Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum – Ten Years After
Laurie Lewis is weeding the back yard of the Berkeley home she has owned for 30 years. A crop of yellow-flowered oxalis is threatening to choke out the bright orange calendula and the calla lillies. Lewis has been on tour for most of the previous month; this is her first chance to get her hands on the garden.
She and her singing partner, Tom Rozum, had spent a week touring small cities in the Pacific Northwest. She then joined a pickup band of bluegrassers (Ron Stewart, David Parmley, Randy Graham, Roger Bush, Richard Brown and Dick Woodrich) calling themselves Long Lonesome Road for a California swing.
Back home in Berkeley, she has two weeks between tours. She is making the most of an unseasonably warm March day. After a trip to the farmer’s market, she’s whacking away at the weeds. Next up is a birthday party/jam for Tom Bekeny, Kathy Kallick’s mandolin player, and a family dinner at her mom’s.
And while no formal celebration is planned, she is mentally preparing for the ten-year anniversary of an auto accident that easily could have been fatal for both her and Rozum. A decade later, Lewis remains as grounded in the soils of Berkeley as she is in Bill Monroe’s legacy. Like Monroe, her lyrics evoke a sense of place, the wistful memory of home.
By contrast, Rozum is a transplant who seems more rooted to the music than to a place (Lewis introduces him as hailing from “the great bluegrass state of Connecticut”). He honed his chops in the wild club scene of 1970s Tucson with the Summer Dog Bluegrass Experience and Mariachi Swing Ensemble. Subsequent bands featured early swing, bossa nova and straight country. For several years he lived in San Diego, playing in a government-sponsored band that performed music from the 1920s and ’30s.
Rozum, who claims Buck White as an early influence, said one of the attractions of the Bay Area in the 1980s was the chance to sing with female bluegrass artists. Thus, it’s probably not a surprise that Guest House, released March 30 on HighTone, is his third collaborative album with Lewis.
Rozum joined Lewis in the Grant Street String Band in the mid-1980s, shortly before Lewis decided to pursue music full-time. With her first solo album Restless Rambling Heart, Lewis established herself as a singer, songwriter, fiddler and arranger. The project distinguished her from the pack of talented and versatile Bay Area quasi-bluegrass baby boomers. Rozum has been on all of Lewis’ subsequent albums.
In March 1994, Lewis was driving the van toward the end of a tour. Bassist Jerry Logan was riding shotgun and Rozum was lying in the back seat. He was working on a meditation technique in hopes of resolving his recently developed tinnitus — a problem that still plagues him.
“I had the van on cruise control,” Lewis said, “and I just fell asleep. I came to slightly when the van started going off the roadaI remember trying to control it.”
Rozum continues, “She overcompensated. She woke up, she jerked itaand we flipped over a couple times.”
Lewis picks up the story. “I woke up. I was in the back seat of the van, and there were people all around. I think that when I came to I was screaming, and Jerry was saying, ‘Laurie, Laurie, it’s OK. Tom’s OK, I’m OK, you’re OK.’ But he didn’t know I was OK. I was covered in blood. But he told me I was OK, which was probably a good thing.”
Rozum was thrown from the van; he fractured his shoulder blade and one wrist, dislocated his hip, and nearly severed ligaments in his legs. Lewis had a fractured skull and two fractured vertebrae.
She was able to perform within a month but couldn’t stand up to play the fiddle. She sat in a chair onstage, playing the guitar. Rozum played his first gig three months after the accident but could not walk normally until after his second surgery, two years later.
At the time of the accident, Lewis was touring the west as the virtual queen of bluegrass. She had been voted the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1992, an award she would receive again in October ’94.
At a time when the East Coast bluegrass establishment was just becoming accustomed to women bluegrass professionals, Lewis was already an established bandleader. Coming from the Bay Area, where she said she never felt constrained by either gender or genre, Lewis was breaking bluegrass ground in a variety of ways. Her 1993 album True Stories included just about every acoustic musical style except straight bluegrass. Still, Lewis’ version of Kate Long’s “Who Will Watch The Home Place” from that album became the IBMA’s 1994 Song of the Year.
The accident eliminated any remaining reticence Lewis had about charting her own musical course. It “definitely changed things,” she said. “We didn’t want to put stuff off; we just wanted to do what we wanted to do.”
