Steve Lewis, from Todd, NC (a tiny community just north of Boone) was gracious enough to talk with me about his experience playing and winning some of the toughest banjo and guitar contests in the country.
In the interest of full disclosure, I first met Steve 20 years ago as my banjo teacher. Without exaggeration, I think he’s one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. His out-of-this-world playing ability is matched only by his humble, gentle nature and his generosity as a teacher of bluegrass to kids throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. Any kid within 100 miles who has the ability to become a great picker eventually seeks Steve out for instruction. He’s taught kids who eventually became national champions, such as Eric Harden from West Jefferson, NC, and he is currently teaching kids who will probably become national champions themselves someday.
But Steve doesn’t fit into the traditional contest picker mold of someone who can just play 5 songs perfectly. He has a deep understanding of bluegrass and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge that allows him to play and teach any song written. He’s just as comfortable on stage or in a recording studio as he is in the contest chair. As a new player diving head first into bluegrass, Steve taught me to listen to the small nuances of how the instruments work together. I tell people, “I loved to listen to bluegrass, but Steve Lewis taught me how to hear it.”
Brian Swenk: How many contests have you won?
Steve Lewis: I have no idea! I’ve won MerleFest a couple times on banjo and guitar. RenoFest twice, with banjo and guitar. New England banjo championships once, and the Wayne Henderson guitar contest twice. I’ve won Winfield [Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, KS] a couple times on banjo, but never on guitar. I’ve placed in the top 5 like 9 times, but I’ve never been able to get over that hump. A couple of times a judge told me I missed it by one point
BS: How did you get into playing contests?
SL: I got into them late actually, not until I was well into my thirties. We were signed with Rebel Records when I was younger, and they didn’t exactly say, “Don’t do contests.” but I got the feeling that they preferred that we didn’t, because it wouldn’t necessarily help anything if I did win, but if I didn’t, it could be detrimental in some way.
BS: Really? I didn’t realize a record company would be concerned about that.
SL: A lot of record labels were back then. If you enter and win you have people who say “Well, he’s a professional, he shouldn’t enter these contests.” And then if you don’t win they’ll say “Well, he’s a professional, why didn’t he win?” So I kind of waited until that deal expired.
People ask me, “Well, how do you win contests?” and I say “Well, you play every single one of them!” You just saturate yourself with as many of them as you can, and I figure if you throw enough stuff against the wall, something will eventually stick. The more you play, the more comfortable you get. The nerves are always a factor though. This year at Wayne’s (Henderson) festival I was up against at least 7 national champions.
BS: I’ve heard that’s one of the toughest guitar contests in the nation.
SL: That one and RenoFest are probably the toughest I’ve ever been to. At that level you can’t discount the human factor in the judging. There might be something that might not impress you at all, but it’ll impress me, or vice versa. So there again, you just have to play every one of them. Along with the big contests, I like to just go to a local fiddlers convention, where it’s not a high pressure situation. It’s just you sitting on the stage with a microphone and an audience. That helps a little too. But it takes a while to find the right tunes to play. You want enough tunes where you can walk onstage and not play the tune the guy in front of you just played. You don’t want to leave any kind of benchmark to be compared. You might think your version is better than theirs, but you still don’t want to leave anything out there to be compared to immediately.
BS: Do you find yourself switching tunes a lot, last minute?
SL: Not a lot, but I did at Wayne’s contest, because what I had in mind to play I heard another person was going to play it.
BS: What song were you going to play?
SL: Well I was going to play Alabama Jubilee, but i switched to Bill Cheatum because I overheard one of the other guys talking about that’s what he was going to do. We’re all buddies, so I didn’t mind switching. I’m pretty much winging it for the most part anyway. I’m not one of those contest pickers that can sit around and play the same 5 tunes over and over. I just don’t have that type of attention span. Those are the guys that win every time they sit down in the chair. I have an idea of an arrangement but it’ll change every time.
BS: You probably have a lot more stage experience than some of the people who play a lot of contests. Do you find that a lot of the champions have as much stage experience?
SL: These days it seems like contestants do have a lot more stage experience, and most of them work in some sort of band. You’ve got people like Andy Hatfield, Adam Wright, Allen Shadd (apparently having a name that begins with an A helps!) that have these super intricate versions, and they’re always good. The prize instruments are so nice now—and everyone wants a Henderson guitar; so you have a lot more stage players competing in big contests these days.
BS: What’s the difference between the banjo and guitar championships?
