Laurie Lewis has been at the forefront of women in bluegrass music for many years and her new album with her band the Right Hands was just nominated for a Grammy Award. The Hazel and Alice Sessions celebrates the music of two of the founding mothers of bluegrass: Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. Laurie has been a fan of theirs since first hearing their music some 40 years ago.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business and why?
Laurie Lewis: Well, I would hardly call it a business, the way I got into it. I have always sung, as far back as I can remember, and when we learned folk songs in grammar school, I memorized every one of them. But I didn’t start applying myself to music until my parents suggested that I take violin lessons, when I was 12. Being a dutiful daughter, I said OK. I was a so-so student of classical violin, and always had a very difficult time reading music. My eyes would strain and water and get beet-red. My parents thought maybe I was allergic to rosin, but the synthetic stuff they bought didn’t make a difference. I quit the violin in my senior year of high school. I took it back up when I was 22.
When I was 14, I started going to the Berkeley Folk Festival, and that’s where I really got turned on to roots music. I fell in love with Doc Watson, Jesse Fuller, Jean Ritchie, the Greenbriar Boys, Mississippi John Hurt. I started playing guitar, and an older neighborhood boy started showing me how to fingerpick. I was quite smitten (with the guitar, not the boy – though he was nice, too). I joined the folk singing club in high school, and played and sang with my best friend, Dana Everts, at convalescent hospitals and rest homes, and sang for wounded young sailors at the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland. This was during the Vietnam War, and the most-requested song was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” That broke my heart.
What other music related jobs have you done over the years?
When I was 21 and 22, I worked at a dance studio, collecting rents from the teachers in exchange for $100/month and all the free classes I could handle. It was a great studio, which featured live musicians playing for many of the classes: drummers for the African and Haitian dance classes, a wonderful jazz pianist for modern dance classes, and an old-time stringband that played monthly square dances.
In my early 20s, after I had gotten reinfected with the bluegrass and old-time music bug, I met Bob Scoville, a violin maker, at a fiddle contest. He took a look at my fiddle and showed me that the scroll where it was grafted on to the neck was loose. At the time, I was just working part-time in a gas station and didn’t have much money. He suggested that I work at the shop to pay off the repair. So I did, starting out sweeping and cleaning, and then I rebuilt an old fiddle under his tutelage. When I was done with that, he offered me a job. So I worked in the shop for a number of years. When he retired, I bought the shop from him and ran it for 7 years.
I was 35 years old when I decided to record my first album. I figured I would just get my songs down the way I heard them in my head, and then go back to work at the shop. But the experience of hearing those songs come to life was so exhilarating, and so fulfilling, that I decided to sell the shop and commit to a life as a professional musician. I did, and never looked back.
How do you describe your music and or songs to someone who’s never heard you?
Well, I generally say some sort of rambling sentence like, “It’s bluegrass-based acoustic folkie/countryish music, and I write a lot of the songs.” I don’t like categorization. Maybe these days I might just say it’s Americana and leave it at that. Or bluegrass. I don’t know.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
I don’t know which came first, but it was either Doc Watson or the Greenbriar Boys, who I had heard at the Berkeley Folk Festival. The Greenbriar Boys talked about their new album, Better Late Than Never, and I kept looking for it at the local record store. It finally came in, and I bought it. It had Jim Buchanan playing fantastic fiddle. I was 14 years old. The Doc Watson record was his first eponymously titled one. Or it was the Dillards, who I saw open for the Byrds at the Berkeley Community Theater. I LOVED them! They were so funny, with humor that just suited a 14-year-old. I bugged my dad for a banjo after that. I wanted to be Doug Dillard. The first tune I tried to learn was “Doug’s Tune.” But I was the only person I knew who was interested in bluegrass, and solo bluegrass banjo is just about the lonesomest thing there is. My inspiration died for lack of a community.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
I love the album Old Time Music from Clarence Ashley’s”, with Doc Watson. I was a huge fan of Otis Redding, and when I heard Otis and Carla Thomas together, I flipped. Aretha Franklin. Jimmie Rodgers, Jimi Hendrix. Duke Ellington, Stuff Smith, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Lester Young. Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Bill Monroe, anything Chubby Wise played on the fiddle. Brittany Haas. David Hidalgo.
How do you define what Americana music is?
I think of it as a catch-all term for music that is an amalgam of lots of different vernacular styles. We are all impacted by so many different styles, and most of us can’t help but mix it all together into a big ol’ musical stew.
Where do you see radio going in the future?
I am dismayed by the sound of ultra-tuned vocals in so-called “country” music. All the great bent notes and the blues are being washed out, and background vocals sound like electronic keyboards. I think we lose the richness and “humanness” of the music when it is sent through this process, and I am afraid that people’s ears are forgetting what real, live music sounds like. And I confess, my ears get very tired when I listen to satellite radio, because of the sound quality. Such a pity, because there is so much great programming available there. But I don’t want to become inured to that dearth of tone. Aside from that, you can still find great, great radio shows on small independent stations everywhere. I love that stuff, and the happy surprises that find their way into my consciousness. I travel a lot, and am always searching the airwaves for them.
Where do you see the music business going?
I see that it seems to be more and more difficult for a young artist to make a living, the way I was able to when I started playing in bands in my early 20s. I could play a couple nights a week at a bar, take home $17/night, and then play a pizza parlor for $30, maybe a casual or two, and live on that pretty easily. I really don’t know how musicians can stick to just playing what they want to play and follow their passions, and get by these days. Unless they are among the lucky few. There’s the 1% and the 99% in music, as in the rest of society. It’s tough!
One thing that is encouraging (which I used to find sort of annoying because of its secrecy) is the proliferation of house concerts. It drives artists more “underground,” in that there is usually no advertising in the general market. But these communities of listeners banding together to hear someone close-up and personal is really heartening these days.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Over the last year or so, I have loved live shows by Mr. Sun; The Lonely Heartstring Band; Haas, Kowert and Tice; Noam Pikelny and Stuart Duncan; and Molly Tuttle Band. All deeply musical groups with tons of soul and mostly great senses of humor. They all made me laugh and/or cry, which is the gold standard for me.
What are your most memorable experiences from working in the music industry?
I am lucky in that I have had so many. I came along at a time when there were still wonderful American musicians who grew up in intact cultures, and they played within styles they were born to. That doesn’t happen much these days. Touring and singing with Ralph Stanley, getting to know and work/play with Don Stover, Vern Williams, Hazel Dickens, Doc Watson, Patsy Montana, Dick Oxtot and members of the Golden Age Jazz Band –almost all of whom are gone now. And being able to hear so many great musicians live, who have all passed on now. Because of the internet and mass media, it is almost impossible to be that closed off from outside influences anymore, and it’s hard to find the deep roots into the mysterious past.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
I love the amazing communing, communication, and community that happens when playing with other people. The natural world is a huge source of inspiration. I love music with wildness and lonesomeness in it.
How do you want to be remembered?
I have tried to be kind. And I have tried to be encouraging and helpful to younger musicians. I have tried to be a voice for the natural world in some small way. I hope I am remembered as someone who was true to her own inner music (whatever style that is).