Laurie Lewis is one of those people who can do it all musically. The two-time IBMA Female Vocalist Of The Year is a gifted singer, fiddler, guitarist, bandleader, and teacher. She’s also a talented wordsmith, who has quilted together layers of lyrics with a “Magic Light.” Through “Blue Days” and “Sleepless Nights,” her words have been like an “Old Friend.” “The Light” of inspiration touches Lewis as her “Restless Rambling Heart” is able to “Visualize” the “Wind At Play” and “Green Fields.”
Diehard fans of the bluegrass trailblazer will surely recognize those aforementioned songs from her treasure chest of gems that she has mined for nearly four decades. For many years, she crafted some of her best writing while camping out at a friend’s house along the coast of Mendocino County, California. Today her fountain of inspiration springs forth from a variety of sources.
“Misery is always a good one,” Lewis said with a laugh during a phone interview from her Berkeley, California home. “If you get unhappy, you’re more likely to write than if you’re happy. When you’re unhappy, you want to figure out a way to express yourself, and when you’re happy, you’re just having too much fun doing what you’re doing. Another thing is the natural world. I find it to be inspirational in many ways. I like to have sort of space and quiet when I write, and that often happens outdoors.”
A tinge of jealousy gave Lewis, 63, the impetus to start songwriting in her mid-twenties. She wrote her first successful song, “I Don’t Know Why,” while with Good Ol’ Persons, an all-female group she co-founded with Kathy Kallick in the mid-1970s. “She would bring a new song to the band, and we would work it up,” Lewis said. “It was her song, and I was just kind of jealous of that. I was picking songs that I really liked that were other people’s songs or traditional songs. Then, it seemed like the next month it would be on an Emmylou Harris record or something like that. I think that’s sort of what spurred me to try and write. I just wanted something that was my own the same way Kathy had something that was her own.”
Tapping into her muse was a fulfilling musical turn for Lewis. Now, nearly forty years later, songwriting can still be a struggle but other times it gushes forth. “Sometimes a song will just pop out; no effort at all,” Lewis said. “You have to be ready for it. It just forces itself to be written. Other songs, I would work on and get kind of stuck, and it might be a year before I managed to figure a way out of it. Some of them come hard; some of them come easy.”
Lewis admits she can be inflexible in her writing at times, which can hamper the birth of her creations. That was the case with “Love Chooses You.” She recalls, “I had the verses all out,” Lewis said. “It kept on wanting to be a waltz and, at that time, I didn’t want to write any more waltzes. I kept trying to force it to not be a waltz. I had to just finally accept the fact that it was,” she said with a laugh. “That made it a lot easier; that made it really come together.”
The introspective writer prefers solitude when working on a new song. “For me, writing is very personal, and it’s very private, and I usually don’t let my songs out until I feel like they’re at a point where I’m not embarrassed by them, or I feel like I can really sell the song in some way. Getting to that point with somebody else in the same room is difficult for me.”
From that intimate writing experience, Lewis then takes the polished tune to the stage for feedback from the crowd. “If it falls flat, that’s devastating,” Lewis said. “But I’m always very grateful if I bring out a song and people really respond to it. I don’t think about commercial viability of my songs. Many of my songs are kind of long, I think, for commercial radio airplay. They work for me, and that’s what counts. I’m very self-centered with my songs.”
In reflecting on the evolution of her writing, she has a humble and humorous take on it. “If you’re going to be a writer, you’ve got to show up for work,” Lewis said. “And often, I don’t show up for work. When I do, I feel really lucky that I catch something. I do feel that some of my writing has gotten more complex and I’ve taken more chances lyrically on some of my more recent songs than I did early on. They’re less simplistic. I think that early on, I got pretty lucky on some songs. I’m one of these people who always thinks, ‘Oh, I guess I’ve written all my songs.’ And then I sit down to write again and something comes up, and it surprises me and I am grateful for it.”
Lewis keeps her schedule full with performing, recording, songwriting, producing, and teaching workshops. Her newest project is a duet CD with Kathy Kallick titled, Laurie & Kathy Sing The Songs Of Vern & Ray, released this month on her label, Spruce and Maple Music. They recorded their first duet project, Together, for Kaleidoscope Records in 1991 and dedicated the music to Northern California bluegrass pioneers Vern Williams and Ray Park, two of their early sources of inspiration.
“We had always intended to do a follow-up and joked about calling it Together Again, but the years went by, and we were very busy with our own bands and lives,” Lewis said. “We never got around to it until Vern Williams died. We got together and sang Vern and Ray repertoire at my house and reminisced about them and what their music had meant to us.”
