Laurie Lewis’ new CD, SKIPPIN’ AND FLYIN’, is a personal tribute to the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, and mixes songs from the bluegrass repertoire and contemporary writers and Lewis’ originals. In turns lively, exciting, deep and heartfelt, the songs feature Lewis’ expressive vocals and instrumentation by GRAMMY Award-winning bassist Todd Phillips, the legendary Craig Smith on banjo, and mandolinist/vocalist Tom Rozum. Linda Ronstadt is among the special guests.
“Bill Monroe was not a follower of styles but steadfastly played his singular music through the good times and the tough, inspiring me with his example to be free to explore my own musical path. Performed with a ‘traditional’ bluegrass band (fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass), all of the harmony singing stems directly from the school of Bill Monroe. This collection is an installment on those student loans and a warm thank-you to Big Mon.” – Laurie Lewis (from the CD liner notes)
Recorded at LewieToons Studio, Berkeley, CA. Engineer: Laurie Lewis
Bay Records, Berkeley, CA. Engineer: Bob Shumaker
Tomland, Pacheco, CA. Engineer: Tom Size
Mixed at The Rec Room, Nashville, TN. Engineer: Ben Surratt
Mastered by Ken Lee at Ken Lee Mastering, Oakland, CA
Photos: Irene Young
Old Ten Broeck * What’s Good For You * The Pharaoh’s Daughter * Hartfordtown 1944 * Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues * I Don’t Care Anymore * A Lonesome Road * Dreams * American Chestnuts * Carter’s Blues * Fair Beauty Bright * Blue Moon of Kentucky * I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow * Going Away
John Lupton ~ Singout! 11/24/12
Though virtually unknown east of the Mississippi until the mid-1980s, the past three decades have seen Laurie Lewis establish herself as one of the leading lights of American acoustic music, a genuine national treasure. Though best known for the bluegrass she’s performed with her various bands over the years (Grant Street, the Bluegrass Pals, the Right Hands) as well as on solo projects, she’s also branched out into country, swing, blues and anything else that highlights her sweet-yet-earthy voice and elemental fiddle playing. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that if the “Americana” format wasn’t invented for her, it should have been.
Released last year, this is her personal tribute to and remembrance of Bill Monroe in the centennial year of his birth. Like countless others she found inspiration not only in his music, but in the man himself, and it’s no coincidence the album photography features her dressed to the nines, Blue Grass Boy style, circa 1950s – right down to the crisp, pristine Stetson. There are, of course, Monroe tunes – three of them, in fact: “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”; “Old Ten Broeck” (a traditional tune Monroe worked up as “Molly And Ten Brooks”; and “A Lonesome Road”, associated with Monroe, though written by Joe Earle Stuart.
She also gives nods to the people before and after Monroe without whom bluegrass would not have become what it is, the Carter Family (“Carter’s Blues”), Jimmie Rodgers (“Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues”) and Flatt and Scruggs (“What’s Good For You”). Her own originals like “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” and “American Chestnuts” are worthy additions, but perhaps the most attention-grabbing track is contemporary singer-songwriter Mark Erelli’s “Hartfordtown 1944”, about a tragic circus fire. All exquisitely arranged and performed, this is Laurie Lewis as good as she’s ever been.
Jack Bernhardt ~ News-Observer, Durham, NC 11/7/11
Two-time Female Vocalist of the Year Laurie Lewis is not your typical bluegrass star. Raised in California’s left-liberal Bay Area, Lewis tends to favor songs that promote social justice and champion environmental concerns.
And while her voice is more folk/Americana than Kentucky high lonesome, Lewis is, gloriously, a bluegrass fiddler, songwriter, singer, and bandleader, whose roots are planted firmly in soil lovingly tilled by the “Father of Bluegrass,” Bill Monroe.
The CD’s title is taken from a verse of “Old Ten Broeck,” a Monroe classic that he recorded under the title, “Molly and Tenbrooks,” and which celebrates a race between the two champion horses on July 4, 1878. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Monroe’s birth in 1911, this bluegrass favorite kicks off 14 tracks which, Lewis writes in the liner notes, are “drawn from the same wellsprings” that informed Monroe’s muse.
With first-rate musicians, including Tar Heel superpickers Craig Smith on banjo and Scott Huffman on guitar, Lewis covers plenty of ground with engaging covers and thoughtful originals. Covers include the Flatt and Scruggs pronouncement on gender equity “What’s Good for You (Should be All Right for Me),” Tompall Glaser’s “I Don’t Care Anymore,” the old-time smiler “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues” (to which Lewis adds a verse and some fine yodeling), and Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Lewis’ “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” celebrates the woman who disobeyed her father and saved the life of Moses. And with “American Chestnuts,” she laments the near extinction of “these once-plentiful and beneficent beings.”
