Laurie Lewis Trio to top Americana showcase at Sierra Nevada
Laurie Lewis lists her many occupations as “singer, fiddler, guitarist, songwriter, river rat.” Add to that “bass player.” Guess I always pay attention to little details like that, being a female upright-bass player myself. Lewis, an excellent bassist, has been known to be hired on numerous occasions to play bass on other musicians’ albums. I spoke with the multi-talented Berkeley-based bluegrass musician by phone from her home recently.
Lewis, “one of the best flat-out breakdown fiddlers around,” as her Web site proudly and correctly states, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and studied the violin as a child. Her father was a classical flutist. “I was raised in Berkeley—pretty far removed from the home of bluegrass, Nashville. …Nothing was going on in my house. There was no folk or bluegrass in my house.” So it is, as Lewis states, “kind of amazing” that she ended up touring and performing with one of her musical mentors, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. It is one of her proudest achievements. “For a kid from Berkeley who got bitten by the bluegrass bug … I never expected that to happen!” You can hear her grinning.
Lewis “was lucky enough to get introduced to the very vital bluegrass scene in San Francisco” when she was in her early 20s. She remembers attending a Byrds concert for which a bluegrass band called The Dillards (of The Andy Griffith Show fame) opened—that’s when Lewis “got smitten by bluegrass banjo.”
Lewis was a founding member of both the widely known West Coast bluegrass group The Good Ol’ Persons in the mid-'70s and, in the ‘80s, the Grant Street String Band. She was also a member of the all-woman bluegrass group, Blue Rose. Lewis was twice voted “Female Vocalist of the Year” by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Her album Love Chooses You was named 1989-90 “Country Album of the Year” by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors. Her 1995 album, The Oak and the Laurel, with mandolinist/vocalist Tom Rozum (whom she is bringing with her, along with bassist Bill Bryson, to Sierra Nevada’s Big Room on Jan. 18) was nominated for a Grammy as “Best Traditional Folk Album” in 1996.
As for the “river rat” part of Lewis’ resume, Lewis is an avid rafter. She and Rozum take a break from the road each year to make a least one river trip. They’ve been down the Rio Grande, the Rogue River in Oregon, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho—and they don’t leave their instruments behind. Every river trip includes Lewis, Rozum and any other musicians along (she invites you on her Web site to join them) playing music around the campfire each night. Coming up in July: “Bluegrass-on-Whitewater,” a trip down California’s Tuolumne, which by the way, Lewis told me is her favorite river in the area to ride. The river’s short length gives Lewis the option of packing a lot of river rides into a three-day trip.
Lewis and Rozum also have a new album—Lucky Wanderers—coming out in March, and they’ll be playing much of it at the upcoming Sierra Nevada gig. Lewis is excited that Southern California bassist Bryson, who plays alongside ex-Byrd Chris Hillman in the Desert Rose Band, is coming up north to round out their trio. “He is great!” she glows. “He’s almost to legendary status, I would say. It’s always fun to play with Bill!”
Southern California’s hot six-piece bluegrass band Due West, accompanied by “fiddle monster” Darol Anger, will play before Lewis’ trio, but Lewis is quick to point out that she sees the show as a double bill. “I do see it as sharing the bill with Due West,” she stresses. “They’re a great band, and I think there will be some collaboration [between us and them]. … At least I hope there will be!” As for eclectic virtuoso Anger, Lewis understates that it’s “pretty exciting” that he’s going to be there, and “he’ll probably join us.”