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Laurie Lewis’ music may be addictive


Laurie Lewis is making up for lost time.

The 43-year-old late-blooming champion fiddler, who plays here March 13 with her crack Grant Street band, earned the Female Vocalist of the Year award for the past two years from the International Bluegrass Association. And when the National Council for the Traditional Arts was looking for a fiddling singer to accompany last fall’s Masters of the Banjo tour (featuring Ralph Stanley, Seamus Egan, Tony Ellis, Will Keys, Carroll Best, Kirk Sutphin and Seleshe Damessae), Lewis was a shoo-in for the job.

“It was a really good thing for me to do,’ said Lewis of the banjo tour, speaking from her San Francisco Bay Area home. “I have a great love for old-time fiddling and it helped me to get back in touch with that, which I’d kept on the back burner for years. I loved meeting those old-timers and hanging out with them, playing completely different kinds of music than I play with my band. Who would have thought that a Berkeley hippie fiddler would end up touring with Ralph Stanley?’

Well, for one, another Bay Area hippie fiddler – Kronos Quartet lead violinist David Harrington, who happened to be among those hooting and hollering in the audience.

“What a performance she gave!’ Harrington remarked. “She made the band. Basically she played and sang for three hours straight. She’s really incredible.’

For those who missed it, a tasty slice of the live concerts was just released under the title “Masters of Banjo’ (Arhoolie 421). The highly recommended 78-minute compact disc takes in a giant slice of banjo turf from its African origins to the claw-hammer and bluegrass styles of America plus a little Irish tenor banjo playing to boot. Lewis’ vocal and fiddling artistry further enhances the package.

Lewis also has a new solo project equally worthy of repeated listening, if stylistically far afield. But like past Lewis releases, “True Stories’ (Rounder 300) should come stickered “Warning: Laurie Lewis’ music is highly addictive.’

Ranging from the down-home Appalachian treatment of the Irish song “Singing Bird’ and the gospel harmony-encased a cappella number “The Mill’ to contemporary folk love songs such as “Knocking On Your Door Again,’ “Swept Away’ and her current Country Music Television video release, “Slow Learner,’ “True Stories’ showcases Lewis’ consummate artistry and versatility.

Lewis’ decision to become a musician came later in life than for some. She’s been playing the violin from childhood, but when first introduced to bluegrass at the Berkeley Folk Festival when she was about 14, Lewis turned to a different instrument altogether.

“I got a banjo,’ she recalled. “But after that, I didn’t know anybody who was interested in the music, and it’s a very social kind of music. It requires playing in a band situation to get the most out of it. Playing bluegrass banjo by yourself is a very lonesome thing.’

A year or so later, she dropped the banjo. She played the guitar for a while, but eventually stopped playing music altogether until she was 22.

“I realized then that I could actually play the stuff I loved on my main instrument – the fiddle,’ she said. “After that, it took off.’

Well sort of.

True, she did enter the bluegrass arena, twice winning the California State Women’s Championship in the ’70s and working with such bands as the Arkansas Sheiks, Pat Enright and the Phantoms of the Opry, and (with Kathy Kallick) the Good Ol’ Persons. But bluegrass was more a love than an occupation until the release of her first solo album, “Restless Rambling Heart’ in 1987.

“The fact that my first solo album never got a bad review certainly helped,’ Lewis said of the decision to bag her violin shop and do music full-time. “But it was really the creative process of actually going into the studio, putting down the music that was in my head and doing my own songs that really spurred me to keep doing that.’


* What: A concert by Laurie Lewis and Grant Street.

* When: 7:30 p.m. March 13.

* Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.

* How much: Tickets $10 ($9 for Tucson Friends of Traditional Music, Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association and KXCI radio members) in advance through Hear’s Music, Piney Hollow, Workshop Music and Sound, Loco Records, Good Time Music, Bentley’s and the Folk Shop, and $1 more at door.

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