Over the past four decades, Laurie Lewis’ name has become synonymous with the West Coast Bluegrass Scene. Her contributions to the genre through recordings, performances, songwriting, and producing have earned her two Grammy nominations, two International Bluegrass Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year awards, and deep-seated respect from her peers, inspiring multiple new generations of musicians in the process. On her new album, “and Laurie Lewis,” she presents a collection of duets, joined by ten West Coast musicians with whom she has shared touchstone moments throughout her career. With the album’s thirteen tracks Lewis demonstrates her commitment to making music as an act of community building, sharing what she describes as “intimate conversations” with musicians from her past, present, and future.
* You Are My Flower * Baby, That Would Sure Go Good * Rooster Crow * My Last Go-Round * Old Friend * Mama Cry * The Lonely One * Ain’t Nobody Got the Blues Like Me * Will the Circle Be Unbroken * The Pika Song * O The Wind and Rain * Troubled Times * This is our Home *
Bluegrass Unlimited, August 2020
Laurie Lewis is a national treasure, one that keeps giving us fantastic music across the bluegrass and folk spheres of influence. On And Laurie Lewis, what started as a simple project to record duets with some of her favorite musicians, the diva of West Coast bluegrass has emerged with a CD filled with great songs, wonderful singing, and glorious playing from the likes of Molly Tuttle, Tom Rozum, Mike Marshall, Tatiana Hargreaves, Craig Smith, Kathy Kallick, Todd Phillips, and more.
Much as she imagined it, this album brings the listener into closely held duets that feel truly intimate and shared. The opening cut “You Are My Flower” gives us Molly Tuttle channeling Clarence White’s timing and syncopation like he did on “I Am A Pilgrim,” coupled with her lovely, lighthearted vocals blending gorgeously with Laurie’s darker, time-worn alto voice. Once again, Tuttle shows the bluegrass world a new direction for the future of flatpicking guitar.
Tunes roll off this CD like High Sierra snowmelt filling rivers and streams with fresh hope. The Cindy Walker tune “Baby, That Would Sure Go Good” reveals Lewis’s love for Western Swing, with her on fiddle and the incomparable Todd Phillips on bass, complete with a bass solo that Eldon Shamblin would have loved playing behind. Similarly, she joins forces with former bandmate Barbara Higbee to render a Golden Age jazz blues tune, “Ain’t Nobody Got The Blues Like Me.”
One of the great features of this project is that Laurie made a point of including detailed notes on the instruments each musician played here, including a wonderful story on how Phillips acquired and modified the German double-bass that became his constant companion through so many great sessions. While not what purists would call bluegrass, Laurie’s music is timeless, effortless, and enchanting. And we’re all the richer for her releasing this project for the world to savor. (www.laurielewis.com)DJM
The Deep Roots of Laurie Lewis
Peghed Nation ~ Derk Richardson
For the better part of five decades—ever since she emerged as a leading voice in the San Francisco Bay Area’s New Grass scene—Laurie Lewis has cultivated collaborations and long-term creative friendships with an extraordinary assortment of musicians. Ten of those dearest companions—from all across the panorama of bluegrass, country, and traditional folk in which they thrive, and from several generations—join Lewis on her latest album, the humbly titled and Laurie Lewis (Spruce and Maple Music). It is must listening for all fans of “peghead” instruments.
But the timing of its release could hardly have been worse: The rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic put an indefinite hold on Lewis’s plans to support the album with live concerts, both in the Bay Area and on tour. The itinerary page on her website is a cascade of “cancelled” notices on gigs across the U.S. and Europe, in clubs and concert halls, at festivals and music camps, and on Lewis’s popular river rafting trips.
While the possibility of hearing Lewis in person has been diminished, the music on and Laurie Lewis nonetheless provides 50 minutes of exquisite listening in the form of 13 intimate duets. Lewis pairs off with one friend or another on six original compositions, several traditional tunes (“You Are My Flower,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” “O The Wind and Rain”), a bit of “golden age” jazz and Western swing, a Rosalie Sorrels classic, and a contemporary contribution from young songwriter Emily Mann.
