Not to point fingers, but when the talk rolls around to genres of music that are more tradition-bound than others, bluegrass often comes up. So it’s not every day you get to talk to someone like Laurie Lewis, an innovator to be sure, award-winning fiddlist, acoustic bassist, singer/songwriter who came of age in the fertile and pluralistic bluegrass scene of the Bay Area in the late ’60s and early ’70s. While paying the deepest of respects to her forebears, Lewis has broadened the lyrical palette of a most traditional style of country music that grew out of the rural South in the 1940s.
It’s a style whose lyrical content, understandably, originally focused on themes pertinent to rural life: agriculture, home life, mountains and the extended family. Traditional bluegrass is suffused in observations of the natural world; Lewis’ lyrics incorporate similar themes but, given the day we live in, suggest that harmony with nature is something we still have to work at. In a mournful a cappella from her most recent CD, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, she sings: “As I walk down the hall where the woods used to stand/Concrete at my feet, brick walls at every hand/And over my head, steel girders so strong/Where I first felt the spell of the wood thrush’s song.” It’s the physical environment that informed early bluegrass, reconsidered for the modern age; a “passionate interest in the possibilities of human dialogue with and about nature,” as Rounder Records describes it.
“That’s a huge source of inspiration for my bluegrass writing—observing the natural world,” Lewis says from her Berkeley home. “[That tradition] comes from a rural people who were very involved with nature and wrote about what they saw every day—weather, storms, birds, trees. And that’s something I’ve always been drawn to. I try to live as much I can. Which can be difficult when you’re a touring musician, always on the road and flying in airplanes, but I try to stay in touch and in tune with the natural world as much as possible.”
As for being a female bandleader in a genre which traditionally relegates its female musicians to unobtrusive rhythm parts and the occasional gospel vocal, it was news to Lewis that the all-comers nature of the Bay Area scene wasn’t the norm everywhere.
“The area I come out of is so open,” she explains. “The bluegrass scene here has so many female singers and players, it never occurred to me that it wasn’t the same in other places. It wasn’t until I started to tour and get out of the Bay Area that I realized it was unusual.”
If any hard-liners are bent on drawing lines around what is and isn’t traditional, Lewis doesn’t seem concerned about it.
“I love traditional bluegrass,” she says frankly. “But I have so many other styles vying for my attention, I’d be untrue to myself if I just played traditional bluegrass.”
Laurie Lewis will appear in concert with mandolinist Tom Rozum and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Muschke on Wednesday, Dec. 8 at the University Theatre. Tickets are $10 for students and Missoula Folklore Society members; $11 advance for general public.