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Lewis, Laurie

Lewis, Laurie

Singer, songwriter, fiddler

The San Francisco Bay Area bluegrass veteran Laurie Lewis is often described as a triple threat: she is a powerful vocalist in the high-lonesome mold, a song-writer who has bridged the gap between contemporary ideas and traditional song styles, and a championship-level fiddler. Forging a solo career with a series of album releases under her own name beginning in the mid-1980s, Lewis has also been noted for her ongoing collaborations with other musicians. She has been especially influential among women in bluegrass, an underrepresented group on bluegrass stages before she came along.

Lewis was born on September 28, 1950, in Long Beach, California. As a youngster she moved around several times while her father finished medical training—to Dallas, where her father played piccolo in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and to Ann Arbor, Michigan—but the family settled in Berkeley, California, when she was eight. Lewis took classical violin lessons, growing up in a neighborhood that qualified as highly unconventional even within the generally free-spirited environment of the San Francisco Bay Area. "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," Lewis said in a Women in Bluegrass interview quoted on her website. "I realized after awhile that no, I was the weird one, and that Berkeley was the strange place."

Switched from Classical Violin to Fiddle

Nevertheless (or perhaps as a result), Lewis found herself drawn to bluegrass music, a tradition-minded acoustic genre rooted in the mountain Southeast, as different from Berkeley as can be imagined. Her parents bought her a banjo when she was a teenager, and she heard the music of the pioneering folk-bluegrass band the Dillards. Working at a dance studio when she was in her early 20s, she was persuaded by her boss's husband, a bluegrass bassist, to make the switch from classical violin to fiddle. Lewis learned a pair of waltzes by bluegrass fiddler Chubby Wise and played them at a friend's wedding. Inspired by the bluegrass scene that flourished at Paul's Saloon in San Francisco, she began attending old-time fiddle gatherings in California's Central Valley. "I saw actual fiddle players, live human beings, playing this music I'd only heard on record, and that just really grabbed me," she told Bill Eichenberger of Ohio's Columbus Dispatch.

Soon she was entering and winning fiddle contests, including two California State Women's Championships, and was playing in the old-time bands the Arkansas Sheiks and Phantoms of the Opry. She actually joined the latter band as a bassist, an instrument with which she had only a passing acquaintance. "I didn't have any fear," she told Calvin Ahlgren of the San Francisco Chronicle. "I said, 'Oh, I can go boomp boompa boomp." Lewis also played bass and sang with the local Golden Age Jazz Band. In 1975 Lewis was one of the founders of the Good Ol' Persons, an initially all-female group that was quite unusual in the generally male-dominated world of bluegrass. The band's eponymous debut release in 1976 was laced with Lewis's fiddle and featured her enthusiastic vocals on the bluegrass classic "High on a Mountain" and other tracks.

Throughout her career, Lewis favored traditional bluegrass styles. "I guess," she told Eichenberger, "the more modal and high and lonesome it gets, the more I love it." She loved the singing of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley: "It's otherworldly yet so much of this world, of the natural world." After two years with the Good Ol' Persons, Lewis and her longtime collaborator, mandolinist and guitarist Tom Rozum, formed the Grant Street String Band, later shortened to just Grant Street. The Good Ol' Persons also spawned the durable career of bluegrass vocalist Kathy Kallick, and Lewis over the years inspired numerous younger female performers to take up bluegrass instruments. In the late 1980s she performed and recorded with a second all-female group, Blue Rose.

Embarked on Solo Career

The Grant Street String Band performed frequently around the Bay Area, but music was still a part-time occupation for Lewis, who spent her days running a violin shop. That changed in 1986, while she was recording her debut solo album, Restless Rambling Heart, for the Flying Fish label. According to David Steinberg of the Albuquerque Journal, Lewis recalled that "in the course of the recording I just realized this is what I love to do. I was in my mid-30s and I said, 'I don't want to be a violin shop owner. I want to be a musician.' That's when I made a commitment." Confirmation of Lewis's decision came with the success of her second album, Love Chooses You (1989); the album's title track was recorded by country star Kathy Mattea and became a wedding favorite. The following year she appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

With Grant Street, Lewis released Singin' My Troubles Away in 1990. The album included an innovative a cappella version of a song called "The Rope," composed by Stephanie Davis and originally recorded by country vocalist Martina McBride. In her own growing body of original songs, Lewis showed a knack for molding contemporary themes to classic bluegrass sounds. Her composition The Oak and the Laurel, which became the title track of a 1995 album Lewis recorded with Tom Rozum, was inspired by a traditional ballad called "The Water Is Wide," which referred to an oak tree breaking as a romantic relationship dissolved. "I decided: No, that's not the way it is," Lewis told Eichenberger. "The oak is much more enduring than that relationship. The oak does not break."

