Laurie Lewis: Finding Her Voice in Others
by Kara Bachman
Bay-area singer, songwriter, fiddler, and guitarist Laurie Lewis not only has a complete and seemingly satisfying career as a musician, but this woman of bluegrass also has friends willing to step up and support her during the worst of times.
Just after Thanksgiving, Lewis was slated to appear at Freight and Salvage, the legendary Berkeley, Calif. venue that may very well serve as the epicenter of west coast roots. Things are now improving for the better, but what happened to Lewis is one of the greatest fears of every performer; she lost her voice.
“I’ve had an issue since July. I lost my singing voice due to paresis,” Lewis explained, of the dreaded condition that essentially amounts to partial paralysis of the vocal cords. “I could not sing for months.”
As a notable figure in the regional music scene for decades, she always does that yearly show. She came up with a solution that yielded something altogether new.
“I screwed up my courage, and I asked my friends if they would come and sing my songs,” Lewis said.
As it turns out, these friends are no slouches. They’re some of the best-known names of the genre. Molly Tuttle showed up for Lewis. Kate Brislin and Jody Stecher did, too. Kathy Kallick participated, as did Richard Brandenburg, the T Sisters, and more. When you’ve got friends willing to chip in and lift your music on your behalf, you’ve come quite far.
“I am so grateful for my incredibly generous, talented friends. It was the best Laurie Lewis show ever, and I didn’t sing a note,” she laughed.
Speaking of friends, two friends Lewis made years ago are the women who have perhaps inspired her the most: Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. When she heard them, Lewis had already been into bluegrass for years, having had the flame ignited by acts such as The Greenbriar Boys and The Dillards. She listened to female performers such as Emmylou Harris, but it wasn’t until she heard Dickens and Gerrard that she found her inspiration.
“It was the first time I’d heard women singing what I call ‘real’ bluegrass,” Lewis said. She liked them so much, and she’d record their stuff as covers. “I wanted raw, visceral vocals with an edge, so I became enamored of them.”
“Later on, I got to get to know Hazel and Alice as people,” Lewis said. “I met Hazel first at a fest…we shared the stage…I’m a pretty shy person; I think it took me a long time to feel comfortable around her, though. It wasn’t her fault; it was just a feeling of …maybe I don’t belong here.”
Lewis was wrong in that initial impression.
“As for Alice, I wrote to her and said, ‘I think you should do an album of original music, and I think I should produce it.’ We worked very closely on that, and after working on that together, we got close,” Lewis explained.
That 2013 record was called Bittersweet.
More recently, Lewis has released two albums. In March 2020, was And Laurie Lewis, a collection of duets with various west coast musicians. November 2021 brought Freight ‘98, a live show recorded at Freight and Salvage back in 1998 but never released. Long lost to Lewis’s files, the recording of this gig resurfaced when the Southern Folklife Collection of the University of North Carolina in Durham approached Lewis. “They wanted my archives,” she said, “and while I was boxing up so much material, I ran across these CDs. I popped it in [the CD player], and I was like, ‘this is good stuff.’”
Bluegrass has always appealed to Lewis because it matches her interest in organic things.
“I have always been very lyric-driven, and I pay attention to lyrics,” she explained. “I love all the natural imagery in bluegrass songs.”
She said the creators of bluegrass are traditional, “rural people,” so there are “lots of natural similes and metaphors.” Plus, she loves the “lightweightness” of acoustic instrumentation.
I love the interweaving of the percussiveness of the mandolin and the fluidity of the fiddle,” she said. “The whole thing…it’s just a great template to work within as a writer. It’s a loose weave of sounds.”
Many musicians have recorded Lewis’s songs, but “this is never a goal,” she said.
“I write songs for myself,” Lewis said. “I don’t seem to have a bone in my body that is out there selling a song. But I do sell it to the audience when I perform it.”