Growing up in Berkeley, where she was born in 1950, Lewis experienced musical epiphanies hearing Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, the Greenbriar Boys, Jesse Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and others at the Berkeley Folk Festival. Already a classically trained violinist, she then took up guitar and bluegrass banjo. Another revelation was hearing bluegrass fiddlers onstage at Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco; Lewis realized she could do that too.
In the open-ended traditional and progressive Bay Area bluegrass scene, Lewis’s journey from neophyte to matriarch is marked by too many milestones to name, but here are some: playing with the pioneering Phantoms of the Opry, playing bass and singing in Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band, co-founding the all-female bluegrass band Good Ol’ Persons, organizing her own bands (Laurie Lewis and Grant Street, Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands), recording nearly 20 albums, racking up IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) awards, and working alongside Ralph Stanley, Linda Tillery, Alice Gerrard, Linda Ronstadt, Cris Williamson, Scott Nygaard, Dave Alvin, Tom Russell, Joan Baez, and many more.
and Laurie Lewis Lewis is a Peghead geek’s paradise of stringed instruments, played by Lewis and . . . They are annotated in detail in the liner notes, including a Carl. C. Holzapfel early 20th century 12-string guitar, a 1927 Vega Tubaphone banjo, Charles Sawtelle’s 1929 Martin 000-45, an 1889 Jerome Bonaparte Squier violin, a 1922 Gibson Master Model mandolin, a 1962 reissue Fender Stratocaster, and many more.
More important are the players and singers, with appearances by rising-star guitarist and singer Molly Tuttle, string bassist Todd Phillips, banjo player Craig Smith, guitarist Nina Gerber, guitarist and singer Kathy Kallick, fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves, pianist and singer Barbara Higbie, guitarist Mike Marshall, singer Leah Wollenberg, and mandolinist and singer (and Lewis’s longtime partner) Tom Rozum. And yes, the effect of the whole is indeed greater than the sum of those impressive parts.
Given the diversity of the material (inspired by everything from the Carter Family and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to a small mammal in the High Sierra), the consistently superior level of musicianship, and the emotional range, it’s impossible to pick out only one or two favorite performances. They change for me every time I listen to the CD. High on my list at the moment are the interweaving of Tuttle and Lewis’s voices and acoustic guitars on “The Lonely One,” the palpable, profoundly seasoned comradeship of Kallick and Lewis on “Old Friend,” and the ethereal wistfulness of the two tracks featuring Nina Gerber (longtime accompanist of the late Kate Wolf and current duo partner of singer Chris Webster) on electric guitar—Sorrels’s “My Last Go-Round” and the album closer “This Is Our Home,” a poignant, shimmering “lament for the planet.”
When Lewis was ready to release and Laurie Lewis last March and COVID-19 hit, she assumed she’d have to stay off the road for a few months. It’s been seven, and counting. Scheduled to appear at the 20th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in early October, Lewis instead made filmed appearances in the beautifully produced Let the Music Play On, HSB’s three-hour movie, streamed in lieu of the cancelled festival. No one really knows when we’ll get back to the inimitable experience of enjoying music live and in person whenever we want. In the meantime, grant yourself the pleasures of the hardly strictly bluegrass duets gathered on and Laurie Lewis.
Laurie Lewis: And Laurie Lewis (SMM-1014-CD)
And Laurie Lewis is a collaborative effort that pairs her with pickers and singers who have been a part of her musical landscape. Laurie describes the collection as “intimate conversations” with Nina Gerber, Tatiana Hargreaves, Barbara Higbie, Kathy Kallick, Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, Tom Rozum, Craig Smith, Molly Tuttle, and Leah Wollenberg. Material comes from a variety of sources including the Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers (she and Tom Rozum offer up a nice Monroe-inspired “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”), folk singer Rosalie Sorrels, and a hefty batch of Lewis originals. With Laurie as the common thread, the unique assemblage of artists effortlessly glide through a diversity of styles including old-time, bluegrass, blues, and folk. As with all of Laurie’s previous recordings, this one features musicianship and production values of the highest order. The accompanying booklet contains lyrics and commentary from Laurie on each track. Feeling that each musician’s instrument is an extension of themselves, there is a two-page description of the instruments used in the making of the project. Kudos to Tom Rozum for the cover illustration and to Lisa Berman for the graphically appealing layout and design.
