Recent California Bluegrass Association Lifetime Member and Laurie Lewis right hand man, Tom Rozum, discusses his album, playing with Laurie, personal challenges, life in the California music scene, and much more. Playing multiple instruments, Tom is the perfect complement to Laurie’s singing and is one of the most under-appreciated players in the bluegrass world. This interview is an update to Pete Wernick’s 1996 Bluegrass Unlimited interview with Tom.
Congratulations on your CBA Lifetime Member Award last year, Tom. Was that a surprise?
Yeah, I was blown away. I’ve never considered myself as part of any organization. The CBA folks were very kind, and I felt honored and quite moved.
That’s a great band, the Rozumatics, you’ve assembled. How would you describe that ensemble?
A gift from God. I didn’t assemble it. These ridiculously talented music phenoms—whom I’ve known since they were kids—asked me if they could be in my band and back me up singing. So I guess I’d describe it as ‘50s-era bluegrass and country music with atypical instrumentation. It features Tristan Clarridge, a five-time National fiddle champ on cello; Brittany Haas, a knock-your-socks-off Prairie Home Companion and Live from Here fiddle star; and Simon Chrisman, a hammered dulcimer virtuoso doubling on bass. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work, but from the very first song at our first rehearsal, I had a hard time wiping the smile off my face.
What’s your role in Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands?
I’ve always considered myself a team player, and with Laurie my main job is to help make her and her songs sound as good as I can. We’ve been singing together for so long now that harmonizing with her feels effortless. This particular band Laurie assembled has a more straight-ahead bluegrass sound, so I keep it pretty simple. And when the mood gets too heavy, I can offer a palate cleanser with a song or some unexpected quips.
Your off-the-cuff humor lightens things up on stage. Is that the Jethro Burns influence?
No one’s asked me that before, but I’ve been a huge Homer and Jethro fan ever since I first saw them on TV in the ‘60s. Jethro was a funny guy, but I actually was more a fan of Homer’s deadpan delivery. I still appreciate their wonderful combination of witty country humor and sophisticated instrumental prowess. Les Paul was like that too, you know, an incredible musician who didn’t seem to take himself too seriously.
Here Tom is injecting some fun at the beginning of Dear Old Dixie from the 1993 Live in Austin show featuring Alan Munde on banjo with Laurie, Tom, Sally Van Meter, Peter McLaughlin, Peter Rowan, and Cary Black.
How are you able to carry a strong and authentic Monroe sound alongside things like mariachi or Irving Berlin?
I learned to play mandolin on stage in Arizona in the mid-’70s, and the name of my first band says it all. It was called Summerdog Bluegrass Experience and Mariachi Swing Ensemble! We mostly played in clubs and dances, and the dance scene in Tucson was huge. So even a band like ours with bluegrass instrumentation got to play a lot. Our repertoire was divided fairly evenly between bluegrass, Western swing, and Norteño, with some old-time thrown in.
I believe to learn any style you need to first get the sound of the music in your head. Every day when I was growing up in Connecticut, my mom and I would watch the country performers on Jimmy Dean’s TV show. She always had the radio on, and on Sunday she listened religiously to Victor Zembruski’s polka music hour – Norteño is partly based on polkas and waltzes. And I heard a lot of swing music watching Saturday morning Warner Brothers cartoons. So in my first band, the only music that was really new to my ears was bluegrass, and that was 45 years ago.
When did you first learn to play fiddle, and who were you listening to at the time?
While attending Northeastern University in 1973, I was knocked out by the Holy Modal Rounders and the Highwoods String Band on the radio. I got a fiddle and started to teach myself. Old-time music was what I was into until I got kidnapped by a bluegrass band in Tucson when they found out I could sing.
Tom and Laurie playing twin fiddles in 1992 on Laurie’s song Texas Bluebonnets from 1992
What mandolin rhythm styles do you use?
With the Right Hands I mostly keep a pretty straight mando chop, probably mostly due to having Patrick Sauber on banjo. He’s a strong traditional player, has a Harley Davidson type of axe, knows how he wants to play, and by golly, he gets it! Years ago, when Laurie and I played a lot as a duo, there was a lot more freedom to experiment with more subtle textures and open space. Also, for many years Laurie and I played as a trio either with Todd Phillips or Todd Sickafoose, and it was fun to have a rhythmic musical conversation with either of those guys all the time. What I love about playing music is responding to in-the-moment situations with the other players, and each situation is different. It’s like a conversation in a bigger group; to make it work, everybody shouldn’t talk at the same time.
