Birds and Rattlesnakes and Bluegrass Music: An Interview with Laurie Lewis
Mar 02, 2009

Oisín Mac Diarmada: Moving with the Music
Mar 01, 2009

Liz Doherty: Donegal to Cape Breton
Dec 01, 2008

Benton Flippen: The Essence of Old Time
Dec 01, 2008

Fabrice Martinez: Fiddling from the Open Road
Sep 01, 2008

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Birds and Rattlesnakes and Bluegrass Music: An Interview with Laurie Lewis
David "Gus" Garelick
On May 12, 2008, noted fiddler, singer, and songwriter Laurie Lewis appeared on my radio program, The Fiddling Zone, on KRCB Radio in Santa Rosa, California. I have been featuring traditional musicians of all types for over nine years on this program. Laurie had appeared on an earlier version of the show, in 2000, although I have actually known her much longer and had seen her at numerous fiddle contests, bluegrass jams, and festivals since the early ’70s. It was a great pleasure seeing her again at a concert in San Francisco earlier in the year, prior to the release of her new CD, Live! Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands. I asked her to come back to “the Zone” and, surprisingly, she was most eager to return. It was a wonderful reacquaintance. I had prepared a list with scores of questions, but by the time we started talking, it was just a casual and friendly conversation, interspersed with musical selections from the new album. In the end, I promised I would try to get her back on the show a little more often.

I can’t believe it’s been eight years since you were on the show –– June 29, 2000.

Well, I come back every eight years, whether you want me or not. In 2016, I’ll be here knocking on your door.

I’ll have to let you in. Eight years. That’s a lot of water under the bridge, or maybe I should say lots of miles. You are constantly traveling.

Yeah, that’s true. For instance, this next weekend, I’ll be in Hollywood, Florida. And then I fly back to California to play at the Strawberry Festival, near Yosemite. Then, I fly back to the East Coast to a festival in Connecticut. After that, I’m back here in Sonoma County, doing a concert with Nina Gerber, Chad Manning, and Paul Knight.

Well it’s work hard, play hard. And when you have the time, you take these incredible river trips around California and Oregon.

We make sure we make time for those. Tom Rozum and I do raft trips on the Tuolomne in California, usually about three days. And sometimes we go up to Oregon to raft on the Rogue River. During the day, we’re on the raft, swimming and having a great time on the river. Then at night, we sit around a campfire and play music. It’s great fun, and there are just a lot of places you can only see by way of rafting. You get totally away from any sort of mechanized sound –– you’re out there with the birds, the rattlesnakes, and the river. I love it…

What is it about bluegrass music that attracted you in the beginning?

That’s a hard one. So many things. One of the things I liked was the natural imagery in the lyrics. I can really relate to that. I am kind of a nature girl. Even though I grew up in Berkeley, I kind of lived in Tilden Park. I was interested in nature, and bluegrass appealed to me. But so did the harmonies, that hair-raising bluegrass sound. It’s kind of gone out of vogue today in modern bluegrass.

You mean that “high, lonesome sound?”

Yeah. That was it. And the way the instruments work together. They all have their roles and it makes a really beautiful, textured fabric: the banjos with the roll going, the chop of the mandolin, the bass on the one and the three, the guitar making short, pointed comments, and the fiddle hovering over the whole thing ––

Kind of gluing it all together.

Exactly! I love it.

Was there any one group that really turned you on in the beginning?

Well, a few of them. The first bluegrass band I saw in the Bay Area was the Phantoms of the Opry, with Pat Enright on vocals and Paul Shelasky on fiddle. Pat’s singing really got to me, and I was lucky to play bass with the group before Pat moved to Nashville. And of course, I have to mention the “Kings” of California bluegrass: Vern Williams and Ray Park. There was nobody like them. And Vern had the most beautiful voice anywhere. It could just cut ––

It could break glass!

Well, let’s put it this way: this was not a singing style for the faint-hearted!

Let’s turn to your new CD. Why did you decide to do a live album?

Well, we recorded three nights in a row and it all sounded so good, we thought: “We’ve just got to put this out.” Besides, there’s something about a live album. This is the way we really sound, especially Craig Smith on banjo and Scott Huffman on guitar. They’re both such fluid, wonderful players, and they play different every night. We’ve got to capture that sound.

Doesn’t the adrenaline rush contribute something to that performance, the stress factor?

Yeah, and there are some real cliff-hangers on the album. But no one actually falls off.

Do you have a favorite cut?

That’s hard to say. Why don’t you play one of your favorites?

Well, we started the show with one of my favorites, “Texas Bluebonnets,” done so completely different from your original version on the Flying Fish album years ago. I liked that a lot. But another one I liked was “O My Malissa.” This is a song about Bill Monroe’s mother. It’s such an interesting perspective on bluegrass music history, I don’t think there’s another song like it. Well, Bill does write about his Uncle Pen, but Malissa was Pen’s sister and she was supposed to be a great fiddler, too. Nobody had ever mentioned this. How did you hear about it?

