One of the highlights of the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival every year takes place out of the sight of the public, at the cast-and-crew dinner and jam session on the Saturday night of the three-day free concert in Golden Gate Park, where Berkeley bluegrass bandleader Laurie Lewis presides over a roomful of the greatest musicians in the field.
With gracious good humor and the kind of feather-touch command only a woman could wield, Lewis will point her fiddle bow into the crowd and summon to the stage musicians far better known than herself: “Emmylou, come up and sing one.”
“It’s a private thing,” she says, “but it’s been incredible fun. It’s good because it’s become one of the things artists playing Hardly Strictly look forward to play. It’s too much fun, not that I don’t work my ass off.”
Shy and quiet
If the annual festival has thrown a welcome spotlight on the long-running, hardworking career of the 59-year-old Berkeley acoustic music aristocrat, her ash-blond hair gone all silvery, she has spent many years hiding her light under a bushel, a shy, quiet woman working the peripheries of the music world as a bluegrass fiddler and bandleader.
“I’m happy we can cultivate listenership large enough in most places to support us,” she says.
Lewis lives in a wood-paneled Arts and Crafts cottage built after the ’06 earthquake in flatland Berkeley that she bought with a modest inheritance when she was 22 years old. Antique musical instruments hang from her living room walls above a well-used upright piano. Her backyard is overgrown – too much time on the road last year. She teaches vocal students in her home when she isn’t touring, which is more than half the year.
Lewis and mandolinist Tom Rozum, her personal and musical partner, play more than 150 dates a year, small theaters and bluegrass festivals that once treated Lewis as a phenomenon simply because she was a female bandleader. Lewis, who grew up in Berkeley, was a founding member in the ’70s of an all-female bluegrass outfit called the Good Ol’ Persons. Over the course of more than 35 years of performing, Lewis has slowly established out a low-key but sure-footed place for herself in the world of music.
She won a Grammy for a 1997 tribute to Bill Monroe. She has twice been named female vocalist of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, but the folk music circles in which she travels are off the menu for most mainstream media. Her music lives on small community radio stations, college auditoriums, church halls and festival stages in small towns far outside the world of pop music. She and Rozum play music on river rafting trips.
In the small but intensely competitive realm of the Berkeley acoustic music scene, however, Laurie Lewis is an undisputed queen. In the ’60s, when Lewis attended Berkeley High School, Berkeley was one of the folk music capitals of the world. She first encountered acoustic music attending the annual Berkeley Folk Festival on the UC Berkeley campus, where giants from all over the land – Doc Watson, the Rev. Gary Davis, Mance Lipscomb, too many to mention – not only played the festival’s big concerts at the Greek Theater, but also could be found holding court informally in eucalyptus groves or benches by Sather Gate. In 1974, she worked up a song for Hoot Night at the Freight and Salvage, and she has played that club ever since.
But since joining the anointed repertory company at the annual free music festival hosted by billionaire bluegrass aficionado Warren Hellman, Lewis has been seen by more people in Golden Gate Park over the course of one weekend than she has her entire career in Bay Area bluegrass clubs. She sat in with six different acts during one recent festival, in addition to her own performance. The CD release party in November for her crystalline new record, “Blossoms,” drew turn-away crowds to the club’s new $13 million downtown Berkeley location, more than twice the size of the club’s previous capacity, a new level of box office for the hometown heroine and member of the Berkeley High School Hall of Fame.
Lewis served yeoman’s duty on the scene. Nobody has played the Freight more than Lewis. She has done benefits for every cranky cause and volunteer-run radio station in the area. She was arrested on the picket line outside KPFA several years ago. She organizes the annual Greenbelt Alliance fundraiser at Dunsmuir House.
Lewis views “Blossoms” as a departure, a folkie outing featuring her singing and playing in different configurations; a set of songs, not without bluegrass passages, but decidedly singer-songwriterly. Between recent recordings with her bluegrass band, the Right Hands, and duet recordings with Rozum, Lewis says “the solo stuff has been percolating a long time.”
She said a previous experience with a “departure” album resulted in the label ignoring the record. “They wanted me to be a bluegrass diva,” she says. “They buried it and I loved that album. But that shook my confidence as far as what you might say is my more personal music – and all my music is personal to me – but, at least, not all over the map, like ‘Blossoms.’ I did it, but a lot got in the way. Some of those things are 10 years old.”
She nevertheless used many of her bluegrass musicians on “Blossoms.” “I realized,” she says, “they’re such great musicians, it doesn’t matter what you played. I changed my attitude.”
Rozum moved to Berkeley 25 years ago for the music scene and already knew Lewis. “We had been listening to the same music before we met,” he said. “When I first met her, it seemed like I had known her a very long time.”
He said his role in the music changes almost song by song. On “Blossoms,” he appears as a sideman only. “I’ve been playing with Laurie for so long, we definitely have a strong working relationship,” he says. “When I’m singing the song, I’m like the king of the song.”
He grew flustered talking about their personal relationship, which he says they originally tried to keep secret. “But people figured it out,” he says. “We don’t talk about this. I don’t know why. Uh, Laurie?”
They take their music all over the world. They were leaving the following day for their annual tour of the Hawaiian Islands. They play a few dates next month in Europe. Rozum is taking computer graphics courses (he designs their CD covers already). They live the virtuous life of the proletariat artisans, highly respected and immensely accomplished figures in their field, the easy-money world of big-time bluegrass.
Banjo enthusiast Hellman’s annual clambake in the park may have created an updraft in acoustic music circles around town. The sparkling new home of the Freight and Salvage, plopped in the middle of downtown Berkeley’s culture gulch, is drawing larger crowds than the old place off San Pablo Avenue. Lewis and Rozum think their audience has doubled. She is truly a major star on the Freight stage. There probably have been very few months since that first Hoot night when Lewis’ name wasn’t on the club’s calendar.
Holding down such a crucial spotlight at the Hardly Strictly hardly hurt. “She was a Bay Area diamond,” says Hardly Strictly producer Dawn Holliday. “Now she’s more of a national diamond.”
She joined Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, the all-star aggregation originally assembled for the festival by Los Angeles rock musician Alvin, one of his occasional forays into acoustic folk music, another minor emergence from her bluegrass diva persona that lasted well beyond the initial festival appearance.
But the ringmaster job at the Hardly Strictly cast-and-crew dinner is hers. “She makes it a very good time,” says Holliday.
“What’s the word?” says Rozum. “Reincarnation. That’s it. If she comes back in the next life, she’d be a sheepdog.”
Lewis smiles and nods. “That’s probably true,” she says. “I’d be an Australian sheepdog. I have a natural talent for herding. I know a lot of people and I don’t step on people’s toes.”