With the Rozumatics I mostly play guitar, and the music is more varied. The members all have big ears, are monster listeners, and have no problem following in any direction one might take us.
In retrospect, how did the auto accident affect you personally and musically?
That was 26 years ago, and it took years to recover, but both Laurie and I quickly realized that there are no promises or guarantees in this business, or in life. We feel very lucky to be part of this wonderful music community, and we consider performing not only a passion and a form of expression, but also a privilege that not everyone gets.
How has hearing loss affected your playing and singing?
At around the same time as the accident, acquiring Meniere’s disease left me with one ear that’s purely ornamental except as a generator for 24/7 ringing. Hearing well enough on stage can often be a struggle with a good set of ears, so it’s certainly been challenging. I’ve had to learn to focus on what I’m doing and conceptualize what the band is probably sounding like given what I do hear. On stage, I hope for a decent monitor mix and rely on the other band members’ sensitivity and their use of dynamics. I don’t chop my mando as loud as I used to, as I’m listening harder for the other players. Unfortunately, most jams are not much fun for me anymore, especially the bigger ones.
It seems that you play material with an underlying political message yet it’s not labeled as such. Willie Poor Boy and Just a Lie by Si Kahn are two examples that come to mind. Is that by design or just my imagination?
I wouldn’t say those songs are political but more of reporting what’s happening around us. Willie was a friend of ours who got caught up in a predicament. We make a point of trying to keep overt politics out of our performances. Well, we try. You can’t just pretend bad stuff isn’t happening. People come to music shows to be entertained, but they also want to be moved in some way. For a well-balanced show we try to touch on many emotions at our performances. We try to sing the way we feel.
Tom Rozum and Laurie Lewis perform Liz Meyer’s song, Bad Seed. Recorded in 2005 for Bluegrass On Stage, in Grand Rapids, MI
How does one learn to play fewer notes yet increase the overall effect?
I’ve always thought it more interesting to hear melodic phrasing as opposed to the endless stringing of sixteenth notes. Hearing a mandolinist burn like an efficient typist can certainly be exciting, but after one song I’m ready to hear some more varied phrasing.
My first suggestion would be to keep the melody in mind. How you approach the melody will make you sound different from the other instruments by the very nature of how your instrument is tuned and what harmony notes are available. Also, I’d suggest thinking about the spaces between the notes. My singing has informed my playing style. I’d also suggest approaching a melody like you’d sing it, even leaving spaces where you’d take a breath. I think it was Dizzy Gillespie who said, “I’ve spent my whole life trying to figure which notes to leave out.”
Are you still accumulating mandolins, and how many are you responsible for getting into other California pickers’ hands?
It’s true I’ve owned a lot of mandolins, but my ownership has been sequential. Most have left my hands, and I’ve rarely owned more than three at a time. What’s happened time and again is I’d find a great sounding instrument, somehow rationalize why I should own it, then buy it. But invariably I’d start to feel guilty about having more great sounding instruments that I could possibly play, so I’d let friends and good players know I’d sell one if they were in need. I can’t remember who all has the instruments, but they’re spread around the country.
What are your main axes for touring and recording?
I invariably play my 1922 F-5 for recordings, and I’ve mostly toured these past thirty years with a Gilchrist. I have yet to find a road instrument that can replace my 1924 H1, so I tour with that. I named him “Nelson Mandola” and like myself, his road scars are apparent.
Tom with “Nelson” and Laurie on his 1951 D-18 for the title track of their 1996 Grammy Nominated Oak and the Laurel from the 2005 Bluegrass on Stage show.
Have you ever had a bad case of seller’s remorse or have you ever repurchased an instrument that you let go?
In 1976, Randy Graham of the Bluegrass Cardinals sold me my first good bluegrass mando – a Givens A5. I nearly played it to death in every band for my first dozen years but sold it just because I felt I needed a change…and later realized how sentimental I felt about that instrument. I was able to get it back thirty years later – at four times the price.
The other important mando to me was my 1924 F5; I played it on most of my CDs with Laurie. It really hurt to let that go, but there’s no other way I could have acquired my new main axe, a 1922 F5 I got from Mike Seeger.
It seems there are some Loar-era Gibson mandolins that just aren’t that great. At what point did the good luthiers figure out how to get a consistent sound?
