At a recent performance at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, musician and producer Laurie Lewis introduced her song “The Crooked Miles,” about the twists fate can take, this way: “It’s what happens in life. And I’m so glad to be here right now. And if it weren’t for all those crooked miles, I might be somewhere else.”
Her explanation is simple yet profound — the same combination of qualities that defines her music.
Lewis is widely recognized for her contributions as a bluegrass artist. The International Bluegrass Music Association has twice named her Female Bluegrass Vocalist of the Year. Early in her career, she won the California Women’s Fiddling championships. And multiple bluegrass albums she’s played on have been nominated for Grammys — one of them, True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe, won Best Bluegrass Album in 1997.
But when pressed to describe the kind of music she plays, Lewis resists the obvious characterization. “As a bluegrass purist, I think a lot of what I do is not bluegrass,” she says. “I sometimes say that I’m a singer-songwriter with a string band.”
Reviewers over the years have gotten closer to capturing the essence of Lewis’ gift. Billboard once praised her ability to “successfully walk the high wire above esoteric country, combining elements of bluegrass and pure country to form her own seamless mix.” And the venerable folk-music magazine Sing Out! recently stated, “It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that if the ‘Americana’ format wasn’t invented for her, it should have been.”
You don’t have to know anything about the kind of music Lewis plays to be transported by it. At a live performance, the imagery of her lyrics and the warmth of her crystalline alto instantly connect the audience to the singer, to the other people in the room and to the natural world from which she draws much of her inspiration. And whether she’s strumming her guitar and singing solo, holding down the melody line in a four-part harmony, or stomping her stylish cowboy boots while sawing on her fiddle, Lewis tells stories in her songs that seem both personal and universal.
It’s a surprising skill set for a Northern California native. Lewis has lived in Berkeley “pretty much since I was 8 years old.” It was there, as a teenager, that she heard bluegrass music for the first time, at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival. And even though she’d trained on the classical violin for several years prior to the festival, she points to that event as her musical awakening: “That festival blew my ears wide open.”
The Berkeley Folk Music Festival ran from 1958 to 1970 and featured many prominent musicians from the “folk revival” of the late ’60s, including well-known folkies like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. But unlike other folk festivals of the time, the Berkeley festival cast a wide musical net that included traditional bluegrass from the likes of Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie, electronic rock artists like Jefferson Airplane and The Youngbloods, and roots and blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Big Mama Thornton.
The festival’s influence helped expand the American folk music genre. It also helped to define the adventurous musical and cultural milieu of the Bay Area, and had a profound effect on local artists like Lewis. That diversity continues to thrive today in the Bay Area, due in part to Lewis’ contribution to the scene and her continued focus on developing her own distinct musical voice as well as the talents of new artists.
In addition to putting out more albums that she can keep track of (“more than 20”), she’s been busy producing the music of emerging musicians like American Nomad and the T Sisters (who are featured in the accompanying video), as well as bluegrass legends like Charles Sawtelle and Alice Gerard.
Lewis has also been deeply involved for many years in teaching both children and adults. Every year she teaches at music camps around the country, an aspect of her musical trajectory that’s become as important to her as her own musical expression. “It’s just so great to watch them grow up and get deeper and deeper into the music and to feel like somehow you’re some little part of it,” she gushes proudly.
Laurie Lewis’ life has indeed taken some interesting twists and turns. But for all the decades of traveling, performing and recording with some of the most renowned musicians in the world, she’s always happy to be back home in Berkeley, surrounded by her instruments, her home recording studio and the rich and vital music community that she has helped to form here in the Bay Area.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and
Flora Hewlett Foundation. Support is also provided by the members of KQED.