FIDDLE ON FIRENEW GRASS GROWS ON ROLLING STRINGMISTRESS LAURIE LEWIS
Given her family background, it's no real surprise that Laurie Lewis developed an interest in music.
Her grandmother turned out old Norwegian songs on the piano. Her mother sang Lutheran hymns while her older sister played the flute. And her father worked his way through medical school while playing piccolo for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. While growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the Fifties, Lewis recalls frequent family forays to local concert halls. Music was as much a part of the Lewises' daily routine as dinner.
And it still is. Laurie Lewis grew up to become one of the top fiddle players in the country. She is a recording artist with a voice suitable for framing, and is one of the sharpest practitioners at the cutting edge of the updated bluegrass style known as "New Grass." It's a rare day when all these marvelous musical ingredients manifest themselves in a single body.
"Hill Auditorium," muses the serious, soft-voiced Lewis during a recent telephone conversation from her Berkeley, California, home. "That's the place my dad always took us. I fell asleep there listening to some of the best music in the world." Her song "Green Fields," from Lewis' superb 1986 solo work Restless Rambling Heart, sweetly recalls those early days in Ann Arbor.
When Lewis was 8, she and her family left Michigan for the folk-music boom town of San Francisco. Though she eventually lost interest in early attempts at learning classical piano and violin from a book, the sounds of the day inspired Lewis to teach herself the guitar. But much of her musical world changed one night in 1965 when she heard the tight, harmony-grits bluegrass mastery of the Dillards.
"I was just 14," Lewis reflects, "and I just had to play the banjo. I liked it, but bluegrass banjo is meant to be played with other instruments." Still, she'd cast her musical line toward the sounds found in the high hills east of the Mississippi River.
An early-Seventies visit to Paul's Saloon, a celebrated San Francisco bluegrass barn, got Lewis to light on the fiddle. With her formal background and flawless ear, Lewis soon began rosining her bow with local string combos. In 1974, she seized the opportunity to join her favorite Bay Area band--as its bassist. The Phantoms of the Opry was a local-legend outfit that played old-timey bluegrass with Baghdad-by-the-bay panache.
But the fiddle remained her real interest. Lewis frequented area fiddle battles, listened to records by the likes of Chubby Wise and, with the urging of Phantom fiddler Paul Shelasky, began entering contests herself.
Several California state fiddling championships later, Lewis moved forever upstage.
Since then, the talents of this Bay Area-based bluegrass-and-more fiddle champ have evolved into world-class status. Lewis and whiz kid Alison Krauss are the two leading women fiddlers playing today. Besides being at the forefront of the New Grass movement, Lewis and Krauss' greatest accomplishment is shooting large holes in the traditional wisdom that says bluegrass is a man's game. While her prowess with the strings has kept her in bread, Lewis' hot-knife-through-oleo voice is no mere condiment. Influenced by an eclectic group of singers including Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Otis Redding and Billie Holiday, Lewis' wide-ranging vocal abilities have garnered her as much attention as her stringsmithery.
And the girl can yodel some, too.
"There are some excellent western yodelers out there--Riders in the Sky do it as well as anyone I know," she says. "I especially liked Jimmie Rodgers. His yodeling wasn't complex, but it was pure music."
In the wee Eighties, Lewis helped found San Francisco's still-pluggin' bluegrass ensemble Good Ol' Persons. She also played in an early version of Peter Rowan's Free Mexican Air Force, and performed with the Arkansas Sheiks, Cris Williamson and Holly Near.
Her first recorded effort, 1983's Grant Street String Band, immediately impressed a whole passel of Pooh-Bahs, not the least of whom was Garrison Keillor, who featured the disc on his Prairie Home Companion radio show. Soon Lewis began making the rounds of fairs and festivals all over the world, hauling her fiddle from Jersey City to the Michigan Women's Music Festival to an overseas tour that included Holland and Scandinavia. The road, Lewis sighs, is a droning but necessary constant that can be punctuated by revelation and joy.
"We're always touring, but that's the way it works," she says. "Last January I went back to Ann Arbor [to play that city's highly regarded folk festival] and discovered that those `green fields' aren't there anymore."
While down every road there's always one more city, as fellow Californian Merle Haggard sang, the studio has been the key to her current string of successes. Restless Rambling Heart opened the door. The acoustic gem featured a mix of the old (Jimmy Newman's "Cry, Cry, Darling"), the new (her own anthemic "I'm Gonna Be the Wind"), the borrowed ("Hold to a Dream" by the album's co-producer Tim O'Brien) and the blue (Lewis' "Haven of Mercy"). Her composition "The Cowgirl's Song" was rerecorded by that old western hollerer Patsy Montana, and has since been adopted by the Cowgirls Hall of Fame as its official theme song.
Lewis reformed and renamed her band in 1989. Called simply Grant Street (Grant Street String Band "seemed to be a little tough for some people to say"), Lewis and that version of her ever-evolving pool of pickers produced the 1989 recording Love Chooses You. In her latest work, last year's Singin' My Troubles Away, the Grant Street complement was altered again. Amazingly enough, this continuing turnover in string-bending personnel has not injured her quality at all. Lewis promises that the group she'll take with her to Scottsdale's Kerr Cultural Center--a band which again sports a few new faces--is as good as it gets. Included within this edition of Grant Street is a strong Arizona connection. Longtime Tucsonan Tom Rozum earned his nortena-flavored bluegrass stripes playing mandolin and fiddle with Arizona bands Flying South and Summerdog. Another Tucsonan, guitarist Peter McLaughlin, is a flat-picking champ who spent five years playing with Rozum. They join veteran Grant Streeter Cary Black, who has worked with acts ranging from keyboardist Diane Schuur to the Kingston Trio. "We spend so much time touring on the road that it becomes difficult for a lot of people," Lewis says, a touch of resignation in her voice. "It's very grueling. There's just not that many real good players who want to go through it." Lewis does all she can--and beyond--to make her band an outfit in which pickers can play in peace and happiness.
"As far as money goes, we actually do pretty well," says Lewis. "I think the band's happy. We share everything equally--work, money, everything."
While perhaps money isn't everything, a little more action on the airwaves would suit Laurie Lewis just fine.
"Right now, there are no AM mainstream stations playing us that I know of," she says. "We do get a lot of play on college stations and those that you find on the far left of the dial on FM." Lewis laughs softly when reminded that, especially with her abilities, it wouldn't be a difficult task to do something that just might find a spot on those 50,000-watt, we-don't-mess-with-nothin'-that-ain't-Music-City country megastations. It's not the first time such a suggestion has been proffered, nor the first time that she's considered it.
"I guess I feel that way sometimes, but I don't really want to," Lewis admits. "I love what I'm doing. But we did a show in Spokane recently, and during the first few chords of each song we got a great response. I don't know how they knew about us--there really isn't the kind of station there that would normally play our music--but they did." Lewis emits a small sigh. "It's great to go where they know you."
Laurie Lewis and Grant Street will perform at Kerr Cultural Center on Sunday, October 20. Showtime is 7 p.m.
The talents of this Bay Area-based bluegrass-and-more fiddle champ have evolved into world-class status.
Her musical world changed when she heard the bluegrass mastery of the Dillards.
Included within this edition of Grant Street is a strong Arizona connection.
While her prowess with the strings has kept her in bread, Lewis' hot-knife-through-oleo voice is no mere condiment.
Lewis and whiz kid Alison Krauss are the two leading women fiddlers playing today.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.