For fiddler, guitarist, singer, and songwriter Laurie Lewis, the traditions of bluegrass and folk aren’t so much tools in her hands, but burning sources of inspiration that have driven her through a 30+ year career at the forefront of American roots music. A pioneering woman in bluegrass, Laurie has paved the way for many young women today, always guided by her own love of traditional music and the styles of her heroes that came before. Although she’s won a Grammy for her interpretation of Bill Monroe’s music, and is considered a masterful proponent of Ralph Stanley’s singing style, she has crafted the music her own way, by following her personal muse and remaining open to new influences.
In some ways, Laurie Lewis’ new album, One Evening in May, recorded one magical evening in May 2013 at the Freight and Salvage in Lewis’ hometown of Berkeley, CA, feels like a victory lap. She’s playing before a loving audience and it sounds like an utterly effortless evening of music. But the illusion of effortlessness covers up the fact that Laurie Lewis is making some of the most challenging and innovative music of her career right now.
The album features eleven newly-penned Lewis originals, most of them written only a few months earlier. You can hear her pushing her sound towards Linda Ronstadt’s polished country singing with “En Voz Baja”, or blending a burning honky-tonk guitar line from Nina Gerber with longtime music partner Tom Rozum’s bluegrass mandolin tremolo on “Ring of Fire”.
It takes guts to go after Johnny Cash’s great classic, but Laurie brings a steely edge to the song that’s a hallmark of her ground-breaking work as an inspirational frontwoman in bluegrass. “Trees” unites Lewis’ longtime love of mountain singing traditions with contemporary lyrics about the destruction of the environment and the promise of time to heal the wounds, and “My True Love Loves Me” is a master class in how to write a deceptively simple love song that’s also deeply moving.
Laurie’s song, “Barstow,” has been likened to a 400-page novel distilled into five captivating minutes. Rozum contributes heartfelt lead vocals on two songs, and Gerber gives the ensemble a field of flowers to cavort in with her “Winthrop Waltz.” The icing on the cake is the inclusion of young folk harmony trio and protégés The T Sisters and a couple of guest spots by five-time National old-time fiddle champion Tristan Clarridge.
Lewis, Rozum, and Gerber are clearly having a ball playing together, testing each other’s knowledge of the American roots spectrum, and pushing their music to new heights. It takes years of mastery to make this sound so easy.