Bluegrass doesn’t get any better than Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands. She’s won the International Bluegrass Music Association award for Female Vocalist of the Year multiple times, not to mention a Grammy for her contribution to True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe, and her Right Hands are about as talented as a band has a right to be. Laurie sings and plays guitar and fiddle. Tom Rozum sings, swaps jokes, and plays mandolin, mandola, and guitar, Tatiana Hargreaves plays fiddle, Patrick Sauber plays banjo, and Grammy-winner Todd Phillips plays bass. If you’ve never heard them before, you need to hear them as soon as you can. And if you’ve already heard them, chances are you want to hear them again.
Laurie Lewis — songwriter, fiddler, vocalist, teacher, producer — almost quit music altogether the year she graduated early from Berkeley High School and moved out of the house. Her father, an accomplished classical flute player, encouraged all of his kids to take up instruments. But after “a botched run-in with the piano” at age seven, and five or six years of classical violin lessons starting at twelve, Laurie was ready to move on to something new, something that wouldn’t ask her to read a key signature. And while for the moment that meant putting down the violin and moving on from music altogether, it would turn out that she had already found what she was looking for, and it was just down the street every summer on the UC Berkeley campus.
“At the Berkeley Folk Festival,” Laurie remembers, “you could hear all kinds of music, and it just really grabbed me. That was the first place I heard Doc Watson, the first place I heard Jean Ritchie, maybe the first bluegrass band I heard, the Greenbriar Boys. And then there was Jesse Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. It just totally busted my ears open and got me really excited about folk music as a teenager.”
Inspired by the folk festival, Laurie picked up guitar, fell hard for bluegrass banjo, and joined the folk song club at school. She and her best friend taught themselves Irish songs and harmony singing, and even took their act out on stage at some of the best known Berkeley folk clubs of the Sixties. At the same time, Laurie continued to struggle with classical violin lessons. For whatever reason, the idea that she could play folk, country, or bluegrass songs by ear on fiddle was yet to click into place. Violin, at least in practice for Laurie, still equated to reading sheet music and memorizing compositions. So when her dad gave her a record by Chubby Wise and the Rainbow Ranch Boys full of fiddle tunes and waltzes, she listened to it and loved it, but it never occurred to her as a teenager to work out those songs and play them. Ultimately, all the hours spent scratching out Mozart sonatas on the violin, and her deep developing love for folk music and bluegrass in particular, would resolve into a long career right at the heart, as Utah Phillips reminds us, of what country music ought to be. But before that could happen, she had to step briefly away. Curiously, her path back to bluegrass would come through modern dance:
“When I was 22, I dropped out of college to take a job as the business manager of a dance studio in Oakland, and it turned out that the husband of the director of the dance studio was a bluegrass musician. Somehow he found out that I had played banjo when I was a kid, and he said, “Oh let’s get together and play.” So I brought my banjo, and of course I couldn’t play at all, because I hadn’t played in years and I was never really very good to begin with. We tried to play and it was terrible, but in the course of that conversation he found out that I played classical violin, and he said, “You could play fiddle!” So he took me over to Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco where they had live bluegrass seven days a week, and I saw fiddlers live, and it knocked me out. It’s funny, the twists and turns a life makes.”
And then the piece that had been there all along popped into place “Right at that time my sister was getting married and she asked me if I would do some kind of music for her wedding, and I remembered the Chubby Wise record my Dad had given me when I was a kid, and thought I could learn some of those waltzes off that record. So I did. A big door opened for me, realizing that I could actually just listen to something and play it without having to read music.” The door wasn’t so much opened as blown off its hinges. And the community she had been introduced to at Paul’s Saloon was more than amenable to nurturing excited new talent:
“It was really a different deal coming at bluegrass in the San Francisco Bay Area,” she says. “All you had to do to be in was love the music and show up. There weren't a lot of cutting contests; it was all about making music together, a focus on interdependency rather than individual prowess.”
And show up she did. Before long Laurie was up on stage at Paul’s on jam nights, and then as bass-player with the Phantoms of the Opry, which featured Pat Enright, later of the award-winning Nashville Bluegrass Band, as lead singer. Other bands followed. In 1974, Laurie helped found an all-female bluegrass band called the Good Ol’ Persons. She left the band in 1977 and played in a group called Old Friends, and then in 1979, the Grant Street String Band. “That was the first band I really started taking a leadership role in,” she remembers. “I wrote my first song that actually held together and was singable in about 1975, but I'd say that it probably started ‘kicking in,’ such as it is, in about the late '70's and early '80's.”
The mid-1980s marked another key event in Laurie’s life: the arrival of longtime musical partner Tom Rozum. They began a musical collaboration that has spanned over two decades. In Laurie’s words: “A huge part of my music is knowing that I have a partner and a voice like that to sing the harmonies. A lot of songs I write I imagine what the harmonies are, and I’ll actually change melodies so it’s easy to incorporate Tom’s voice in what’s going on. And he’s really important in terms of arranging. We tend to come up with arrangements together. He’s just got such a free-form musicality. It’s not like, “Oh, bluegrass sounds like this, and this sounds like that.” He’s just very musical, and not in a particular genre, which I think suits me really well because that’s the way I write.”