The resulting song, placing the steadfast oak as a backdrop to fragile human connections, was traditional in sound but addressed the transitory quality of contemporary relationships. Many of Lewis's songs have used images of nature to illustrate emotional themes, and some, such as "Sand, Water, Waves," directly described the geography of her native California. A 1997 collection of music from the first part of Lewis's career, in fact, was called Earth & Sky: The Songs of Laurie Lewis. Among the various forms of recognition she had amassed by this time were two International Bluegrass Music Association awards for Female Vocalist of the Year.

Lewis was popular among bluegrass fans well beyond liberal Northern California, and her talents were recognized by veteran musicians in the genre. "I feel like, when the old-timers say, 'Hon, you play like a man,' that's a compliment!" Lewis told Women in Bluegrass. "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.'"

Injured in Crash

In the early 1990s Lewis signed with the Rounder label and released the album True Stories (1993). After that release, Lewis and her band were involved in a serious vehicle crash. Sidelined for a time by injuries and after that by a creative block, Lewis returned in 1998 with the album Seeing Things, whose wry leadoff track, "Kiss Me Before I Die," seemed to refer indirectly to her ordeal. That track featured jazzy swing rhythms, but the 1999 release Laurie Lewis and Her Bluegrass Pals found the artist exploring the traditional old-time numbers that remained her first love.

In the early 2000s Lewis often worked in concert and on recordings with Rozum. "It is a little miracle ... when Tom and I sing together," she told Eichenberger. "It's amazing when you put your voice together with somebody else's and you get that blend and it becomes one voice." Lewis and Rozum issued an unusual holiday album, Winter's Grace, which focused on a general celebration of the winter solstice rather than on specifically Christian themes. The title of their 2004 High-tone label album Guest House likewise had an origin that was unusual for bluegrass: it came from a poem by the 13th-century mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi.

For the Record . . .

Born on September 28, 1950, in Long Beach, CA.

Performed on fiddle and bass in early 1970s in groups Phantoms of the Opry and Arkansas Sheiks; founding member, Good Ol' Persons, 1975-76; founding member, Grant Street String Band, late 1970s; recorded solo debut, Restless Rambling Heart, 1986; continued to record with Grant Street, with Kathy Kallick, and with Tom Rozum; signed to Rounder label; released TrueStories, 1993; (with Tom Rozum) signed to Hightone label; released Guest House, 2004.

Awards: International Bluegrass Music Association, twice named Female Vocalist of the Year.

Addresses: Record company—Hightone Records, 220 4th St., #101, Oakland, CA 94607. Website—Laurie Lewis Official Website, http://www.laurielewis.com.

Much of the album, however, maintained a clean, spare, traditional style. Among several compositional contributions by Lewis was "Willie Poor Boy," a song that used a bluegrass storytelling format to narrate a tale of senseless urban violence. Since the 1960s, bluegrass had endured something of a split between its southeastern originators and the youthful coastal counterculture that adopted the style. In the music of Laurie Lewis, however, the split appears to be healed.

Selected discography

(With the Good Ol' Persons) The Good Ol' Persons, Bay, 1976.

Restless Rambling Heart, Flying Fish, 1986.

Love Chooses You, Flying Fish, 1989.

(With Grant Street) Singin' My Troubles Away, Flying Fish, 1990.

(With Kathy Kallick) Together, Rounder, 1991.

True Stories, Rounder, 1993.

(With Tom Rozum) The Oak and the Laurel, Rounder, 1995.

Earth and Sky: The Songs of Laurie Lewis, Rounder, 1997.

Seeing Things, Rounder 1998.

Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, Rounder, 1999.

(With Tom Rozum) Winter's Grace, Signature, 1999.

(With Tom Rozum) Guest House, Hightone, 2004.

Sources

Books

Kingsbury, Paul, ed., Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford, 1998.

Periodicals

Albuquerque Journal, August 23, 2002, p. 18.

Arizona Daily Star, September 9, 2004, p. F54.

Columbus Dispatch (Ohio), October 18, 1995, p. E12.

San Francisco Chronicle, July 1, 1990, Sunday Datebook section, p. 40.

Washington Post, August 16, 1987, p. F3; March 4, 1988, p. D2; March 24, 1989, p. N23.

Online

"Laurie Lewis," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 28, 2005).

"Laurie Lewis: Committed to Being Me," interview by Claire Levine originally from Women in Bluegrass, Laurie Lewis Official Website, http://www.laurielewis.com (June 28, 2005).

—James M. Manheim

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