Lewis leaves us with the contemplative “Going Away,” a song written by the late hobo/entertainer U. Utah Phillips, who rode the rails as comfortably as most of us ride in cars: “Is that the moon I see, shining there in the west/Or just the headlight’s gleam, C&O Express?”
“A sweet, joyful birthday centennial celebration of the late, great bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, and the music he created… This album is traditionally-oriented, 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!”
Ken Morton, Jr. ~ Engine145 ~ Engine145.com
Some 2000 miles from the birthplace of bluegrass, a fiddle player named Laurie Lewis has been making her own brand of Northern California bluegrass for many years. She’s twice been named IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year and even taken home a Grammy for her work in the field. In this musical dedication to Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music, Lewis has collected a mix of important-to-her covers and originals that makes up a who’s who of writers and original performers. A peek through liner notes reveals names like Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, The Carter Family, Wanda Jackson, Del McCoury, Mother Maybelle Carter, Jimmie Rodgers and Wilma Lee Cooper.
The covers are inspired. On “A Lonesome Road” (written by Blue Grass Boy Joe Stuart and recorded by Monroe) Lewis sings the mournful lyrics in a matching sorrowful style… The Tompall Glaser-written “I Don’t Care Anymore” is a delicious relationship kiss off tune that shows off Lewis’ fiddle chops (editor’s note: Chad Manning plays fiddle on this cut). “Blue Moon of Kentucky” is another more than capable Monroe dedication where Tom Rozum plays some beautiful mandolin and Lewis finishes in a fantastic falsetto finish. A couple of singing angels also lend their vocals to the project as well. Linda Ronstadt sings harmony on the Flatt and Scruggs classic “What’s Good for You (Should Be Alright for Me)” and Del McCoury’s “Dreams.” Dale Ann Bradley adds harmony on the “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.”
Though the classic covers are superb, interestingly enough, it is the originals and modern tracks that stand out even more and make this album special. “Pharoh’s Daughter” is a thoughtful and introspective look into the adoptive mother of Moses who defied edict after edict and kept a baby who would change the world. The baritone that chimes in on the chorus gives the song an incredible vocal sense of depth. “Hartfordtown 1944” covers the true story of a tragic circus fire in Hartford that killed over 150 people. It’s told from a fascinating perspective of a child grounded at home, not able to attend “the greatest show on earth.” “American Chestnuts” is a rich instrumental mosaic about the plague that decimated the chestnut tree population across the eastern sea board. Lewis gives the trees a voice and personality-and more importantly, human relevance. “Each year we send up our silver shoots and we will rise again,” she sings eloquently.
Lewis set out to honor those that paved the way before her. By selecting songs that helped chart her own course and penning a couple tracks that help move the bluegrass road a little farther down the line, she’s done just that-and well.
Donald Teplyske ~ Country Standard Time
A Deep Bill Monroe Tribute
“I’ve been told that I have a tendency to occasionally write more than people want to read, given these days of shorter attention spans and such. So here is the capsule review: West coast bluegrass maven Laurie Lewis pays the ultimate tribute to Bill Monroe by exploring his roots and branches in ways that he may not have imagined. 5 stars; 9.5/10; 93.7/100; Essential listening.”
2011 has been deemed by the greater bluegrass community as ‘the year of Bill Monroe.’ In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Father of Bluegrass has been feted far and wide: tribute bands have performed and tribute albums and songs have been recorded and released, some very good and some simply bordering on exploitive. Even Garrison Keeler and his Prairie Home Companion friends are getting in on the act, taking the show on the road to Kentucky in November for an evening of Bill Monroe music and stories featuring several Blue Grass Boys.
The most impressive Bill Monroe tribute to arrive this autumn may also be the most understated. Nowhere on the cover of “Skippin’ and Flyin'” is Mr. Monroe mentioned or illustrated. Rather, Laurie Lewis appears in full-blown Blue Grass Boy regalia, dressed with the same precision of style and substance that has been her hallmark for the past several decades as one of bluegrass and acoustiblue music’s beautiful flowers.
Also unlike most of the previously released projects- and again, some of them have been quality albums assembled for the ‘right’ reasons- “Skippin’ and Flyin'” is not simply a collection of 10 or 15 Monroe tunes recorded by a contemporary band. Rather, “Skippin’ and Flyin'”goes to the heart of Mr. Monroe’s music, exploring its soul and his motivations and influences. This is an album that embraces elements of those Mr. Monroe himself recorded.
