California Report: Laurie Lewis on Hartford Memorial Festival and more

Looking at the lineup for the 2019 edition of the John Hartford Memorial Festival, it may not seem that California is well represented. But in her first appearance at the Hartford Festival, Grammy Award-winning musician, producer, singer, songwriter, fiddler and guitarist Laurie Lewis can surely carry the torch. Laurie needs no introduction to most bluegrass fans, but if you’re one of the uninitiated, wander over to her website at laurielewis.com where you can purchase her music and learn how she literally learned bluegrass on the streets of San Francisco at the legendary Paul’s Saloon. Laurie has won IBMA awards for Song of the Year (1994), Recorded Event of the Year (1997), Album of the Year (1997) and Female Vocalist of the Year (1992, 1994). Her song, Swept Away, recorded by renowned bassist Missy Raines, and featuring Alison Brown, Becky Buller, Sierra Hull, and Molly Tuttle won the 2018 IBMA Recorded Event of the Year.

In addition to the Hartford Memorial Festival, Laurie has an upcoming tour, about which she was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

Hi Laurie, tell us about your upcoming schedule.

“The Right Hands will be playing at the John Hartford Festival on May 31 and June 1, and then heading up to beautiful Peninsula, Ohio, to play at the G.A.R. Hall on Sunday, June 3. Then back south to Lexington, Kentucky, to play on WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour on Monday, June 3. I’m looking forward to having all of Brandon Godman’s family in the audience there, cheering him on! The next day, June 4, we will take a detour to Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, where I will be giving a class on songwriting. Wednesday, June 5, we will be at the Station Inn in Nashville. The band is pretty wonderful: the aforementioned Brandon Godman on fiddle, long-time bandmate Patrick Sauber on banjo, and Haselden Ciaccio on bass. Everyone sings. Unfortunately, Tom Rozum won’t be with us on this tour, due to some health issues.”

Have you played the Hartford Memorial Festival before, and do you have any special material planned? 

“I have never played this festival before, but, being a longtime fan of John and his music, I jumped at the chance this year. We had tried to be there in past years, but our schedule never permitted until now. We’ve got a couple of John’s lesser-known gems that I am really looking forward to sharing with the folks there. One is Down on the Levee, which Tom and I learned years ago to sing on a memorial riverboat concert on the beautiful Julia Belle out of Louisville. The song never made it into regular rotation, but I think now it’s going to. Tom and I recorded John’s gorgeous Goodbye Waltz on the Right Hands’ CD, The Golden West. I’m looking forward to hearing it with twin fiddles.”

What do you think makes John so unique in the history of our music?

“John was so steeped in old time fiddle lore, such a lover of the deep roots and branches of the music, and through his popularity and unique platform, he spread the Gospel of the great old time songs and tunes. I remember opening a Smithsonian Magazine and reading an article about John’s search for the grave of early 20th century fiddler Ed Haley. He didn’t find it, but the article was a little glimpse into his obsession with the old master. John was a thinker, a ponderer, and incredibly entertaining at the same time. I love that John kept the memories alive of those who have passed on, by listing them on his recordings.”

Did you get to play with him?

“I never got the chance to play much with John. I only met him because I was pushed into it in about 1989 by my then-banjo-player Tony Furtado. We played the Beaver Valley Bluegrass Festival in Pennsylvania, and Tony insisted that I sing two of my fiddle-centric songs for John. I never would have done it if Tony hadn’t insisted, because I was pretty shy and timid. But I sang The Bear Song and Maple’s Lament for him, and John really responded. We became friends after that, though I confess that I was always too shy, and never spoke unless spoken to. We always exchanged CDs after that, and I like to think he actually listened to mine. I certainly listened to his. He signed the last CD he gave me, and before he inscribed it, he told me that he had recently realized that he had been spelling his name wrong all along. In his beautiful Spencerian script, which was starting to get shaky by then, he wrote, ‘For Laurie Lewis—Thanks for your music and your friendship. Jahn Heartferd'”

Playing WoodSongs should be fun, is there another guest? 

“Yes, we will be on the show with Nefesh Mountain, “the place where American Bluegrass and Old-time music meet with Jewish Heritage and tradition.” I haven’t heard them yet, and am really looking forward to that.”

How many times have you played the Station Inn?

“I have only rarely played the Station Inn, and the last time was years ago, as part of the Americana convention. I’m just really looking forward to playing that iconic club, which has been, and is, the site of so many great performances of music I love. It’s a special place.”

What other shows or festivals are you playing this summer?

“This year, I don’t have very many festivals booked, and am looking forward to having enough time to finish my new recording and replenish the well with time spent in the Sierra. Also, my mom is 93 years old, and I am enjoying spending time with her while I still can.”

Do you have any good hikes planned?

“I am impatiently waiting for the wonderful snow to melt in the high Sierra, so that I can get up above the timberline for some backpacking trips this summer. I have one trip planned for the end of June with my friend (and fantastic musician) Barbara Higbie, but we don’t know yet where we will be able to go. The late-season storms have changed everything, and there’s just no telling what it will be like that early in the season. Then Tom Rozum and I have two river rafting trips planned for July: a 6-day trip on the Rogue in southern Oregon and a 3-day trip on the Tuolumne here in California. I always look forward to these music river trips, which we have been doing for close to 30 years now.”

Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands will be playing the Hartford Stage Friday evening at 6:30 alongside The Special Consensus and Della Mae who both also have large California followings. If you are in the Lexington, Kentucky or Nashville areas, you’ll want to check out the shows listed above featuring her fine band, the Right Hands. You can purchase any or all of Laurie’s music at her website store.

Copy editing by Debbie Benrubi

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.