Laurie Lewis’ new album, and Laurie Lewis, is as much a tribute to her strong relationships as it is to her musical talents. Featuring old friends like Kathy Kallick, Todd Phillips, and Tom Rozum, and younger collaborators like Tatiana Hargreaves, Molly Tuttle, and Leah Wollenberg, her embrace of great friends and great music is on full display. In the second half of our conversation, the IBMA Award-winning artist talks about her history in the Bay Area, her aspirations and challenges, and the things that give her joy.
BGS: Years ago, you and Kathy Kallick gave bluegrass a female voice. Were you conscious of breaking barriers at the time? And are you aware of what a model you are to women our age?
I appreciate that in hindsight. In the moment, we were just trying to make the best music we could make together, and we were both in a musical community in the Bay Area that didn’t have the barriers that the outside world had for women in bluegrass. We were doing what we wanted to do, what was fun for us. And not thinking that it was the most special thing or groundbreaking or ceiling-shattering stuff.
It was when I started performing more outside the Bay Area that I began to realize that what we had been doing was unusual. But at that point, I was just headstrong and I was just going to do what I wanted to do and not be stopped. I had disdain for festivals that would only book one girl bandleader at a festival, while they would book 12 male bandleaders at a festival. It pissed me off, but it didn’t stop me. And things are still a little bit like that — it’s amazing how slowly things change.
Did you set out to mentor young women?
Life for me just sort of unfolds, and I have to say I don’t set out to do these things in advance. I didn’t decide, “Now that I’m a wise older woman…” to mentor younger people. What actually started it was when younger people started showing up at music camps. I was a little afraid of that, because most music camps I had been doing were with adults. And I was a little afraid of my ability to relate to and coach young people.
When I was first asked to teach at a fiddle camp specifically for young people, I was sort of daunted by it. But the relationships that grew out of that camp have been incredibly important to me. Tatiana was there — she also went to Bluegrass at the Beach when she was like seven, that’s when we met. And Emily Mann, who wrote one of the songs I sang with Molly, was a preteen at that camp.
It has been a thrill to watch them blossom. It has been so gratifying to me. I don’t have children, and that’s a choice on my part, but I really appreciate them. I really enjoy hanging out with them and being able to have them in my life. I didn’t decide to focus on young women, but I suppose just because I am a woman, that has happened. People want role models – to see someone who’s like them. I am more like a young woman than I am like a teenage boy!
Any comments about being a role model?
Well, I feel very, very grateful that that’s happened. I’m really just trying to do the best I can do and play what’s in my heart and express myself in the best way I can, which seems to be through music. I am very gratified that people see me as a role model. I have a feeling of responsibility about that — so I better not fuck up.
Why is teaching important to you?
I get very excited teaching about things that excite me. Music excites me, and I want to spread the gospel. I am evangelistic about things like Chubby Wise’s fiddle playing, and how his solos are the bedrock of bluegrass fiddling. Singing harmonies, and how to work on making a vocal blend, are is endlessly fascinating to me, so I like a chance to talk about it and explore it with other people.
It also helps me, because when I am teaching I go back to the masters and I listen again to things maybe I haven’t listened to in 10 years. I always hear new things and I always learn myself. It keeps the music fresh for me in that way. It’s not just a one-way street. Teaching’s definitely a two-way street.
Do you want to talk about your shyness? You’ve said you are incredibly shy, and yet when you are on stage you fill auditoriums with your presence and your energy. How does that work?
I’ve certainly conquered a lot of my shyness. Shyness is really fear-based. You have to learn to face your fears. And in many, many instances, by facing them they just melt away. They are like a wraith. They just go away. I have learned that over the years. I used to be afraid to talk on the phone. It was so hard for me to call people up and just be a regular person on the phone and have a one-on-one conversation. I made myself do it. I made myself get on stage. I made myself open up to an audience. Sometimes it’s easier to open up to an audience than it is to open up to three people in the room with you. Strength in numbers when it comes to shyness.
I was really shy — and I’m not so shy any more. I still very seldom will talk to strangers. I told Tom yesterday that I was on a hike, and I met this young man and we talked a whole lot (this guy was named after Superman’s father, Jor-El). Tom said, “How did you start talking to him?” And I said, “I don’t know, it was a beautiful day….” and Tom said, “This is so unlike you.” It is unlike me that I would talk to a stranger, but we had a very great conversation. It turns out we were both born in Long Beach, we have a lot in common. … I’m still breaking down my barriers. By the time I’m 90 I’ll be talking to anybody and everybody. You won’t be able to shut me up.
How is today feeling for you? You have this great new album – and the world is upside down.
It’s frustrating, but — it’s just my own little personal problem. It’s really too bad, but so many people are suffering so much right now. I don’t have it in me to be all upset about it being a bad time for me. The album will still be here, the music will still be here when the virus has run its course. The virus is not going to kill my music.
How are you keeping your spirits up?
I go up into the hills and I walk. And right now it’s springtime, it is so beautiful. The world is just so gorgeous. There are wildflowers everywhere. If you can get out into nature, it is the most healing balm that I know of, and that’s what works for me. It makes the human problems seem so small, and it connects me to the universe. It takes me outside of myself.
What’s next for you?
I’m loving playing with the current Right Hands configuration: Brandon Godman on fiddle, Patrick Sauber on banjo and Haselden Ciaccio on bass (along with Tom). We’ve been planning a new album. We’ve got so many things we’re cooking up: new songs and old stuff that we’ve been doing. I feel like we need to have a record of how we sound together.
Do you have a special goal, something that you want to achieve that you haven’t done before?
I would really love it if other people would sing some of my songs and make them part of the folk tradition. That would thrill me more than anything. I would like to get interviewed by Terry Gross. That would be pretty great! Of course, because I’ve been doing this for so long I would like to get broader recognition, but I’m fine with things the way they are. But mostly I’m just very, very grateful that I get to do what I want to do. I can put together a life out of it and I can keep playing. I’m in my 70th year. I just feel lucky.
Photo credit: Jeff Fasano