You know, I got interested in this from a biography about Bill Monroe, Can’t You Hear Me Callin?, by Richard Smith. The book talks about Bill’s growing up in Western Kentucky. Bill’s father was not wealthy, but he owned some property, and Bill’s mother was the daughter of a sharecropper. There was little or no music in the father’s family, but the Vandiver family had plenty of singers, dancers, and musicians. Apparently, Malissa Vandiver was a good fiddler, although her brother got all the credit!

Amazing story! Do you think there were any records of her playing?

Nothing recorded, but I heard a very interesting interview between Alice Gerrard and the Monroe Brothers –– Bill, Charlie, and Birch –– done at one of the Newport Folk Festivals in the ’60s, and recorded on Smithsonian Folkways Records. In the interview, all the brothers agree what a great fiddler their mother was. She had eight children and had to do chores all day long, every day. But she would keep her fiddle on the bed or sometimes out in the corn crib and grab it every now and then and play a tune or two. After the interview, Birch plays a fiddle tune he remembers his mother playing, which is the tune we use at the end of the song, “How Old Are you, Pretty Little Miss?” We try to play it just the way Birch played it, which is supposedly how his mother played it.

[FZ plays recording from Right Hands CD.]

The crowd is going wild at the end of that. Was that in Oregon?

Yes, in Corvallis. We had Tatiana Hargreaves playing fiddle with us. She’s twelve years old and an amazing old time fiddler.

Her older brother is Alex Hargreaves, and he’s pretty amazing, too.

I’m totally in love with his playing.

You know, we’re almost out of time.

I can’t believe we have to wait another eight years to do this again!

Well, maybe we can do better. What do you plan to work on before I see you again?

God, there’s so much. I have songs I need to finish. And I’d still love to do an album with Nina Gerber. And I’d love to do an album with some horn players. Jazz standards.

Back to your jazz roots.

I’d love it. And maybe even a fiddle album or an instrumental album. I don’t know if I have a lot to add to the world of fiddle music, but it would feel good.

When I first met you, you were only playing fiddle and we competed in contests, went to jam sessions, parties, and all that. You were also working in a fiddle shop. And then you joined the Good Ole Persons.

[In the earlier interview, in 2000, Laurie talked about the beginnings of The Good Ole Persons, one of the first all-women’s bluegrass bands in California, formed in the mid-’70s in San Francisco. Although most of the bluegrass bands around the country at that time were all male, Laurie found abundant female talent in the Bay Area and played fiddle and sang lead and harmony for several years in this popular band. She admitted that she didn’t really start writing her own songs until she heard guitarist Kathy Kallick performing some original songs in the Persons, and she began her career as a songwriter about that same time.]

When you started writing songs, you were spending less and less time playing fiddle. I noticed that and I really missed it. I think you’re a very good fiddler.

Well, thank you very much. I always tend to play guitar when I play my own music. I can supply the rhythm and Nina gets to fill in all around it. But one thing I like about the Right Hands is that I love playing fiddle with Craig Smith. When he plays his banjo, I feel like it just puts me exactly where I want to be. And that’s what I want to hear. In that band, I hardly ever play the guitar. I’m just the fiddle player.

I’d like to go out with one other song that I like a whole lot, from an earlier album. It’s called “The Singing Bird.” It has a wonderful fiddle part and wonderful lyrics. Did you write that?

No, not at all. I believe it’s an old Irish song. I first heard it from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem back when I was a teenager. But part of it always stayed in my head. Not even the main part. I think it was just a section where the Brothers hummed a kind of background chorus, a secondary melody. And years later, I thought of that melody and how it would make a pretty good fiddle tune on its own.

So, you rearranged the song to fit the secondary theme?

Yeah. I wanted to do something that sounded Irish and Appalachian at the same time.

And a song about a bird was something very special, too. You’ve covered birds in other songs, as well. You’re very partial to birds!

I did an entire album called Birdsong for the benefit of the Audubon Canyon Ranch, in Bolinas, California. In fact, there’s a possibility I may do a second Birdsong album, with some other musicians. Another benefit album.

Well, you’ve covered birds, trees, rivers, and nature. You said earlier that it was the natural images in bluegrass music that attracted you to the music. I guess we’ve come full circle. Let’s listen to “The Singing Bird.”

[FZ plays recording of “The Singing Bird,” from the True Stories CD.]


[For the full text of this interview, as well as transcriptions of “How Old Are You, Pretty Little Miss” and “The Singing Bird,” purchase the Spring 2009 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Gus Garelick produces The Fiddling Zone on KRCB Radio, in Santa Rosa, California. He is himself a fiddler, mandolin player, and music teacher. The Fiddling Zone is aired on alternate Monday nights and streamed on the KRCB website:]

Photo by Irene Young.