Bluegrass musician Laurie Lewis will cap a long tour with a performance at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Saturday, Nov. 25. Raised mostly in Berkeley, multi-instrumentalist Lewis has been a bandleader and … more Sometimes it takes a good kick in the pants to bring you full circle.
For Berkeley singer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and educator Laurie Lewis, that kick came in the form of a rear-end run-in with a tractor-trailer on Interstate 5 while she and her band, the Right Hands, were driving north from Portland to Seattle in September. While the musicians and their instruments emerged miraculously unscathed (the same cannot be said for their vehicle), Lewis was left shaken but even more reflective on the many highs and lows along her own winding road to the ranks of the bluegrass elite.
That experience has inspired Lewis to take fans on a journey through her more-than-30-year career as as a bandleader and recording artist at her next show Saturday, Nov. 25, at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. Few would disagree that Lewis represents the Bay Area bluegrass scene on the world stage. With a Grammy Award and two International Bluegrass Music Association female vocalist of the year awards to her credit, as well as being a mainstay with a 15-year tenure at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Lewis has plenty to back that claim. But she wouldn’t be the first to tell anyone that — Lewis is humble, and speaks quietly and succinctly, with her pale blue eyes commanding earnest respect while also betraying an ageless, mischievous spark.
The 67-year-old began her musical journey in her father’s footsteps. Born in Torrance (Los Angeles County), Lewis moved with her family to Berkeley in 1959 when she was just 8 years old, after a detour to McKinney, Texas, where her father was a doctor and performed as a flautist in the Dallas Symphony.
But unlike her father’s, Lewis’ classical career was short-lived. “I started playing classical piano when I was 7. It didn’t last — at all,” she recalls. “The teacher realized I wasn’t reading music. I was just playing back what she showed me, so she quit playing for me at the lessons, at which point I quit learning.”
Her first foray into violin at age 12 yielded similar results. “My eyes would get beet red when I would try to read music. My parents thought I was allergic to rosin, so they found some synthetic rosin, but it didn’t make any difference. It was just that the strain of making dots on a page musical to me was too much. I think I’m allergic to sheet music,” she says, with a chuckle and a wink. Her appreciation of acoustic Americana music began in grade school. She was 14 when she began playing guitar and banjo, but admits it took several more years before she discovered that her violin could allow her access to the country/folk/bluegrass idiom. “When I finally put it together that I could play music I love on that instrument, it was really great,” she says, “but that wasn’t until I was in my 20s. … I loved bluegrass, but it’s a community music; it’s not something that you can get on your own — and there weren’t many other kids in Berkeley playing bluegrass.”
After dropping out of UC Berkeley in her fourth year without having declared a major, Lewis took a job as business manager of a dance company that paid enough to make ends meet and gave her free admission to live performances. The husband of the owner was a bluegrass enthusiast who helped her connect the dots of her musical experience and brought her to her first bluegrass jam at Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood. She described the city’s bluegrass scene of the ’70s as being “incredibly vibrant.”
“I’m so glad I fell in love with that music out here and was nurtured in this scene,” she recalled, “because there was no, or very little, sexism — none of this good ol’ boy stuff or ‘girls can’t play, girls can’t sing bluegrass, girls can’t do this, girls can’t do that.’” Lewis acknowledges, however, that the skyrocketing cost of living in the Bay Area has changed the playing field.
“The path I took doesn’t exist anymore. There’s such a bleeding of the artistic community out of the Bay Area because nobody can afford to just hang out and get by,” she says. “We used to play at Paul’s Saloon for $15 a night. You could work a couple nights a week and have enough to pay your rent and buy some food, and you were OK. You just absolutely cannot do that kind of thing anymore. And it seems like the clubs these days are still paying $15 a person.”
Lewis had hoped to play a song from each of her albums at the Freight gig, but there are too many. Plus, she wants to leave some time to feature her bandmates: longtime partner Tom Rozum on mandolin, Patrick Sauber on banjo, Brandon Godman on fiddle and Sam Grisman on bass.
“What inspires me to do it is that there’s always a song to be sung, and I simply love playing music with other people,” she says. “It’s incredibly gratifying to hear these songs come to life and to be a part of a working unit. I love the process.”