I’m no expert. You need to talk to someone like Mike Kemnitzer or Stephen Gilchrist…two master builders who’ve examined the heck out of loads of old F-5s. I know when Lloyd Loar was at the factory; he specified certain carving graduations and specific tonewoods, but there’s a lot of variation in sound quality in the wood of the same species. Fiddling’ Ed Smith, an old fiddler from Oklahoma who moved to Tucson, once talked about the outcome of making fiddles. He told me that if you could take the same wood and build ten at once, most would sound OK, one or two would be outstanding, and one or two would be a dud.
Are there any albums you’ve made that you are particularly proud of?
I’m proud of all the recordings I’ve made with Laurie, especially our three duo CDs. And I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to have folks still come up to me saying how much they enjoy my solo record, Jubilee. After 22 years, they still listen to it and several have said that it has lived in their cars’ stereos for years! You can’t ask for a bigger compliment.
Where did you get that interesting version of Will the Circle Be Unbroken you played on the new “and Laurie Lewis” release?
It’s not the Carter Family version that everyone sings, but a hymn written in 1907. We got it from a 1936 recording of the Monroe Brothers. Apparently, it was a radio hit for a duo called the McGravy Brothers whose recording predates Bill and Charlie’s. Laurie and I love singing those non-bluegrass sounding harmonies.
Tell us more about the album Jubilee and what inspired the great arrangement of the title song?
The album was recorded over a period of a couple of years. I’d grab talented friends whenever they were in town. Mark Simos played his song Jubilee for me at my house one time, and I liked it a lot. Mark’s idiosyncratic version featured odd measures, and it took me a while to figure out how I could sing it. I ended up increasing the tempo and codified the timing so the verse was in 7 and the chorus in 5. That song was recorded piecemeal. I wrote out an arrangement in chart form, which Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips and I played. I then sang to it, and on a different day Darol Anger overdubbed the fiddle parts. As he played, I went into an instant dream state and was too blissed out to direct or offer any constructive criticism. Luckily, Laurie was there to take over full producing control. Darol had the idea for Laurie and me to join him in playing the outro using various instruments. Good times!
The electric mandolin on Ramblin’ Blues is, uh, electric. Was that Tiny Moore inspired?
Laurie played bass and Rob Ickes played lap steel on that cut. I borrowed an old Rickenbacker from a friend and brought it to the studio hoping Rob would be open to trying it. He said he’d never played one before, but you could’ve fooled me and everyone else.
I was going for a Western swing feel and tried to emulate the electric mandolin stylings of Tiny Moore or Johnny Gimble, both Bob Wills alumni. I once took a lesson from Tiny at his music store in Sacramento. Actually, I just sat back and had a personal concert, listening to Tiny play, while my friend Mike Wollenberg backed him up on guitar. Years later, I asked Johnny why he played a five-string fiddle and a four-string mandolin (tuned like a mandola), while Tiny played a four-string fiddle and a five-string mandolin? Johnny said he didn’t want his mandolin to sound like it was too Tiny!
Of all the Jimmie Rodgers songs, how did you come to choose the wonderful Treasures Untold with its understated yodeling?
I’ve always loved the sweet sentiment of that song and figured a delicate Lefty Frizzell-type ending seemed appropriate with the intimate stripped-down instrumental arrangement.
Have you taken many music lessons?
I’m self-taught. In 1983, I did take some music theory and jazz appreciation classes at Mesa Community College in Arizona, but they had no mandolin or violin instructor.
How did you and Laurie meet?
I was in San Diego playing mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and tenor banjo in a quartet called the Rhythm Rascals. Our repertoire was ’20s and ‘30s swing music, and in 1978 we had a small Northern California tour. One of the gigs was a one-hour radio show on Berkeley’s KPFA. It didn’t pay anything and our mercenary bassist ditched us to spend time with his relatives in the area. We put the word out that we needed a bass player and Laurie showed up. At the time she had a steady gig playing bass with Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band in Point Richmond, so she was at home with that type of music and had no problem playing in the flat keys that a lot of our songs were in. In fact, she did a better job than our regular guy.
Being of the same age, getting into bluegrass at the same time, and listening to the same records, we quickly realized we had a lot in common. Then I moved to Flagstaff to play in a bluegrass band called Flying South for five years but we kept in touch. I moved to Berkeley in 1984, and after a stint of playing string-band jazz with Back Up and Push, Laurie asked me to be in a band to promote her first solo recording in 1986. I’ve been in her band for 34 years. It’s been great, but it makes for a pretty short résumé.