Rounder Records had bought Flying Fish, Lewis’ first label, and put out all but one of her CDs through the ’90s. Following her IBMA success, Rounder wanted her to keep making solo CDs. Lewis and Rozum were committed to a duet album that eventually emerged in 1995 as The Oak And The Laurel.
“And they [Rounder] said, ‘Well, OK. We’ll put it out, but we’re not going to like it,'” Lewis says. “It was almost that attitudeaif it mollifies you, then we’ll do it.”
Rozum adds, “They certainly didn’t promote it.”
The Oak And The Laurel was nominated for a Grammy in the traditional folk category. Rozum says it’s frequently the answer he overhears at the record table when a concertgoer asks a veteran fan which CD to buy.
Of Rounder, Lewis said, “I think they just didn’t know what to do with me,” because she didn’t fit into an easily pegged genre. “I’d put out a bluegrass album, I’d get a lot of notoriety, then I’d do an album with Tom, and the album after that was a songwriter compilation.”
After her 1999 disc Laurie Lewis And Her Bluegrass Pals, Lewis did not renew her contract with Rounder. Without a label, she went five years before releasing an all-new project. (In 2002, she put out Birdsong, a compilation of songs with nature imagery, as a benefit for Audubon Canyon Ranch in California. Most of the songs were drawn from her previous recorded work.)
In 2003, she realized, “We needed to have something out. And we needed to have it on a label so that somebody would do something about it, because I had a proven track record of doing absolutely nothing given the opportunity. Well, next to nothing.”
They recorded Guest House over most of 2003, then found a Bay Area label, HighTone Records, that was interested in putting it out. HighTone carries an eclectic roster of artists but had little experience with musicians identified with bluegrass. Still, they listened to Guest House, and liked it.
Guest House takes its name from a Rumi poem about acceptance — welcoming the unbidden. It is a collection of tunes that have been floating through the Rozum/Lewis environment for shorter or longer periods. “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes”, a Slim Willet song that some of us will have to admit we remember from Perry Como’s version, was one of the first songs they sang together in the mid-’80s.
They drew on favorite works of other contemporary writers including Si Kahn, Hazel Dickens and Claudia Schmidt. The also threw in the traditional tune “Old Dan Tucker”, which they’d both learned in second grade.
The project was the incentive Lewis needed to complete “Since You Went Away” (“never enough energy or drive to finish it,” she said). Other originals are “Willie Poor Boy”, based on the true story of a traumatized bus driver, and “O My Malissa”, a tribute to Bill Monroe’s mother inspired by Richard D. Smith’s Monroe biography, Can’t You Hear Me Callin’.
With clawhammer banjoist Tom Stauber featured on two songs and Lewis’ fiddle playing off Craig Smith’s three-finger banjo and Rozum’s mandolin, much of the project has an old-time feel. “The bluegrass that’s on it is not modern, not pop-influenced at all,” Lewis says. “It’s like early bluegrass. [The album] doesn’t have a modern bone in its little body. It’s old-feeling stuff.”
Lewis also acknowledges that their highway misfortune “changed our music in bringing new material that’s specifically related in some way, at least to us, to the accident.” She’s referring to the whimsically pop “Kiss Me Before I Die” from her 1998 disc Seeing Things and Rozum’s adaptation of Irving Berlin’s “Without My Walking Stick” recorded on his 1998 solo CD Jubilee.
“But it’s probably changed my music in more subtle ways, in that I really know that every time, each song I sing, there’s no telling if it’s going to be the last time I sing it. My intention toward each song is somehow purer in my head.”
They both would like to cut back on travel. Lewis wants more time to write. Rozum, a talented illustrator, creates artwork for T-shirts and the occasional CD cover. He says it takes him awhile to focus on his work after returning from the road.
“This last year, we traveled more than I would have liked to travel,” Lewis says. “Nothing got taken care of. There’s nobody at home watching the old home place while you’re gone, and when you get back, it’s just a big mess, and you’re trying to clean things upaand then you leave again.”
“But it’s a very difficult thing. You don’t know when the phone’s going to ring again. If you say no, they’ll never ask again.”
Lewis and Rozum toured California and then New England in March. Next, it will be festival season, with gigs throughout the country.
But as she talks about her tour schedule, Lewis interrupts the interview to point out chickadees, neighborhood cats and flowering acacias. It’s easy to imagine her on the road, repeating words she recorded in 1989: “My heart beats like a wild bird’s wings, flying toward the hills of home.”