Mercury News ~ By Andrew Gilbert
“I can’t stop listening to this CD these last few days. I’m looking for a word: prescient perhaps. It’s as if she knew I needed to hear this collection of songs right at this time. Of course, that’s incredibly selfish for me to say. She is reaching out to all of us.”
Some albums provide a snapshot of a musician at a particular instant in time, capturing the mood and feel of the moment. “And Laurie Lewis,” the latest release by the Berkeley bluegrass icon, works more like a time-lapse montage, distilling a thick web of friendships forged over a lifetime.
A series of duets with some of acoustic music’s most accomplished artists, it’s an intimate portrait of her musical family tree. The album’s striking cover art conveys the depth of the relationships with an image of the intertwined roots of a California live oak and California bay laurel, It was created by Lewis’ longtime musical partner Tom Rozum (the mandolinist is featured on a haunting version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” based on a recording by the Monroe Brothers).
“When I set out to make this album it took me a while to realize how deep the connections run,” says Lewis, 69, who earned a Grammy nomination for 1995’s “The Oak and the Laurel,” a duo album with Rozum. “Everyone is such an old friend or they are someone I’ve known almost since they were born. And they’re all West Coast people.”
In many ways “And Laurie Lewis” embodies the vital intergenerational nature of an acoustic scene that encompasses bluegrass, old-time music, jazz and kindred traditions. On the opening track “You Are My Flower” she’s joined by 27-year-old bluegrass star Molly Tuttle, a vocalist and guitarist she’s known and championed since her early teens.
“Molly was the perfect person for this traditional song I first heard on a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album,” Lewis says. “She’s a guitar goddess and she created such a beautiful blend vocally. She can just lay her voice on mine. It sounds as if she’s been listening to me her whole life,” which is pretty much the case. They also recorded “The Lonely One,” a beautiful ballad written by Emily Mann, a brilliant young banjo player, fiddler and vocalist who performs in the old-time duo Paper Wings. Much like with Tuttle, Lewis took Mann under her wing after meeting her as a young teen at the Big Sur Fiddle Camp.
The youth wave continues with two duets featuring fiddler and vocalist Tatiana Hargreaves, 24, who came into Lewis’ orbit at the age of 7 via Bluegrass at the Beach, a music camp on the Oregon coast. The Lewis originals explore divergent emotional terrain. Hargreaves evokes an anguished parent on “Mama Cry” while skittering exuberantly on “The Pika Song,” an affectionate ode to the frisky Sierra Nevada-dwelling rodent.
Their ties run deep. Hargreaves spent several years touring with Lewis and contributed some powerful fiddle work on her 2017 Grammy-nominated album “The Hazel and Alice Sessions.” It’s work that established Hargreaves as a creative force in bluegrass, a position she never anticipated before her stint with Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands.
“I never considered myself a bluegrass fiddler,” says Hargreaves, who’s on the music faculty at the University of North Carolina in Durham. “I was old-time. But in college Laurie called and recruited me for the Right Hands and she made me a bluegrass fiddler. Now I teach bluegrass fiddle at UNC. Somehow she knew I had it in me. Laurie is such an important figure connecting these different generations, and this album is such a great example of that.”
Not that the kids get all the attention on “and Laurie Lewis.” She tracked down a bevy of former bandmates for some of the album’s most memorable pieces, like a romping version of “Baby, That Would Sure Go Good” with bass master Todd Phillips and a glowing reunion with vocalist Kathy Kallick on Lewis’s “Old Friend.”
No piece better captures the breadth of Lewis’ music than Dick Oxtot’s “Ain’t Nobody Got the Blues Like Me,” a rollicking duet featuring another longtime friend, Barbara Higbie (on piano and vocals). Higbie was still a teenager in the mid-1970s when she started singing with Lewis in Oxtot’s traditional New Orleans-style Golden Age Jazz Band every weekend at The Point in Pt. Richmond, four sets a night. A banjo player, cornetist and singer, Oxtot was more than pleased to feature the talented young women.
