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.
Eventually, Lewis dropped the banjo and switched to the fiddle -- she already played classical violin -- after figuring out how to play a waltz from her favorite album: Chubby Wise and the Rainbow Ranch Boys. (The legendary Wise played fiddle for both Bill Monroe and Hank Snow.) "I learned how to play the song for my sister's wedding," she says. "And that was when the floodgates really opened. I realized that I could listen to this music and play it, and I was pretty good right from the beginning, because I had this classical training. So then it was all over -- thanks to Chubby Wise!"
Lewis began entering fiddle contests at bluegrass festivals throughout California's central valley. "At some of them," she says, "there was some fairly decent prize money. You might win $50 or $100. One time, I won $300 at a contest. Plus, you'd get together with other musicians, and you'd have a great day of playing and visiting and hearing lots of great old-time fiddlers."
By the early '70s, Lewis was part of a thriving Bay Area music scene that was refreshingly non-sexist. "There were a lot of women playing bluegrass in the Bay Area," she says. "It just seemed like a completely natural thing. There were women singers, guitarists, mandolin players, fiddle players and bass players in all the bands in San Francisco. It just never occurred to me that it 'wasn't done.'"
Lewis performed with several bands, including the Phantoms of the Opry and the Arkansas Sheiks. But she made musical history as a founding member of the Good Ol' Persons, the Bay Area's -- and perhaps the nation's -- first all-women bluegrass band. (Dobroist Sally Van Meter, who lives in Boulder, was a longtime member.) Lewis admits they were something of a novelty act, even though they were accomplished singers and musicians. "The women liked us because we were all women on stage," she has said, "and the men liked us because we were all girls."
Lewis credits Kathy Kallick, the band's bass player, for inspiration to start writing her own songs.
"We were always looking for material to do," Lewis says, "and Kathy would come in with these songs that she had written. And I was so jealous!" So Lewis took a stab at it, and the first one that made any "musical and intellectual sense," as she puts it, was a song called "I Don't Know Why." (It appeared on her 1989 album Love Chooses You.) "It's not a great song," she says, "but it falls together pretty well." In fact, it's much better than Lewis admits to. Actually, the material on Love Chooses You marked the beginning of Lewis's career as a top songwriter. Country singer Kathy Mattea liked the album's title track so much that she recorded the song for her Willow in the Wind album.
After leaving the Good Ol' Persons in 1979, Lewis started the Grant Street Band, which recorded several albums for the Flying Fish label. When mandolinist Tom Rozum joined the group in 1986, it was the beginning of a fruitful relationship that continues to this day. A deft player, Rozum is also a fine harmony singer, and when he and Lewis combine forces, the results are goosebump inducing. (Rozum, along with bassist Mark Schatz, will perform with Lewis in Denver.) Entertainment Weekly called their rootsy 1996 collaboration The Oak and the Laurel "a graceful album that mixes soft country and harder, banjo-happy bluegrass." It was nominated for a Grammy in the "Traditional Folk Album" category.
Lewis also collaborated with her dear friend Charles Sawtelle -- they met back in the '70s at the old Folklore Center -- on the former Hot Rize guitarist's solo project, Music From Rancho deVille. In 1994, just after he was diagnosed with leukemia, Sawtelle called Lewis on the phone and asked her if she would help produce the record. "I jumped at the chance," she says. "It was a sort of ill-fated project in many ways, because he didn't have any energy. We would get together, and he wouldn't really be able to play or sing. He wanted me there, I think, more than anything as a sort of singing coach, somebody to bounce ideas off of."
When Sawtelle died in 1999, Rancho deVille remained unfinished. But Lewis was determined to complete the project. "I had to do it," she says. "Plus, I was the only one who knew what he really wanted." The resulting album, which featured an all-star cast of musicians -- among them David Grisman, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, Tim O'Brien, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush -- has received glowing reviews. It was even nominated for Recorded Event of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. (It didn't win.)
Lewis is thrilled by the recognition. "I just wish Charles were around to bask in the glory," she says.
With that project out of the way, Lewis has begun to work on some new songs for her next recording. Now a free agent -- she's no longer associated with Rounder -- Lewis isn't sure how or when the disc will be released, but she's itching to get back into the studio. (It's been two years since her Bluegrass Pals album came out.)
Will it be a bluegrass album? A singer-songwriter album? Something entirely different?
"Oh, it's just going to be one of those crazy mixtures of things," Lewis says. "People are going to say, 'Yeah, but it's not bluegrass.'" And that won't trouble her one bit.
"It's going to be Laurie Lewis music," she says.
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