Laurie Lewis is a veteran of the San Francisco Bay Area's folk scene and a longtime figure on the national bluegrass stage, a stalwart player who first emerged in bands such as The Grant Street String band and The Good Ol' Persons, and has long worked in collaboration with her musical partner Tom Rozum. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Lewis helped pioneer the sleek, soft folk/pop/'grass crossover sound that folks like Alison Krauss later took into the commercial Country charts. Even with her inclinations towards folkie singer-songwriter material, Lewis can also play traditional truegrass right up there with the best of them... Here's a quick look at her work...
Arkansas Sheiks "Whiskey Before Breakfast" (Bay Records, 1975) (LP)
An early Bay Area "all-star" band, with folks such as Jody Stecher, Kate Brislin, Laurie Lewis and Tony Marcus, trotting through a widely diverse repertoire of "American and English" tunes... Stylistically this ranges from straight bluegrass to western swing-tinged jazz and old-timey numbers, as well as a few vocal numbers reminiscent of England's Watersons... There are plenty of rough edges here, but it's a nice glimpse at this style of folk revivalism made at a time when stylistic differences weren't so clearly cut, and bands were in it strictly for fun, and didn't feel the pressure to specialize in order to get an audience.
The Grant Street String Band "The Grant Street String Band" (Flat Rock Records, 1983)
Laurie Lewis "Restless Rambling Heart" (Rounder, 1986)
Blue Rose "Blue Rose" (Sugar Hill, 1988)
An all-gal bluegrass supergroup, featuring Cathy Fink on guitar and banjo, Laurie Lewis on fiddle and guitar, Molly Mason on bass, Marcy Marxer on guitar and Sally Van Meter on dobro, with vocals spread out among the quintet. The songs are mostly contemporary material, with a couple of well-chosen oldies and traditional tunes sprinkled in for good measure...
Laurie Lewis "Love Chooses You" (Rounder, 1989)
Let's give credit where credit is due: fiddler Laurie Lewis helped pioneer the sometimes-gooey crossover style that Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck and Dan Tyminski have since taken into Billboard's Country charts. Still, Lewis has her truegrass roots and can cut loose and twang away with the best of them, as heard on this album's "Hills Of My Home" and the country-flavored "I Don't Know Why." But she is often drawn to slower romantic material, and here tries out a few heretical touches, such as the (ugh) tenor and soprano saxophones, which bring the album to a grinding halt midway through. It's worth checking out by anyone interested in the growth of newgrass pop fusion, but traditionalists will simply grind their teeth and wish the rest of the album sounded like the stuff at the start. Depends on your temperament, I guess. The title track is one of the most memorable of the folkie-pop lovesongs style.
Laurie Lewis & The Grant Street String Band "Singin' My Troubles Away" (Flying Fish, 1992)
Laurie Lewis, Tom Rozum, guitarist Scott Nygaard and Tony Furtado on banjo, and Tammy Fassaert on bass.
Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick "Together" (Rounder, 1991)
A nice, simple, traditionalist bluegrass lovefest, with plenty of bouncy melodies and some very fine harmonies by Kallick and Lewis, who were formerly bandmates in the well-beloved Bay Area band, the Good Ol' Persons. The best thing here is their voices, which compliment each other perfectly. Lewis typically sings a bit on the thin side, but she provides the ideal underpinning for Kallick's growly purr. The material is all pretty straightforward, with crisp, heartfelt acoustic picking. It gets a little shaky on the slower, sappier material, but there really isn't much of that style heard on here, and on the whole this is an excellent album -- well worth checking out!
Laurie Lewis "True Stories" (Rounder, 1993)
More of the songs on here are Lewis originals, and the disc takes on a mature, confessional-folkie feel, at times a bit reminiscent of the late Kate Wolf. The playing is solid, bluegrass-tinged acoustic picking, with Bay Area pickers such as Nina Gerber, Rob Ickes, Todd Phillips, et. al. and, of course, Lewis's longtime partner Tom Rozum as part of the cast of dozens. Althought there are a couple of upbeat numbers, most of these songs are a too genteel and un-grassy for my tastes... But from a sincere, earnest folkie perspective, this is okay. It's not my cup of tea, but I ain't the center of the universe.
Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum "The Oak And The Laurel" (Rounder, 1995)
A beautiful record, with an easygoing spirit that makes it one of Laurie Lewis's rootsiest, least strained records. Teamed up with mandolinist Tom Rozum, another longtime veteran of the Bay Area bluegrass scene, Lewis hits a sublime groove, zipping off a couple of Carter Family gems, a sweet Everly Brothers cover ("So Sad"), a melancholy Mark Simos song ("Sleepy Eyes"), one by the Louvin Brothers, and a much-welcome Don Stover tune, to top things off. These two have a really nice chemistry together -- smooth, close harmonies and tasteful arrangements that sidestep the ofttimes-baroque goopiness of other folk-newgrass crossovers, instead zeroing in on the heartsong traditions that make the softer side of the truegrass scene so nice. An elegant album -- highly recommended!
Laurie Lewis "Seeing Things" (Rounder, 1998)
A mixed bag. Starts off with "Blue Days, Sleepless Nights," a great, upbeat bluegrass number with a fine harmony duet with Kathy Kallick... I got all excited, anticipating a back-to basics set, but was quickly disabused of this notion, notably with spazzy acoustic funk numbers like the Mose Allison-ish "Kiss Me Before I Die," and too-smooth numbers such as "Tattoo," which really is a bit much. Still, in between, there are some nice songs on here, like the sweet acoustic ballad, "Let The Bird Go Free" and the Tex-Mex-y, upbeat "I'll Take Back My Heart," which is kinda fun. The more, um, experimental side of her work is lamentable in some ways, but hey... what are ya gonna do? When you've been playing music for a long time and your best pals are super-talented musicians, I guess it's hard to rein it in sometimes. Again, this is more of a folk club scene album than a 'grassfest. Just so ya know ahead of time.
Laurie Lewis "...And Her Bluegrass Pals" (Rounder, 1999)
Recommended! A nice, back-to-basics truegrass set, with a swell mix of traditional tunes and standards, alongside new material by Lewis and some of her many pals. The band is a compact fivesome of Lewis, Rozum, Mike Marshall, Craig Smith on banjo and Mary Gibbons on guitar. Fun stuff; well worth checking out.
Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum "Winter's Grace" (Dog Boy/Signature Sounds, 1999)
A nice, understated acoustic holiday set, which -- appropriately enough -- drifts into sorts goopy, Berkeleyesque folkie territory. ("The Earth Moves In Mysterious Ways," for example...) Nina Gerber, Todd Phillips, Mike Marshall and other Bay Area folk-scene stalwarts pitch in on this refreshingly original set... The instrumental numbers are really nice, and overall this has a pleasantly heartfelt vibe. Worth checking out, especially if you want a little break from Bing and Sting during the holiday season... (PS - if you like country Christmas records, I review a whole bunch of them on my hillbilly holiday page...)
Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum "Guest House" (HighTone, 2004)
Recommended! Another nice, understated oldtime-ish album by these SF Bay Area acoustic music vets... The picking is solid, but resolutely unflashy, steering listeners towards the lyrics and the subtle harmony vocals. This is possibly the best of the Lewis-Rozum collaborations, with their musical inclinations in a perfect synch that mirrors that of their voices -- her low tones, meeting his high. The album opens on a note of controversy, with a cautionary tale about urban rage and gun-related violence ("Poor Boy Willie," which cleverly transposes a Woody Guthrie-style story-song into the modern day... it sounds nice, but one wonders how many of their Birkenstock-clad, ponytailed, urban folkie listeners will find their behavior modified by the song...) A second social commentary song scores better: "Just A Lie," which takes aim at those nostalgic for "the good old days," has a more compact structure, and a much sharper bite. In between, there's a lovely range of heartfelt, folkie truegrass, with Lewis and Rozum both singing their little hearts out. Extra points for covering Jim Ringer's timeless outlaw ballad, "Tramps And Hawkers."
Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands "The Golden West" (HighTone, 2006)
Wow... what a great record -- one of the best bluegrass albums of '06! If you like plain, simple, and sincerely twangy truegrass, filtered through a West Coast/Northern California sensibility which keeps things real and rootsy, but doesn't simply go through the motions of genuflecting at the temple of rigid, "high lonesome" traditionalism, well, then this is an album you'll want to check out. Lewis and longtime cohort Tom Rozum lead this laid-back, no-nonsense quintet, playing a nice mix of original songs and well-chosen covers. Guitarist Scott Huffman contributes one song (and fine harmony vocals on others) while Lewis adds two more; the remainder of the album embraces music by Albert Brumley, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, John Hartford, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers and Billy Joe Shaver... I mean, geez... how could you go wrong? The answer is, you can't. This is a mighty fine set, from start to finish, filled with one heartfelt, effective performance after another. Highly recommended!
Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands "Live!" (Spruce & Maple, 2008)
Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands "...at MerleFest 4/24/08" (Festivalink.net, 2008)
Laurie Lewis "Blossoms" (Spruce & Maple, 2010)
Laurie Lewis "Skippin' And Flyin' " (Spruce & Maple, 2011)
(Produced by Laurie Lewis)
A sweet, joyful tribute to the late, great bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, in honor of his birthday centennial... This album is traditional, but not quite as stark or severe as Monroe's own recordings could be... Lewis gives the music a softer touch, both stylistically and emotionally, embracing a very full-of-life, thankful-to-have-Monroe's-music-in-my-world kind of vibe. It's not strictly a Bill Monroe tribute, more of a broad-based homage, with songs from the repertoires of Jimmie Rodgers, Flatt & Scruggs, Del McCoury, Utah Phillips and others, as well as some Laurie Lewis originals, but all with a familiar feel that fits into the grand, 'grassy scheme of things. Along for the ride are several longtime Lewis collaborators, such as Tom Rozum, Todd Phillips and banjoists Craig Smith and Patrick Sauber. It's another class act from this California bluegrass mainstay... Fun and full of feeling!
Laurie Lewis "Earth & Sky: Songs Of Laurie Lewis" (Rounder, 1997)
A first-rate best-of collection which focusses on Lewis' (rather impressive) songwriting skills. It's one of the funnest, most upbeat of her records, and it's packed with great tunes. She's a very good songwriter, and this is some of her best-produced work. Really nice. (By the way, there is also a songbook which accompanies this album, with 44 of Lewis's favorite songs included... It is available through Lewis's label, Spruce and Maple Music, which is linked to below...)
Laurie Lewis "Birdsong" (Spruce & Maple, 2002)
An updated retrospective with old favorites and some new songs; Lewis released this album as a benefit for Audubon Canyon Ranch, a wildlife sanctuary in the North Bay. Also available through her website.
Tom Rozum "Jubilee" (Signature Sounds/Dog Boy Records, 1998)
A nice, relaxed set of acoustic swing and sweetened old-timey stringband music, with equal debts to the Carter Family and Karl & Harty... It's sort of like hearing a kinder, gentler Dan Hicks. Rozum's longtime musical partner Laurie Lewis plays on about half the tracks, along with a heavyweight set of Northern California newgrass superpickers -- Darol Anger, Rob Ickes, Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, et al. -- and the results are pretty darn nice. If you like the sweeter, more sincere side of the acoustic music scent, this is a fine, understated, masterfully produced album. Recommended!
Hick Music Index
Top photo by Alain McLaughlin, courtesy of Laurie Lewis
Top photo by Alain McLaughlin, courtesy of Laurie Lewis