“We were so lucky to be the youngsters on that scene,” Higbie says. “Everybody but us in that band was collecting Social Security. I played piano, Laurie played bass, and we sang a lot of duets. Even way back then her voice was a commanding force. She did a lot of big Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith blues, a real departure from bluegrass singing that showcased her voice in a different way.”
The sound is timeless, but Lewis also seems dialed into the anxiety-ridden zeitgeist on the album’s only a cappella track, the lament and clarion call for solidarity “Troubled Times.” With Leah Wollenberg joining Lewis on vocals, it’s an arresting performance that seems to speak directly to our sheltered-in-place moment, though she actually wrote the song years ago. Their rough-hewn harmonies evoke the struggles and resilience that have carried Americans through previous dark passages as they sing the refrain “We’ll face these troubled times and see them through.” Amen.
No Depression, April 7, 2020
While Lewis did not record an album till 1983, our paths crossed somewhere along the bluegrass line nearly a decade before. She first stood out as women were then rare in bluegrass (except for on the progressive West Coast), then as an outstanding guitarist, and rarer still, band leader. In the intervening years she became a staple on the circuit, and now a icon, an influence and inspiration to many younger women who have taken up the mantle. This not to say that Lewis has given up the ghost, not by a long shot. Billed as an album of duets (with Molly Tuttle, Mike Marshall, Tatiana Hargreaves, Barbara Higbie, and more), and Laurie Lewis is pure Lewis while also permitting friends to pay tribute to her.
Mixing originals with covers (all but one are by women), Lewis’ brilliance shines in her reverence and quiet understatement. Of particular interest is Rosalie Sorrels’ “My Last Go-Round,” a beautiful lullaby that pretty well encapsulates Sorrels’ troubadour life. Lewis continues that theme with the original “This Is Our Home” that closes the album, an introspective piece that’s as post-modern as any younger artist could muster. As the traditional “You Are My Flower” opens the album, these 13 duets constitute a retrospective song cycle of a different sort, one that traverses where she’s been and where’s she headed.
Hudson River Bluegrass Association, March 28, 2020
It’s Saturday, March 28, 2020, as I look out at the empty street. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo gives an update on the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. We are bombarded with hourly updates on a local, national and global scale. I sit down at my desk and absorb the magical elements in the CD cover: and Laurie Lewis.
I have known Laurie Lewis for many years, at least since the late 1980’s. I can also say that I have a pretty healthy collection of her recorded work in all of those years, and– get this– I can’t stop listening to this CD these last few days. I’m looking for a word: prescient perhaps. It’s as if she knew I needed to hear this collection of songs right at this time. Of course, that’s incredibly selfish for me to say. She is reaching out to all of us.
Artistry is not commonplace. I’m talking about the stuff that’s beyond just good pickin’ and singin’. I’m talking about how an artist, a writer and singer, grapples with her own feelings, her genre, her own station in life and processes all of this into a coherent musical message. This beautiful collection of songs transmits empathy, melancholy, intimacy and an embrace that one can only call love. With every listen, that emotional tsunami keeps getting stronger and stronger.
OK, for all bluegrassers wary of the touchy-feely, don’t take me wrong. Let me just name a few songs for you: You Are My Flower, Ain’t Nobody Got The Blues Like Me, Old Friend, O The Wind and Rain, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Troubled Times. Did I mention that all of the songs on this CD are duets? Laurie has teamed up with some long-time friends and associates for this recording. Here’s the great list of folks she has recruited: Nina Gerber, Tatiana Hargreaves, Barbara Higbie, Kathy Kallick, Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, Tom Rozum, Craig Smith, Molly Tuttle and Leah Wollenberg. There is so much good playing and singing here. I mean, sweet Jesus, Tatiana is a fiddler’s fiddler and when Nina Gerber plays electric guitar (you’ll think sometimes it is a pedal steel) the greater trochanter of my femur starts to turn into jelly.
So, I say you should have this CD in your collection today. Pour yourself a glass of wine, go for a hike with your headset or do whatever it is you like to do to give some space for this music. Free yourself, let the tears flow if they may. Laurie Lewis has been a creative and inspirational force in bluegrass and folk music for a long time. Let her reach out and touch you. The last song is called This Is Our Home. Boy, as I look out at the lonely street today, I feel that more than ever.
– Chris Brashear