Laurie Lewis is among bluegrass' most esteemed musicians but her contributions transcend merely musical matters.
Born in Berkeley in 1950, Lewis became intrigued by bluegrass in the early '70s, a time when the music was still largely dominated by men. Her skills – as musician, songwriter and performer – helped open the door for a generation of women.
Lewis came to the music via an indirect route. She began playing piano as a child before switching to classical violin. It was only after attending the Berkeley Folk Festival as a teen that Lewis turned her attention to traditional American music.
“The music that really spoke to me was the rural, more backwoods music," Lewis told me in an interview a few years ago. "I heard Doc Watson and I just loved his thing. Jean Ritchie, I couldn't get over her songs, the power of them. I was just drawn to do traditional music."
Lewis takes center stage Saturday at the Freight & Salvage to host the Freight Holiday Revue. The longest night of the year will be a bright one in Berkeley thanks to a lineup that also features Suzy Thompson, Keith Little and the Little Band, Claudia Russell and Bruce Kaplan and Tom Rozum.
Inspired by the Berkeley folk scene, Lewis learned guitar and took banjo lessons. She sharpened her fiddling skills and won the California State Women's Championship.
Lewis made her first foray into bluegrass in 1974, when she joined Phantom of the Opry. She and Kathy Kallick later formed the duo Good Ol' Persons. In 1979, Lewis founded a group, the Grant Street String Band. Among its players was Rozum.
"He's my foremost singing partner," Lewis said. "He's very, very instrumental in helping me realize the music I hear in my head. Plus, he's got all these things of his own, his own strengths. He's a great mandolin player as well as a wonderful singer."
Lewis split her time between Grant Street and her own projects after releasing her 1986 solo debut, "Restless Rambling Heart." She's been acknowledged for her songwriting (Kathy Mattea recorded her "Love Chooses You"), singing (Lewis was been named IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year) and fiddling. The result is a singular sound that while rooted in deep traditions also has a mood and vibe all its own.
"The music that I play is very shaped by being a Californian," Lewis said. "I have a lot more in common with the West Coast sensibilities than I do with Nashville or the Southeast."
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