Pioneering performer of bluegrass, Laurie Lewis took time out to discuss her career and her upcoming album with John Hilvert. Lewis and her band, The Right Hands will be headlining the third annual MountainGrass old time and bluegrass festival in Harrietville 20-22 November 2015.
Tell us a bit about your current recording projects.
We have one now that is “almost in the can”. Hopefully we’ll have it in our hot little hands by the time we fly to Australia. It’s called The Hazel and Alice Sessions. It covers the repertoire of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard . We delved into their repertoire. They were huge influences on me in my early days of playing. They did real breakthrough recordings in the 1960s as women singing and playing bluegrass.
I gather also you embarked on your musical career around about the age of 35.
Up to that point I had a semi-steady day job. I worked in a violin shop, and then ran my own shop for seven years. Then I decided I would make one album of my songs just to get them down. That was the beginning of everything for me. I felt more alive during that creative process than I ever had at work.
But you were on the local folk scene doing fiddle back-up, I understand.
I was always playing on the weekends. I was in bands and we would play in the San Francisco Bay area. But we wouldn’t tour and I never committed to doing it full-time until I made my first solo album. You can get that album from my website. It’s called Restless, Rambling Heart. I think it’s a pretty good album. It has stood the test of time.
You also do a compelling version of Kate Long’s ‘Who Will Watch the Home Place’
That song has been good to me. I heard Kate sing it at the Augusta Heritage Workshop in Elkins, WV. She sang it a cappella, just by herself. I was totally smitten with the song. I went up to her and said I just have to learn it. So I arranged it, the chords and four-part harmony with my band. It’s a song that touches so many people.
You have a diverse portfolio of recordings. Is this a reflection of your roaming interest or simply your broad taste in acoustic Americana? Is this designed to defy any branding of your musical career?
[Laughs] Record companies have had a little trouble with me sometimes. I don’t like to be put into a box. I’m lucky in that I pretty much get to write my own ticket and do what I want musically. I have enough of an audience that supports me. I can follow my passion and heart.
I understand you’re an accomplished record producer. Has this been an expression of freedom or is there a business plan underlying this, as well?
Well there’s business. I get paid. [laughs]. But I only do it with artists that I really connect with, and I think I can help realise their vision. It really takes over my life when I am doing it. I don’t have much left over for myself. I am willing to do that because I like the role, quite a bit. I enjoy it on all sorts of levels – the interaction with people, the different sort of inventiveness that I have to call on. I like to be able to share my expertise. I’ve been making recordings for 30-some years and I may as well share what I know. I’m there through the mastering process.
You also come across as a natural manager and community reach-out person. Where did that come from? You seem to be the main driver of some legendary groups, the Good Ol’ Persons, the Grant Street Band, the Bluebirds, and working with Ralph Stanley and Tim O’Brien for example.
I have certainly been a collaborator with these groups, I’m happy to say. I do have a lot of ideas and I am very lucky in that I get incredibly talented people to go along with me and help me realise them. I am good at listening and encouraging the people that I work with really use their artistic senses. I try not to shut anybody down.
Tell us about how you got to sing with Maria Muldaur and Linda Ronstadt as the Bluebirds back in 2005.
That was incredible. A fellow that puts together a bluegrass festival in Washington State was looking around for something special. He first talked to Maria Muldaur. He had this idea that Maria, Linda Ronstadt and I would make a great trio. I knew Maria. Maria was good friends with Linda. I had never met Linda. So we got it together and it was so much fun. It’s created great friendships between the three of us. We thoroughly enjoyed working together and doing that project.
You pioneered an all female bluegrass group, The Good Ol’ Persons. Can you tell me how that worked for you?
Good Ol’ Persons was definitely one of the first of all women bluegrass-ish bands in the mid-70s. It mostly started because we were all friends. We wanted to support each other and we got together for fun. The bluegrass scene was mostly men and we thought it would be really fun to be able to perform one good set of music at Paul’s Saloon, a bluegrass hangout in San Francisco. That really was the extent of our goal. When we went and played our one set of material on Jam night at Paul’s, the owner of the bar, Paul Lampert, hired us.
