.Laurie Lewis Loves Trees

Bluegrass pioneer performs 'concerts of gratitude' at Freight & Salvage

Laurie Lewis has played her post-Thanksgiving shows at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage for the past 20 years. “I call them my concerts of gratitude,” she said, speaking from her Berkeley home. “I use the evening to explore new things. Two years ago, I lost my voice for six months, so I asked my friends to come, learn a couple of my songs and sing them. I didn’t sing at all, but it was one of the best Laurie Lewis concerts ever, ’cause I felt so taken care of by my community.”

She continued, “This year, I’ll be playing songs from my new album, Trees. It’s not coming out until early next year, but I’ll have pre-release copies for sale. My friend, Sam Reider, will be there to play accordion and I’ll have other special guests along, that I can’t talk about right now.” 

With Kathy Kallick, Lewis was a founding member of Good Ol’ Persons, one of the first all-women bluegrass bands, a group with a progressive style that included jazz, folk, pop, swing, old-time music and more. She continued in that adventurous vein after leaving the Persons. Since beginning her own musical journey she’s released more than 20 albums, including The Hazel and Alice Sessions, nominated for a Best Bluegrass Album Grammy in 2017. Lewis is also a conservation activist, and her ecological concerns are evident in the music on Trees

“I love trees so much that I wanted to tie the title to trees in general,” Lewis said. “It might be confusing to people on the radio, since there are only two songs about trees on the album, including the gospel-like a cappella rendition of the title track. My musical partner, Tom Rozum, jokes that I’m a marketing genius, because I always do the wrong thing. This may be another example of that.”

She added, “Bluegrass is roots music, and people from all walks of life are drawn to it. I think there’s always been an agreement to leave politics out of it, but, from the early days, the music’s been wrapped up in natural imagery. It’s one of the things that attracted me, so I don’t shy away from commenting on ecological things. I sing about dams and animals becoming extinct, because of climate change. There’s not a whole lot of that in bluegrass, but I don’t shy away from it.” 

The original songs on Trees took shape slowly, over the past decade.

“I’m a little slow getting things out into the world,” Lewis said. “I’ve been writing all along, but my life is filled with other things. Sometimes I get an idea, write it down, or do a voice memo and won’t revisit it for six months. I don’t just throw stuff out there, I have to make sure it feels really right to me.”

“Because all gigs were canceled during the pandemic, I had a lot of alone time to concentrate on finishing songs,” she continued. “There were fewer distractions, but it didn’t affect the subject matter. There’s always been a loneliness and a longing in the songs, but it’s joyous to play them with people and work out parts. It fills my soul in a way that nothing else can.”

Lewis and her fellow musicians share a symbiosis.

“My bandmates—Brandon Godman, George Guthrie, and Hasee Ciaccio—are wonderfully talented musicians,” she said. “They’re not fearful of making suggestions, or grabbing hold of a song and saying, ‘How about this feel?’ I’m very collaborative. If I didn’t have people to play with, I’d probably play out very little.”

Trees includes seven Lewis originals and five covers that she said resonated with the album’s themes of loss and renewal. John Prine’s death from Covid was the impetus for “Why’d You Have to Break My Heart?” It’s a moving performance. Lewis sings the lament simply, backed by Guthrie’s fingerpicking.

Twenty years ago, Lewis played at the Strawberry Music Festival. After her set, Prine walked up to her and said, “Why’d you have to break my heart so early in the day?” Lewis carried the line in her head for 20 years. “I never used it in a song until he died,” she said.

“Just a Little Ways Down the Road” sounds like a bluegrass standard, with Godman’s fiddle and guest banjo player Patrick Sauber trading solos against a mid-tempo acoustic groove, while Lewis sings about the joys of walking through the forests and mountains. “Texas Wind” is a country love song. Lewis ornaments the melody with soft melismas, with Sauber and bass player Hasee Ciaccio singing harmonies on the chorus.

The covers include a country-meets-R&B take on John Hartford’s “Down on the Levee,” and “Hound Dog Blues,” a humorous song by Dixie and Tom T. Hall that opens with a quote from Hank Williams’ version of “Lovesick Blues.”

Lewis produced the album, using arrangements she worked out with her band.

“A few were finished in the studio, but most were well rehearsed before the recording,” she said. “I have a home studio, where I play fiddle, if that’s on a record, and do vocal overdubs, but most of the playing and singing is live in the recording session.”

“I thought this was going to be a band effort, but it turned out to be my album,” she added. “We’re working on a more collaborative project now. I have a number of songs in the can and I’m working on a few new ones. I don’t set out to write a bluegrass song, or a folky song, or a ‘hit.’ I like to be surprised and figure out how to get them in shape for a live performance after I write them. I have a backlog of things that I haven’t figured out how to perform, or what the instrumentation is going to be.”

For information on Lewis’ post-Thanksgiving CD release show, visit: secure.thefreight.org/13038/laurie-lewis. For more on Lewis and her career: laurielewis.com.

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