Grammy Award-winning musician Laurie Lewis is internationally renowned as a singer, songwriter, fiddler, bandleader, producer and educator. She was a founding member of the Good Ol’ Persons and the Grant Street String Band and has performed and recorded since 1986 with her musical partner, mandolinist Tom Rozum. Laurie has twice been voted “Female Vocalist of the Year” by the International Bluegrass Music Association and has won the respect and admiration of her peers.
Linda Ronstadt speaks for many when she says of Laurie: “Her voice is a rare combination of grit and grace, strength and delicacy. Her stories are always true.” A pioneering woman in bluegrass, Laurie has paved the way for many young women today, always guided by her own love of traditional music and the styles of her heroes that came before.At the same time, she has steadfastly followed her personal muse and remained open to new influences.
Despite “a botched run-in with the piano” at age seven, and several years of classical violin lessons starting at 12, Laurie’s musical passion was aroused not by a printed score, but by an earthier sound she found just down the street from her family’s home in Berkeley, California—at the annual Berkeley Folk Festival.
“At the Berkeley Folk Festival,” Laurie remembers, “you could hear all kinds of music, and it just really grabbed me. That was the first place I heard Doc Watson, the first place I heard Jean Ritchie, maybe the first bluegrass band I heard, the Greenbriar Boys. And then there was Jesse Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. It just totally busted my ears open and got me really excited about folk music.”
Inspired by the music she heard at the festival, Laurie started learning guitar and then bluegrass banjo. A friend took her to Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco, a bar that featured bluegrass music every night, and Laurie experienced a life-changing epiphany. “I saw fiddlers live,” she remembers, “and it knocked me out. I realized I could be a fiddler.
“It was really a different deal coming at bluegrass in the San Francisco Bay Area. All you had to do to be in was love the music and show up. There weren’t a lot of cutting contests; it was all about making music together, a focus on interdependency rather than individual prowess.”
Laurie was soon on stage at Paul’s playing bass for the Phantoms of the Opry. In 1974, she helped found an all-female bluegrass band called the Good Ol’ Persons. Next was a group called Old Friends, and in 1979, the Grant Street String Band. “That was the first band I really started taking a leadership role in,” she remembers.
In 1980, deeply embedded in the Bay Area bluegrass community, Laurie opened a shop called Marin Violin and ran it full time for eight years before the pull to make a solo record became too strong to ignore. Plus, she had begun writing songs, inspired by songwriters ranging from Jean Ritchie and John Prine to Hoagy Carmichael and Chuck Berry. “I wrote my first song that actually held together and was singable in about 1975,” she says, “but I’d say that my songwriting probably started ‘kicking in,’ such as it is, in about the late 70s and early 80s.”
“If I just do this one recording,” she thought, “I’ll get my songs out the way I hear them in my head, and then I can go back to my violin shop. What happened instead was I just felt so much more alive and so much happier in the recording studio and working on my music than I did in my violin shop, that I finished my album, sold the shop, and never looked back.” It was an artistic reawakening, and from that point forward, Laurie would make her living solely from playing music.
Her solo debut,Restless Rambling Heart, co-produced with Tim O’Brien and released on Flying Fish Records in 1986, featured seven of Laurie’s original songs. The release of that album sparked interest in Laurie as a performing songwriter and bluegrass bandleader, paving the way for a career as a touring musician.
Since that debut in 1986, Laurie has recorded nearly 20 albums in a number of musical formats for such labels as Flying Fish, Rounder, Hightone, Sugar Hill, Kaleidoscope and her own label, Spruce & Maple Music. Her latest album with her band the Right Hands (Tom Rozum, Chad Manning, Patrick Sauber and Andrew Conklin), The Hazel and Alice Sessions, was nominated for the “Best Bluegrass Recording” Grammy in 2017.
Also in 1986, Laurie started performing and recording with the gifted mandolinist and singer, Tom Rozum. Their musical collaboration has now spanned more than three decades. “A huge part of my music,” Laurie says, “is knowing that I have a partner and a voice like that to sing the harmonies. A lot of songs I write I imagine what the harmonies are, and I’ll actually change melodies so it’s easy to incorporate Tom’s voice in what’s going on.
“And he’s really important in terms of arranging. We tend to come up with arrangements together. He’s just got such a free-form musicality. It’s not like, ‘Oh, bluegrass sounds like this, and this sounds like that.’ He’s just very musical, and not in a particular genre, which I think suits me really well because that’s the way I write.”
Producing has become an increasingly important part of Laurie’s work in music. “I love being able to help people realize their visions,” she says, “and to utilize the skills I have picked up over the years helping others.” In addition to her own recordings, she has served as producer on 14 records and counting, starting with Scott Nygaard’s acclaimed guitar instrumental album No Hurry in 1989.
In 1999, she began working with Hot Rize guitarist Charles Sawtelle and upon his death she completed the album he had started, Music from Rancho de Ville. In 2012, Laurie jumped at the chance to produce an album for one of her musical heroes, Alice Gerrard, for Alice’s first-ever CD of all-original material. In recent years, Laurie has produced albums by several young Bay Area musicians, including Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman, American Nomad and The T Sisters.
Laurie is also a committed music educator, teaching at prestigious camps, festivals and workshops in the U.S. and Canada. “I’ve taught fiddle, songwriting, vocal styles and harmony singing for many years,” she says. “I’ve organized and run camps: Bluegrass Week at Augusta Heritage Center for 10 years, and Bluegrass at the Beach in Oregon for 14.” She has also taught at the Telluride Bluegrass Academy (CO), Puget Sound Guitar Workshop (WA), Swannanoa Gathering (NC), California Bluegrass Association Music Camp (CA), Walker Creek (CA) and RockyGrass Academy (CO), among others.
The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) in Nashville has bestowed several awards upon Laurie, including Female Vocalist of the Year (twice); Song of the Year for her recording of “Who Will Watch the Home Place”; and shared awards for Album of the Year for True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe and Recorded Event of the Year for True Life Blues and Follow Me Back to the Fold: A Tribute to Women in Bluegrass.
Though her music transcends the formal limitations of style and genre, Laurie Lewis still sees herself as a bluegrass musician. “I’ve always thought that bluegrass was basically a singer-songwriter with string band,” she explains. “Think Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, Lester Flatt, etc. I like to think that I fit that description and trajectory of the music rather well. I realize that not many ‘traditionalists’ would put me in that camp, and I don’t really care.
“The good thing is I’m able to express myself in a way that sounds like me, and people either like it or not. I like to do what I do, and it fits comfortably in the bluegrass camp in my head. I don’t care what other people call it.”