For more than 30 years, Laurie Lewis has been bringing her unique blend of bluegrass, folk, country and roots music to appreciative audiences worldwide. Her talent for singing, songwriting, fiddle, guitar and upright bass (not to mention her skills as band-leader, producer and teacher) has garnered her much acclaim, including a Grammy award (and nomination) and two Female Vocalist of the Year awards from the IBMA.
Classically trained on the violin in her youth, her waning interest in music was re-awakened by artists like Doc Watson and the Greenbriar Boys at the Berkeley folk festivals of the late 1960’s. She was inspired to take up the guitar and re-acquaint herself with the fiddle, even winning a couple of California state fiddling championships and immersing herself in the burgeoning west coast bluegrass scene. Add to this an affinity for the music of Bill Monroe and a vocal style that reflects the influence of Ralph Stanley, and you get to the heart of the music of Laurie Lewis. While her inspiration comes from many sources and her music today defies categorization at times, her bluegrass credentials cannot be called into question.
As a product of the Bay Area music scene of the 1970’s her music places more emphasis on the interplay between musicians and the presentation of the song as a whole and – though there’s been an abundance of impressive musicianship over the years – less on individual virtuosity. This spirit of collaboration is perfectly illustrated by the many and varied musical alliances she has used to perform and record with throughout her career. The latest of these is the Right Hands; the group of seriously accomplished musicians she’s been performing with regularly since 2006.
How lucky Hudson Valley music lovers are then, that Laurie will be bringing the Right Hands to Christ Church in Poughkeepsie Friday November 18th. Laurie was kind enough to take time out ahead of her visit to talk to us about her approach to music, her new album and the Father of Bluegrass.
Tell us how you got your start in music. I’ve been involved in music my whole life. My mom would say I was singing as an infant but I didn’t really get started in bluegrass and country music until much later. It wasn’t until I was a teenager when I first heard the music of Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, The Greenbriar Boys and The Dillards that I really flipped for early country and bluegrass and I’ve been following it ever since. I was a late bloomer when it came to making a commitment to making music as a professional. I didn’t commit to that until I was 36.
36? That’s very specific.
Yeah, it was a big deal. I had a violin shop at that time. I was running the shop and working in it all the time. I’d inherited a little bit of money and I’d been writing songs so I thought I’d just record the songs as I imagined them in my head and that would be that and I can get back to the violin shop. It didn’t work like that. I never got back to it. I felt so much more alive and involved and in love with the work of creating music. I sold the shop and never looked back.
Your music encompasses a variety of styles; bluegrass, country, folk, roots and Americana to name a few. People love to categorize and label things. How do you describe your music?
It’s so hard to say. I hope that it’s good music!
You seem to enjoy collaboration; you’ve made music with so many people over the years. Do you have a favorite musical union or one that stands out in your mind?
Well, I love this band that’s going to be with me in New York; The Right Hands. They’re such a kick to play with. I love all of them and I feel so lucky to be surrounded by such great musicians. I have a new album out next week. It’s a tribute to Bill Monroe so we’ll be playing a lot of material from that album. It’s a tribute to Bill Monroe but not a reworking of his music although there are a couple of his songs on there. It’s more a tribute to the man and the effect his music had on my music.
I know you host songwriting workshops. How do you approach songwriting? Lyrics first then music or is it the other way around? What inspires you to put pen to paper?
I need some free time before I can really sit and think about things and I’ve had precious little free time lately. I’ve been so busy playing. When I do have the time, I like to sit down with the notes I keep on things that interest me and lines that I keep if I don’t have time to work on a song. I write everything down and keep it in folders. I generally start with lyrics rather than music but that’s not 100 % true; sometimes I write music first and sometimes I work on them together.
As a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, it seems you wear many hats. Do you identify with one above the others or is it the variety you enjoy?
I think if you took any of those things away I would be less myself. I guess it is the combination of all those things that make me tick.
Your website mentions that you value “sharing not strutting.” Despite there being a tradition of musical virtuosity, do you think that bluegrass today prizes instrumental prowess over the song or performance as a whole?
That might be a little bit more true today than it has been. Ever since the early days of Bill Monroe, there’s always been a sort of macho streak of ‘look what I can do.’ But, the best of musicians use that virtuosity in service of the song and I like to surround myself with people who do that. We want each song to speak as well as it can about whatever it is it’s trying to convey and sometimes hot licks can get in the way of that.
Is bluegrass music different today than it was 30 or 40 years ago? Has it changed?
I think it has. For one thing, there are many more hot players on all the instruments than there were. These young people who grew up playing fiddle tunes since they were three years old are just so talented. There’s an unending supply of them.
You won a couple of fiddle contests didn’t you?
Oh, a long time ago. I don’t think I could win anything today! I did enter a few contests though. Around California at that time it was pretty neat because there were still a few of the old timers who brought their music and their fiddling out with them when they came from Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. Many of those old guys were still around and when they brought their music out for the jobs, I got to hear them first hand.
100 years after his birth, what would Bill Monroe make of it all if he were around today?
I think there were parts of it he would love and parts he would hate. He would love the fact that there are people all over the world playing what is called bluegrass music. That would thrill him no end. It did thrill him. Whenever he had a player in his band from another state, he took great pride in saying “on the banjo, we have Bob Black from the great bluegrass state of Iowa.” He was very proud that bluegrass had spread all over. There is a story though, of something he said –maybe at a jam session – and some people were playing Big Mon really, really fast and he said “now isn’t it a shame when people take another man’s music and play it faster than it should be played?” Judging by that, there is much about bluegrass that he would be proud of but there’s also much he would turn away from.
You’re a self-described “river rat.” It seems there’s strong correlation between people who love bluegrass and the outdoors. Why do you think that is?
Well, not everybody who loves bluegrass loves the outdoors but there is a correlation there. Part of it is the natural imagery in the songs and that the music is originally from a much more rural people, in touch with the land. When modern people get into bluegrass it can be partly because of that message; of being in touch with the seasons and the soil and the growing things. That is so eloquently expressed on handmade wooden instruments.
Tell us about the Right Hands. What can we expect from the upcoming show?
Well, it’s my singing partner for many years, Tom Rozum on the mandolin and mandola, Chad Manning playing fiddle, Patrick Sauber playing banjo, Andrew Conklin is going to be playing string bass and I’ll be playing mostly guitar and fiddle. We’ll probably do most of the music from the new album and a few other things from our repertoire as well.
If music hadn’t worked out for you, how would you be making a living today?
I’ve thought about that. I think maybe I would have gone into the natural sciences; maybe do something with wildlife biology. Or I would have tried to get a job where I could hike all day long every day.
What are your plans for the future?
I am doing some production work. My next big job is producing an album for Alice Gerrard of Hazel and Alice fame. She’s well known in the old time music scene. She’s written some incredible songs and so we’re going to be working on a recording together.