From that special moment, they decided to put together an album in homage to their music heroes. Vern (mandolin) and Ray (guitar) and the Carroll County Country Boys were the first bluegrass band in northern California. Their recordings included the four-song 45 rpm EP on Starday featuring “Bluegrass Style,” “Cabin On A Mountain,” “Carroll County Breakdown,” and “Thinkin’ Of Home.” Said Lewis, “For Kathy and me, Vern and Ray were the real deal—guys who sang and played beautifully with a powerful intensity that was captivating.”
Lewis also recorded a live CD at Berkeley, Cal.’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in May of 2013 with two of her musical buds, guitarists Nina Gerber and Tom Rozum. “Although I arranged for the evening to be recorded on multitrack, I didn’t think at the time that it was going to be an album,” she recalls. “I just had so many new songs to do, and I was excited about the prospect of playing with both Tom and Nina in a new setting. I wanted there to be some sort of record of the night. It was only when I realized that we had captured some magic that I decided to put it out as a CD.”
One Evening In May is an intimate set of folk and country songs of mostly original Lewis compositions that she wrote or completed at a writing retreat in Wyoming in the winter of 2012 (except for June Carter Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” and Merle Haggard’s “One Sweet Hello”).
Lewis steps on the other side of recording as a producer, as well. She has been at the helm overseeing more than 14 CDs including an album of original songs by one of her musical heroes, Alice Gerrard. Over the last couple of years, she has produced albums for the duo of Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman and band albums for Bay Area favorites, American Nomad and The T Sisters. “My approach to producing is to try and help the artists achieve what they hear in their heads—to try and get the best performances and take the guesswork off the shoulders of the artists, so that they are free to make art,” she explains. “I have always been a sort of ‘helper’ person, and that attribute, combined with studio skills picked up over the years and a deep-seated sense of what works musically and emotionally, have worked together to help me be as good a producer as I am. I am always trying to learn better ways to communicate and collaborate, and always honing my studio acumen, and I enjoy the challenge of helping to make the music come alive.”
Lewis also wanted to help keep the music of Bill Monroe alive so she recorded Skippin’ And Flyin’, in tribute to the Father of Bluegrass Music. The idea for the album began to develop when she started an annual Bill Monroe birthday celebration at the same venue where she laid down tracks for her recent live album. “It’s just a night of all Monroe songs,” Lewis said. “It’s like the Grand Ole Opry. People come on and do songs either with the core band or bringing on another band for a little while. The first time I organized that, I just was so smitten with all the material and talking to guests about how Monroe had shaped their music.”
Monroe was one of the earliest bluegrass influences in Lewis’s life. In the late 1990s, Lewis performed on the Grammy-winning album True Life Blues: The Songs Of Bill Monroe, and The Great Bill Monroe remains one of her all-time favorite albums. “It’s a mixture of the instruments and the tonality of the singing that really gets to me,” Lewis said. “Much of the language is based in the natural world, and all these things just really spoke to me. Monroe was always saying that the songs he wrote were true songs, and they really struck me that way. It really struck me as being very personal and very heartfelt. I sort of used that as a template in my own writing and with my own band.”
Lewis herself was a trailblazer of sorts for the women in bluegrass. She has carried the torch a step further from the early male-dominated bluegrass days of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. “I feel like my getting out there and all the women who have been getting out there, leading bands and having great success, have just really opened up the doors,” Lewis said. “I’m sure it was very different for Hazel and Alice when they first started singing and playing bluegrass music than it was for me when I started. And I’m sure it’s very different again in this day and age for young women.”
She believes growing up around the Berkeley music scene was a more accepting environment. “When I started playing bluegrass music at jams, there was none of this ‘Oh, girls can’t play’ or any of that sort of thing. It just blew my mind when I started listening to what women from other areas of the country were talking about, being sort of forced out of jam sessions and stuff. That never ever happened up here in the Bay Area. In Southern California, it did happen to me, and I did not understand it. It made me really angry, but there was nothing I could really do about it. These big guys wouldn’t let you in the circle.”
In time, her talent helped break down any remaining barriers in the way of her musical freedom. Lewis hopes her example of being true to herself will bolster confidence for other performers. “I hope maybe I’ve helped give someone the courage to be themselves in whatever musical form they choose,” Lewis said. “I feel like in bluegrass music, there’s a lot of imitation that happens. It’s like commercial country music in a way. There’s a formula and people try to be in this formula. What I’m always listening for and what I’m hoping for is a real authentic voice coming through. I hope that I’ve been able to be an example of that in some way.”