Little Roy Lewis: An Icon of Bluegrass Culture
I simply didn’t get it. My wife and I were early in our bluegrass journey at Pickin the the Pasture, near Lodi, New York, on a hill high above fabled Lake Cayuga, with Cornell University sitting ten or twelve miles south of us, but without a hint of Ivy League stuffiness anywhere near. An early ’50s Ford convertible came across the front of the stage with a small man in red suspenders sitting on the rear deck. He leapt off, carrying his banjo, and bounded on stage. His band appeared from the wings of the stage, and we had our first introduction to Little Roy Lewis and the Lewis Family.
I had no idea that I was seeing an icon of bluegrass music and bluegrass gospel who had been touring the country, and the world, with his famed family for over 60 years, entertaining millions and sharing their deep abiding faith dished up with singing, clowning, and commitment. It was my first introduction to some of the deepest roots remaining in this music.
There’s no real way to understand the Lewis Family without spending some time in and around Lincolnton, Georgia, or attending the Little Roy & Lizzy Bluegrass Festival in Elijah Clark State Park, on the shores of the Strom Thurmond Reservoir, deep in the red Georgia clay. Mom and Pop Lewis eloped to McCormack, South Carolina, in 1925. Roy Sr. and his wife, Pauline, had eight children, who they introduced to music early, singing bluegrass and bluegrass gospel. Their first performance was at a Woodmen of the World convention in 1951, and soon they were appearing on a weekly television show originating in nearby Augusta. Little Roy began playing the banjo when he was six years old, and soon became the center of the band, more than capable on multiple instruments, a superb clown, and, still, underappreciated as one of the finest banjo players in the business. He and Earl Scruggs were lifetime friends, and his collection of Scruggs stories is perhaps unsurpassed. His irrepressible spirit and infectious grin can’t mask his deep faith or love for his family. His foster daughter Lizzy Long has been featured in the band for over a decade, and his wife/manager, Bonnie, who keeps the show together and endeavors to keep him on time and on task, has undertaken an almost impossible job with humor and grace.
But there’s another Little Roy Lewis, too. Some years ago we were at a festival, since gone the way of many bluegrass festivals, in Kissimmee, Florida. The Bluegrass Sweethearts were a couple who worked as vendors at a number of festivals up and down the East Coast. They sold musical instruments, gear, and CDs as well as providing minimal setup and repairs. There was often a jam going on at their booth, too. Roy came over, picked up a Deering Goodtime banjo, often the first banjo for many players, and joined in. This, of course, drew a crowd to listen to the jam. Playing with the jam, Little Roy pulled marvelous tone out of this $300 instrument, gave the members of the jam a sense of importance by joining them, and highlighted a festival vendor, almost certainly boosting their sales for this festival.
Today, on the cusp of his 76th birthday, Little Roy Lewis is still active and irrepressible as ever. Since the retirement of his sisters from The Lewis Family Band several years ago, he has performed with Lizzy Long in the Little Roy and Lizzy Show, always present with his comic behavior, his guest shots on other people’s stages, and his wonderful off-stage and on-stage storytelling.
The Bill Gaither Gospel organization produced and featured Lewis Family gospel recordings and performances for two or three generations. In gospel music, the popularity of the The Lewis Family regionally in the South, but nationally and internationally, too, can hardly be overstated. Meanwhile, as bluegrass entertainers spreading their upbeat gospel message, the influence of the Lewis Family persists as Little Roy Lewis continues to tour, bringing humor and inspiration to bluegrass audiences everywhere.
How do you assess the influence of an iconic figure whose career in bluegrass music goes back nearly 70 years, since he made his stage debut with the Lewis Family Band at age six? For me, Little Roy has gone from being an enigma, a presence I didn’t know, then little understood, to a valued link to bluegrass music’s past as well as a friendly acquaintance I look forward to seeing along the bluegrass trail. His act recalls the baggy pants clowns and comedians of vaudeville, which had, by the mid-’50s, been completely lost to urban and suburban areas, but continued to exist at bluegrass festivals because Little Roy Lewis made gospel music attractive and entertaining on multiple levels. In the end, Little Roy remains a cultural icon, reminding us of where our music came from culturally and musically.
Here the Lewis Family sings one of its enduring hits in a Gaither video.
I’ll conclude this column with a recording of “Hallelujah Turnpike,” which includes vintage photos of the family as well as a rousing performance.