While Mr. Monroe didn’t follow any rules other than his own, it wasn’t unusual for him to record songs from folk, country, and mountain traditions. One of his substantial talents was for making those songs seem entirely new in his hands. At the same time, he would sometimes go back to his own catalogue and breathe fresh life into songs he recorded many years previously. Mr. Monroe also had a talent for identifying and recording songs from contemporary writers. From all I’ve learned, he had affection for the blues and brought disparate rhythms into his music, making it all work through his intense vision of what was right for his music. Of course, he also wrote songs- great songs, ‘true songs,’ songs that will last.
The above also clearly describes Laurie Lewis’ beautiful project, “Skippin’ and Flyin'”. As she writes in her detailed, insightful, and very personal liner notes, “Bill Monroe was not a follower of styles but steadfastly played his singular music through the good times and the tough, inspiring me with his example to be free to explore my own musical path. Almost all of the songs here are performed with a ‘traditional’ bluegrass band: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass. All of the harmony singing stems directly from the school of Bill Monroe.”
Laurie Lewis is no newcomer to bluegrass music, having played almost every festival there is and having recorded excellent albums over the years, “The Golden West” and “Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals” being just two. However, she has never narrowed her field and has recorded some of the finest folk-inspired music of the past three decades, among them her incredible collaborations with Tom Rozum “The Oak and the Laurel” and the under-heralded “Guest House.”
She has always been versatile, performing as a duo with Rozum or leading a full-fledged bluegrass band with equal effectiveness and charisma. As a musician, she is frequently called on to provide session fiddle and vocal performances and to augment an established group. In a one week period two years back I saw her filling in with Kathy Kallick- a frequent singing partner- in a Red Deer bluegrass setting and the next weekend filling in with Dave Alvin’s hard-hitting Guilty Women at Hardly Strictly.
She has at least one signature song, Who Will Watch the Home Place? Kate Long’s exceptional song that was awarded the IBMA’s Song of the Year award in 1994. She has also been awarded the same organization’s Female Vocalist of the Year award twice and has been nominated frequently.
“Skippin’ and Flyin'” takes its name from Old Ten Broeck, which opens this magnificent 55-minute album: “Old Ten Broeck is skippin’ and gone away, Old Ten Broeck is skippin’ and flyin’.”
Lewis has taken this instantly recognizable precursor to Molly and Tenbrooks, a song frequently performed by Bill Monroe, back to its roots in the music of The Carver Boys and Cousin Emmy while working in elements from Mike Seeger and Monroe. Thank goodness for artists, like Lewis, who believe in the value of song notes!
As she does throughout the album, Lewis doesn’t simply mimic what Bill Monroe did in 1947 and 1957; she goes deeper, exploring what he may have heard and been impacted by in earlier years. In doing so, she gets to the roots of Bill Monroe in ways that many other artists have not attempted in 2011.
She takes a very different tack with Blue Moon of Kentucky. It is almost as if Lewis is saying, ‘This is Monroe, and we’ll honour him by performing it as he did.” Lewis takes liberty with the chorus, switching up the ‘left me blue’ and ‘proved untrue’ lines, but otherwise maintains the spirit of the early, pre-Elvis Monroe recordings of the song, including an extended, mournful fiddle feature.
The final ‘Monroe’ song included on “Skippin’ and Flyin'” is also the lonesome-est. As recorded here by Lewis and her usual touring band (Rozum, Scott Huffman, Craig Smith, and Todd Phillips) A Lonesome Road, recorded by Monroe in 1957, is blue and bluesy and works nicely in tempo with the album’s mid-set flavour. A similar mood with a very different execution is found on Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues, a flirty tune Lewis learned from Wanda Jackson.
Songs from Del McCoury (Dreams) and Flatt & Scruggs are also included, I imagine because- as Lewis writes in the notes- “If Bill Monroe hadn’t come along, there probably wouldn’t have been Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, or any of the modern bluegrass bands you hear today.” (And, before shorts get twisted too tightly, she continues: “But there would have been and would be someone playing some sort of tradition-based string band music. And it would hold appeal for many people today, just as it has for generations.”)
So we have fresh interpretations of What’s Good For You (Should Be Alright for Me), as fine a justification for cheatin’ and hurtin’ as has been written, and I Don’t Care Anymore. Going back even further, Carter’s Blues (from the American tradition) and Fair Beauty Bright (from the British)- two ribbons well-mined by Monroe- are included. Tom Rozum’s mandola offerings on the latter tune are haunting and ideal.
