Skipping and Flying with Laurie Lewis

California Bluegrass Association Bluegrass Breakdown ~ By Brenda Hough

Laurie Lewis has plenty of reasons to be excited these days: she was awarded the 2011 Performer Award from the Folk-Alliance Far West and her Bill Monroe tribute album, Skippin’ and Flyin’ has just been released. Laurie has been one of the most influential singer-songwriter bluegrass band leaders in the Bay Area and she sat down to discuss her eventful year.

BH: We’re here with Laurie Lewis in her home in Berkeley to discuss her newest album that’s a tribute to Bill Monroe. I love the cover of the album with you in stylish suit and a cowboy hat “skipping and flying” and taking big leaps. Were you on a trampoline?

LL: No, I can jump pretty high, but I had to jump about 100 times. Irene Young is a great photographer and she got a bunch of wonderful pictures. But there could be a little something wrong with every one because of course you’re in the middle of flying through the air. So we picked that one. It was taken across the bay in the Marin Headlands. You get a lot of loft just from where it is.

BH: I thought it was a wonderful way to tie in with the title song with its “skipping and flying” in the chorus. Was this an adaptation of Bill’s “Molly and Tenbrooks?”

LL: I think it actually predates “Molly and Tenbrooks.” It’s called “Old Ten Broeck” which is the name of the horse. In the 1870s there was a big match race between Ten Broeck who was an unbeaten horse in the east and Molly McCarty who was unbeaten out in California. Molly had to take the train out to Churchill Downs. Some people say it was the first Kentucky Derby but I don’t think it was. It was a muddy track and she had just had a long train ride so she didn’t do very well in the race. She was ahead and then Ten Broeck passed her and she quit. In the song it says, “we’re going to bury ol’ Molly in a coffin ready made,” but she went on to win a more races. She had a bad day, but she didn’t die. It’s important to let people know that; it’s not really a sad song. It was the happening thing, it was the Super Bowl event of the day. I think the Carver Boys recorded a version called “Timbrook.” I think he was named after his owner who was Dutch. I learned it from Cousin Emmy on the Rainbow Quest TV show. How come no one sings the chorus? So I did a little research and worked up my own version of it.

BH: You have bluegrass elements in the songs but you’re not doing a Bill Monroe sing-a-thon. Please share how you chose the songs. Were you thinking Bill would have liked this or were you ‘channeling’ Bill?

LL: If you listen to somebody and studied his music as much as I have, you internalize it. When I was thinking about his centennial year, I thought of all the ways he has influenced my music and one of them is the mining of the old time songs, reworking them in his own style. I thought that’s something that I do, and I could do that too. Hence my version of “Molly and Tenbrooks” and “Fair Beauty Bright.” He took songs from the country music stars like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and he reworked those for his own. That’s what I’ve always tried to do and is one of the lessons I’ve taken to heart.

BH: Well, that’s the folk process and sometimes we forget that and a lot of people get excited and say that it’s not traditional. It’s not exactly the Bill or Earl did it, and I like what you say about it being each person’s interpretation.

LL: There are some great Bill Monroe songs, and it’s wonderful to hear them reenacted. It’s like a Civil War reenactment. I personally would rather hear the individual come through in the art. Bill felt that way too. There’s a famous quote from him telling Peter Rowan “now you have to sound like Pete Rowan.” Sound like yourself. Of course, how am I ever going to be able to imitate a man from Kentucky, I’m a woman from Berkeley.

BH: You’ve captured that sense of identity with what’s around me. I can relate to this, and the other song that pulls some of that relation to your surroundings is the “American Chestnuts” song. Can you talk about that one?