He saw it as a commercially attractive to have all these women on stage. It suited his place, because he had an all-woman staff of bartenders and waiters. So we took the job and worked really hard to develop a number of other sets of material. Back then you had to play four sets a night. It happened organically from that. Kathy Kallick was a founding member of the Good Ol’ Persons. Various members of the band left for various reasons such as poor health or moving away. After a while it wasn’t the same band. I decided I’d rather do something else, so I left the band as well. Eventually there was only one original member left and that was Kathy.
Are there any lessons from working in an all-girl bluegrass band compared with a mixed or all male band?
Women tend to want to process things more. It is easier to deal with some personal problems among (most) women than it is with men, because a lot of men just don’t talk about personal things. Women as a whole are more likely to want to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. We want to work it out. That makes a big difference.
Have you applied these insights in your current band?
I think I have been able to apply it. I understand it from the inside, the different dynamic between men and women and communication. I managed to get the men that I work with to communicate with me, maybe more deeply than they might if it was an all- male band. That keeps us together and happy.
Will you be doing any workshops at Harrietville?
We are doing some workshops. There is a harmony singing workshop for sure.
Anything you want to achieve while down under?
I want to see the country side and meet the folks. I want to experience some of the beaches. (laughs)
Organisers preparing for another successful MountainGrass
The third annual MountainGrass Festival promises to deliver a world class music event, building on the success of 2013 and 2014, which will see Harrietville buzzing with all things bluegrass and old time music on November 20-22, 2015.
Organising the MountainGrass Festival is the Australasian Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association Inc. (ABOTMA Inc.), established in April 2013 to continue on from the 25 year history of mountain style music in the town of Harrietville, Victoria. MountainGrass, last year, attracted hundreds of musicians from across the nation, Grammy nominated and award winning International artists, along with a crowd of passionate music fans from far and wide.
ABOTMA Vice-President Lachlan Davidson, also a member of the Golden Guitar winning bluegrass band the Davidson Brothers said “the 2015 event is already looking to follow on from the success of 2014. We have an outstanding line-up including local, national and 3 US acts and we’re seeing a growth in pre-sale tickets and local accommodation in town is filling up nicely”.
The Festival Committee is sincerely thankful for the expanding support of the Harrietville business community, Alpine Shire Council and the community of Harrietville that enabled a very successful event in 2014 which left a lot of attendees pre-booking to come back in 2015.
Headlining the festival in 2015, and visiting Australia for the first time direct from the West Coast of the USA, is Grammy award winning artist Laurie Lewis and The Right Hands featuring Tom Rozum, Patrick Sauber and Todd Phillips. Laurie is a two-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year, a fine fiddler, exceptional songwriter and known for a superb blend of folk, country and bluegrass.
Other US acts playing this year include old time band, the Orpheus Supertones, and returning due to popular demand is Chris Henry & The Hardcore Grass. This year Chris is bringing US banjo player Kyle Tuttle and has teamed up with Australian group One Up, Two Down to complete the band.
There is a fantastic host of local acts appearing in 2015 including Pete Denahy, The Kissin’ Cousins, Davidson Brothers, the Strzelecki Stringbusters, Paul Wookey, Bluegrass Parkway, Coolgrass and many more. Returning from New Zealand is The Pipi Pickers and we even have a surprise guest from Japan!
Pre-purchase your season tickets online now and save! 3-Day passes are currently $115, and include an annual ABOTMA membership. Full weekend tickets will be on sale at the door for $130. Day tickets are the same price whether bought online or at the door: $30 Friday night; $60 Saturday, $50 Sunday.
Tickets are now available online through IWannaTicket accessed via the MountainGrass website
Offering everything from concerts to instrument playing workshops, MountainGrass presents opportunity for players of all levels to jam at this friendly and interactive festival and those who don’t play can kick back and listen or indulge in the surrounding area. The program of venues, artist performance times, sessions and workshops will be available online at www.mountaingrass.com.au next week.