On the contemporary front, Lewis offers stellar gems. Mark Erelli’s lyrically rich song of devastation Hartfordtown 1944 is given a full-blown bluegrass setting (and check out his version on 2006’s exceptional “Hope & Other Casualties,” the album that convinced me that Erelli is every bit as ‘good’ as the singer-songwriters you have heard). While Monroe never heard the song, one can imagine that he might have given it more than a passing nod.
I’ve often stated that everything I know and appreciate about religion has been learned through bluegrass songs, and Lewis continues my education withThe Pharaoh’s Daughter. Expanding on the story of Moses, Lewis tells of what became of his rescuer. In an entirely different manner, Lewis shares her admiration for lost giants of Appalachia; American Chestnuts is Lewis’s take on an ecological Rise Again, a promise that that which is lost will return.
I believe that leaves only two tracks unmentioned, Wilma Lee Cooper’s I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow and Going Away which comes from Utah Phillips. With Cooper’s passing last month, I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow serves then as a tribute to one of the leading ladies of country and bluegrass music and it is entirely appropriate that today’s first lady of bluegrass, Dale Ann Bradley, joins in on harmony.
Similarly, and yet entirely differently, Lewis acknowledges Phillips by performing his Going Away in a style that would have been out-of-place on a Monroe album but which is entirely sensible within the context of “Skippin’ and Flyin’.”
Fifteen hundred-plus words to analyze an album of 14-songs? There is something to be said for brevity, but in the case of “Skippin’ and Flyin'” fewer words wouldn’t do, at least for me. Better writers than I will be able to distil the essence of this artistic creation, but for me it took all these words to capture what I believe is a beautiful and landmark album.
Laurie Lewis has created many excellent albums, and may have recorded ‘better’ ones than this. But none have been more important or have impacted me more. By exploring Bill Monroe- his music, his tradition, his influences- in this manner she has paid him the ultimate tribute.
The bluegrass album of 2011? Perhaps not, but on my list with Dale Ann’s “Somewhere South of Crazy,” Blue Highway’s “Sounds of Home,” Junior Sisk’s “The Heart of a Song,” and Alison Krauss & Union Station’s “Paper Airplane.”
Andrew Gilbert ~ Berkeleyside
Berkeley’s musical blessings are bountiful, but I’m going to start this holiday season by giving thanks for Laurie Lewis.
Creatively ambitious and utterly unpretentious, steeped in tradition but doggedly progressive, Lewis is a gifted fiddler, deft guitarist, inspired songwriter and powerfully evocative singer. A creative force on the Bay Area bluegrass scene for decades, the long-time Berkeley resident has mentored several generations of brilliant young string players, while also honing an impressive body of evocative original songs (projects that she releases on her own label, Spruce and Maple Music).
Lewis showcases both sides of her musical life on her new album “Skippin’ and Flyin’,” a loving tribute to bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe on the 100th anniversary of his birth. She celebrates the album’s release Saturday at Freight & Salvage, where she’ll be joined by most of the album’s cast, including her long-time musical partner Tom Rozum on mandolin and vocals, fiddler Chad Manning, bassist Todd Phillips and Patrick Sauber on banjo.
Lewis explores several numbers indelibly linked to Monroe (“A Lonesome Road” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) but casts a much wider net, covering songs recorded by his antecedents (The Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers) and his musical progeny (Flatt and Scruggs). My favorite song is one of Lewis’s own devising, “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” a gorgeous ode to the biblical heroine who saved Moses and then promptly disappeared from the book of Exodus.
While the album features several illustrious guests – Linda Ronstadt, Kathy Kallick, Dale Ann Bradley and Nadine Landry all contribute harmony vocals – the most notable creative connection is between Lewis and Rozum. They started performing together in 1987 when he joined her band Grant Street, a talent-laden combo that boosted the careers of string experts like banjo player Tony Furtado and guitarist Scott Nygaard. But after a serious car wreck in Arizona in 1994, the sudden confrontation with mortality led Lewis and Rozum to focus on honing the duo act they’d long thought about pursuing.
“We felt like it was something we wanted to do, and knowing everything could be over at any time, we made it a priority,” Lewis says.
Released under both their names, their first post-crash album “The Oak and the Laurel” (Rounder) earned a 1996 Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album. Showcasing their restrained high lonesome harmonies, they explored classic old-time tunes by the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family and Peter Rowan with a cast of string stars including Mike Marshall, Nina Gerber and Darol Anger.
Keenly aware that each gig is a singular communion they’ve thrived in each other’s company ever since, whether performing with Lewis’s Bluegrass Pals, working in a duo format, interpreting bluegrass standards or playing Lewis’s originals. And that’s something to be very thankful for.