LL: Being a Californian, I had no idea that there were these enormous trees growing up and down the Appalachians up until the early 1900s. In National Geographic magazines, the very last picture is a flash from the past, and one had a guy standing in the midst of these trees, just like the redwoods. They towered around him and he looked like a really tiny guy. I started doing some research and I was just amazed. These were major food sources for squirrels and bears and critters and for the Native Americans. An Asian chestnut blight came over and it spread like wildfire. The Forestry Department sent out an order to cut down all the chestnut trees. They’re going to die; this blight is unstoppable. Save the lumber, cut the trees now. This may be a mistake, many of the trees may have developed a resistance, but who knows. Now there are people cross-breeding Asian chestnut trees and American trees and they have it down to 1/64th Chinese tree and the American chestnut trees are a lot bigger. So now they have blight resistance. But the trees they cut down were hundreds of years old, so it is going to be a long time before we see chestnut forests again.

BH: So they didn’t cut them down to build log cabins or violins. All because of a government directive. So all that wood was made into furniture.

LL: I stayed in a beautiful manor house in Virginia that was all chestnut. Chestnut paneling. It’s an interesting wood, it’s not highly figured. The trees made very good lumber but not spectacular looking. It’s almost like a boxwood. It’s very smooth-grained.

BH: You were joined by almost two different bands – do you have an East Coast and a West coast band? (Note: Laurie also commented that adding Chad allows her to shift to guitar and put more focus on her vocals)

LL: The Right Hands started out with three of us on the west coast and our two North Carolina buddies, Craig Smith and Scott Huffman. We were having a great time playing. But Craig doesn’t want to be on the road anymore and it’s too uncomfortable for a guy who is 6’4″ to fly around on planes in coach class. So we started playing with Patrick Sauber and Chad Manning out here. Todd started playing with Joan Baez so we found another wonderful bass player, Andrew Conklin. The recordings were done at that time when we were in flux. They’re all great musicians I enjoy playing with.

BH: Andrew was doing a great bass solo to one of the blues songs on the album.

LL: It’s “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues.” He does a great solo.

BH: And there’s also that great yodeling. How do you do that? You must teach people how to do that in your vocal classes.

LL: People ask me that all the time. I don’t really know how to teach yodeling except that you flip from your chest voice to your head voice. If you can’t find the break point, it’s hard to teach someone how to yodel. If you’ve been singing in a choir, you’ve been taught to disguise that break and make it all smooth. They’re the ones that have the hardest time relearning where that is. When I was a kid I tried to pretend I was Tarzan so I’ve always been able to do it.

BH: You’ve also got some other female vocalists on the record – Linda Ronstadt, Kathy Kallick, Dale Ann Bradley.

LL: Linda and I had been singing “Dreams” and we got together a band and played at Wintergrass with Maria Muldaur – the Bluebirds. She just loved that song, so when I decided to record it, I asked her to sing on it. She had such a good time, she said “what else can I do?” I hadn’t anticipated asking her to sing on “What’s Good For You” but there was Linda, and how can you say no? She just nailed that one, too.

Kathy and I had sung “Carter’s Blues” just sitting around at jam sessions for a number of years. And I thought that just feels so good. Nadine Landry, she’s with Foghorn String Band. She’s just great, she’s got a great megaphone voice. She’s got the right attitude for “I Don’t Care Anymore,” brassy and sassy.

BH: What about LewieToons?

LL: That’s my studio. I’m doing a lot of production work. I produced half of Nell Robinson’s first CD, Susie Glaze’s CD, and Ray Bierl’s, and recorded some of all of those here. I just did David Thom’s new CD and it should be out shortly. I recorded all of that here.

I produced an album for the Midcontinent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wisconsin. We recorded all of that here. I think that turned out really well. I’ve got plans for more. I engineer it, I don’t have all the outboard gear to mix it. I still prefer to take everything to a studio and pay a really good mixing engineer, so it isn’t an open-ended process.

BH: I also wanted to congratulate you on your Folk Alliance Award.

LL: Thank you. It was quite an honor. They gave me the “Best of the West” award for 2011 and they pick someone every year. A couple of years ago it was Joe Craven.

BH: Well it is well-deserved. I know you’ve gotten awards from the IBMA and I hope some will come for this new CD. I think there’s some wonderful things on it. I know folks will want to attend your release party on November 26th at the Freight if they are reading this before the event. Otherwise, be sure and check Laurie’s website www.laurielewis.com for her next appearance near your location.

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