Wrangling in Bluegrass
● By Phil Reser
Bluegrass Artist Laurie Lewis
In March of 1994, Laurie Lewis was driving on an Arizona highway, toward the end of a music tour.
Tired from the trip, she lost control, sending the vehicle off the highway, flipping over several times before landing on the embankment.
Her bluegrass partner, mandolin player and vocalist, Tom Rozum, fractured his shoulder blade and one wrist, dislocated his hip, and nearly severed ligaments in his legs.
Lewis fractured her skull and two vertebrae.
She was able to perform within a month, but couldn’t stand up to play the fiddle. She sat in a chair onstage and played the guitar during her rehabilitation.
Rozum played his first gig three months after the accident, but could not walk normally until after a second surgery, two years later.
That highway misfortune, Lewis says, “changed our music by us creating material that related to that dramatic moment,” referring to her song “Kiss Me Before I Die” and Rozum’s adaptation of Irving Berlin’s “Without My Walking Stick”.
“But even more, now, I really know that every time I sing a song, there’s no telling if it’s going to be the last time. So my focus and concentration is somehow purer in my head.”
Born in Berkeley, Lewis became intrigued by bluegrass in the early ‘70s, when the music was still largely dominated by men. Her skills as musician, songwriter and performer helped open the door for a generation of women.
She began playing piano as a child before switching to classical violin. It was only after attending the Berkeley Folk Festival as a teen that Lewis turned her attention to traditional American music.
“The music that really spoke to me was the rural, more backwoods music,” says Lewis. “I heard Doc Watson and I just loved his thing. Jean Ritchie, I couldn’t get over her songs, the power of them. I was just drawn to do traditional music.”
During the past two decades, 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 an accomplished singer, songwriter, guitarist and bass player, as well as a bandleader and record producer.
As a teen in the ‘60s, 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, 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.
“With my classical technique, I was able to jump in with other musicians pretty quickly, 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.
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 ‘80s with a group called the Grant Street String Band, and she recorded solo projects for Flying Fish Records.
About her songwriting, she says, “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.”
Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands, Tom Rozum, Chad Manning, Patrick Sauber, Sharon Gilchrist
Oaksong Society Concert Series @ Pilgrim Congregational Church, Redding
Pre-concert tickets available at The Music Connection (530) 223-2040