Laurie and Tom on Acoustic Guitar Sessions playing songs from the 2016 Grammy nominated The Hazel and Alice Sessions.
We saw you at the Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco around then and it seemed like a natural fit.
Playing in clubs and concerts is one thing, but when we started performing at big bluegrass festivals, in between some powerful national acts, I appreciated that a good portion of our songs were Laurie’s originals. Playing in keys suited to a woman’s voice also made me relax knowing that my playing wouldn’t include as many of the predictable licks that one hears when other bands share the same or similar material. So I was grateful not to feel like a competing athlete in the Bluegrass Olympics. Also I learned to sing baritone to Laurie’s leads, which was fun because in every previous male band, I had the highest voice and was relegated to singing the tenor parts – something that I’ve rarely done these past three decades. Both parts are fun to sing, but each requires a completely different approach and mindset.
Do you still play electric guitar?
That was my first instrument, and early on I spent a lot of time obsessing about getting different tones. That attitude crossed over when I started playing mandolin, as I loved experimenting there too. It was also a bit of a handicap in that I would constantly bend strings on held notes, adversely affecting a rich bluegrass tone, but it really helped my five-string electric mandolin playing. I haven’t played electric guitar in decades.
Are you playing much these days?
Unfortunately, no. Five years ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Obviously, it’s been a game changer, and is progressively interfering with my playing ability. And like for virtually every other musician on the planet, all gigs in 2020 have so far been banished.
Do you still do art design?
Yeah, and I’m going to have to do a lot more of it since I’m losing my ability to pick. I’ve got some music art project ideas in mind. My most recent artwork can be seen on the cover and the disc of Laurie’s new duet album, and Laurie Lewis.
Are you still doing the rafting trips?
We had two scheduled this year, then the pandemic broke. We started doing those trips thirty years ago, and it’s a naturalist’s version of a bluegrass cruise. They’re extremely rejuvenating. Some folks come back every year saying they got spoiled once they heard us play under a blanket of stars in the wilderness.
What younger artists are you happy to see take up the torch of this music?
Oh, there are so many. With the advent of music camps and bluegrass schools, there’s been a flood of youngsters who are lucky to have been tutored from such a young age. By the time they reached adulthood they hardly have any technical barriers to their playing. And what’s encouraging to me on the West Coast bluegrass scene is the dramatic appearance of so many talented young women like Molly Tuttle, Brittany Haas, Tatiana Hargreaves, Annie Staninec, and AJ Lee.
What do you look forward to the most once things open up post-COVID-19?
A massage and a haircut.
Is there anything else you want to say?
Every musician can’t help but be influenced by everything they’ve listened to and internalized. When I heard the late Melvin Goins play at the CBA Father’s Day years ago, it struck me how hardly anyone plays rhythm bluegrass guitar like that anymore. Listening to it brought back a flood of fond memories of bluegrass band sounds in the early ‘70s, and I sorely miss it. Although I’m saddened by the change, one can’t expect someone to play exactly like the founders because those guys had a different collection of musical experiences that they kept in their heads. We’re all influenced by what we’re exposed to. Obviously, what’s popular tends to influence most people, so you can’t stop that. It’s like when Southern fiddlers abandoned their many regional styles of old-time fiddling after hearing the popular, modern-sounding Opry star Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith play on the radio every Saturday. It was an inevitable yet unfortunate mass-extinction of many lost regional styles.
Thank you, Tom, for the insights and all your contributions to the California roots and bluegrass scene.
Thanks, and I hope I haven’t bored you, Dave. To quote Steve Martin, “It sure has been a pleasure talking about myself.”
Note: As I always do, I ask the subject for pictures and videos to use. Tom mentioned he had some great shows with special guests on DVD and VHS which he proceeded to get digitized and posted onto Laurie’s YouTube channel. As it is with these things, the video quality varies but if you are fan at all of their music, you will enjoy checking them out. Along with the Dear Old Dixie and Bad Seed clips above, here are a couple of other favorites from the new videos.
Tom singing Jim Ringer’s Tramps and Hawkers with Laurie for Patty Williams Bluegrass on Stage show in Michigan from 2005 .
Tom singing Remember Me, I’m the One Who Loves You with Laurie Lewis and Grant Street from the Lonesome Pine Specials in Louisville, KY, 1992.
Special thanks to copy-editor Jeanie Poling, Gary Vessel for nudging me to do this interview, Brandon Godman for insights, and Tom for his artistry and patience.