Refugee", a song about being grateful for roots and a place to call home. "Kiss Me Before I Die", is a song about how everything else can wait until after that desperate need for a kiss has been fulfilled. Done in a Dawg style, it comes across funky and full of sass. "I'll Take Back My Heart" is a delightful Norteno romp. "Manzanar" is a Tom Russell song about the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during WW2. With Laurie's soaring fiddle and aching vocals, and the accompaniment of Koto drums, the song will break your heart.
This is a pretty good little disc. Laurie's Vocals are top notch. Surrounded by top musicians such as Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, and Tom Rosen, the musical quality is great. The large majority of the songs work for me. There were a couple I didn't care for, but the thing that keeps you enthralled is that wonderful, wonderful, voice.
Cub Koda, All Music Guide
Walnut Valley Occasional
If, however, you want to know about Lewis as a songwriter, you'll have to listen a lot more. Lewis -- in the company of such standouts as Iris DeMent, Judith Edelman, Patty Larkin and the Indigo Girls -- can and does write about anything. Moreover, she makes it all compelling.
On Seeing Things, Lewis seems to be both embracing and struggling with maturity. In the one hand, she is sultry and direct on Tattoo, a song that leaves mental images indelible as the name on the narrator's arm. On the other hand, the straight-ahead bluegrass cut Blue Days, Sleepless Nights is about playing it safer than she used to: "I used to dance out on the edge / I was possessed, I could not fall / But nowadays I just inch along that ledge / afraid to dance, I barely crawl."
Maturity and perspective come into play on both the clever Kiss Me Before I Die and the affecting Angel on His Shoulder. The first is a funky, funny Mary Chapin-Carpenter - meets - Bonnie Raitt seduction song which owes a lot to Tom Rozum's mandola playing. The second is a sparse song built on two quiet guitar parts. Powerful in its specificity, it is a testament to faith and a sense of higher purpose.
Country Standard Time/Robert Wooldridge
Seeing Things is Laurie Lewis at her acoustic string band best, which is very good indeed. Her recent recordings have focussed more on her songwriting talents (they are on display here, too) in a variety of melodic and instrumental configurations. On this project, her voice and the power of acoustic string music come to the fore. Lewis' sense of humor and irony is apparent in "Kiss Me Before I Die" (and her comment on the song in the liner notes) as well as her appreciation of risks to the spirit ("Blue Days, Sleepless Nights"). Especially outstanding, too, is her cover of Tom Russell's ballad, "Manzanar."