SL: The banjo players tend to wander off the path [of the melody] more than the guitar players, it seems like to me. Most of the guitar players take the melody and put a few crooked parts in there to make it interesting, but you still know what the song is. I’ve found the biggest factor is that you have to be true to the melody, for the most part, because you’ll lose people’s attention if they can’t follow the song.
I was judging a contest once and we got to an impasse with three of them. All 3 were very different and none of them had any flaws. Todd Hallawell, a great guitar picker, said, “Well, this is what I always do here. Would I have taken 4 hours of my Friday night and go see this person? Was it worth my time and money to watch this person?” And I thought, “That’s a great way to look at it!”
BS: How many contests have you judged?
SL: Oh, I have no idea. Traditionally, when you win one they want you to come back and judge it next year. I’ve probably judged Wayne’s 7 or 8 times. MerleFest banjo contest 3 or 4 times. RenoFest guitar and banjo, a couple of times. But with judging, it comes down to who’s having the best day that day. Who’s bringing it. It’s all about musicianship
BS: Do songs need to be complicated?
SL: No, songs need to be big, in your face, and moving pretty well. It has to have direction. A lot of people think you have to put so many hot licks in there to get people’s attention, but then you’ll hear somebody that will play half the notes and four times the music.
“Half the notes and four times the music” is a phrase I’ve heard Steve say many times, and it gives you a good glimpse of the depth of his musicality. I was at Merlefest this past weekend listening to [Charlie] Cushman play banjo with the Earls of Leicester, and his banjo is just so big and clean–it sounds like 1950 all over again. He was playing far fewer notes than a lot of the other banjo players there, but he just stood out.
BS: Tell me about the arrangements of your contest songs.
SL: Well, Alabama Jubilee is a right hand buster. It’s going along at a pretty good clip, and I have a boatload of crosspickin’ going on with bass strings, which is pretty physically demanding. It’ll vary a little every time if I have something different going on in my mind that day. I have some crosspicking going on in Bill Cheatum too. And I only have a couple of semi-arranged passes for that one, and the rest is just off the cuff. My philosophy is that if you have an arrangement chiseled in stone and you crash, where are you going to land? If I’m flying by the seat of my pants anyway, a little crook in the road isn’t a big deal.
BS: What are your best contest songs?
SL: For guitar I usually start with Angeline the Baker. It’s just a big song with the drop D tuning. I’m always looking for another big song like that, but I haven’t found one yet. I’ll do Alabama Jubilee and sometimes Bill Cheatum. I’ll also do St. Anne’s Reel and play the melody verbatim. I won’t wander off one iota. It just moves so well, and I’ll try to play it as big, clean, and fluid as I can. Most of the contests you have to play 3 songs.
BS: What about banjo?
SL: Rick Allred, who used to play with The Country Gentlemen, wrote a banjo tune called South Elm St. I took it and added a few more passes to it and it’s been really good for me. I have a twisted version of Clinch Mountain Backstep. The last time I won Winfield, I started off with Home Sweet Home straight out of the Earl Scruggs’ songbook. I never wandered off Earl’s version — I tried to play it as faithful as I could. Again, a good contest song has to move well, but it doesn’t have to be flying. I also have a few original tunes I can pull out, as well, if it seems like everyone is playing the same songs. I’ve used Little Rock Getaway several times too, and I’ll do a chord modulation with it to make it a little different.
BS: When you walk offstage after a contest do you ever have a good sense of the outcome? Of how you will place?
SL: No, never. It’s always a big mystery to me. I’ve placed far better when I felt like I didn’t play very well. Historically, I usually place much better when I feel like I didn’t play very well. We’re all our worst critics.
BS: Are there any mental tricks that you do before you go onstage or while you’re onstage?
SL: I wish I had some! I do sit around before and play if I can. The biggest thing I like to do is to just not take it too seriously. Ultimately you want to have fun with it. If you don’t have fun and you don’t win, then you don’t have anything! I teach a kid, Presley Barker from Traphill, NC, who has ice in his veins. He’s 10 years old. He just placed 2nd at RenoFest this year and beat 3 national champions. He just looks around like “Gee, I wonder what those people are doing up there? What’s he eating over there? I’m hungry.” He just looks around and smiles and finds something else to look at. He has no fear whatsoever. But he works at it—he spends about 6 hours practicing everyday.
BS: Any last advice?
SL: If you try to play what you think people want to hear, it may not be what you enjoy playing as much and you’re not going to play it as well. You don’t need to play what you think the judges want to hear. With song selection, I think the biggest factor is make it something you can hammer, something clean with big tone that has direction.