Friday, October 14, 2011

Laurie Lewis - Skippin' and Flyin' - A Personal Tribute to Bill Monroe

I'm a late convert to the Bluegrass music scene and have generally only followed this style of music for about five years. And boy, do I have a lot of catching up to do. My first tutorial was Doctor Ralph Stanley's Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times. This book lead me deeper into the origins of old time music and the Carter Family and the origins of bluegrass through Bill Monroe. Its always nice to read stories about these pioneering musicians, but to truly appreciate an artist you need to listen - to both the originals and to contemporary covers. The originals provide the historical context of the song as well as the artist's particular talents. The covers provide a measurement of the longevity of the artist. And apparently, Bill Monroe is as relevant as ever. Just ask Laurie Lewis who will soon (October 18th) release a new CD, Skippin' and Flyin', which is her personal tribute to the Bill Monroe on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Don't expect the CD to be covers of Monroe's popular songs. Yes, there are a couple; but the CD consists primarily of Lewis’ originals blended with songs from folk, old time country, bluegrass, and contemporary songwriters. I could tell you more about the CD, but let's hear directly from Ms. Lewis. My recommendation though, any serious or casual bluegrass\folk fan should have this CD in their collection.

1) How relevant is Bill Monroe's music today as it was 50-60 years ago.
I think that much of Bill Monroe's music is very relevant today. People are still dealing with the Human Condition, and in that respect, his songs about relationships still ring true for many. Then there is the instrumental part of the music. There have always been and always will be (I hope) many people interested in hearing music that is in turns beautiful, haunting, and hair-raisingly driving made on acoustic instruments, played by virtuosos.

Much of Monroe's music has strong ties to the land–the changing seasons, the crops in the fields–and now that there are so few people living the farming life, I am sure that some of the relevance is lost. But there is also a strong back-to-the-land esthetic at work in today's society, even if it is just backyard gardening, and so maybe the songs will be listened to with a sense of renewed relevance.

2) Do you believe that your original songs would appreciated 50-60 years ago in the age of Bill Monroe?
Because some of the songs that I have written are built on very old models, those songs would have seemed right at home 50 or 60 years ago. Others of my songs might seem a bit too modern. But I certainly like to think that they are timeless in some way, and would have been enjoyed.

3) You have several well known women lending harmonies. How did you get Linda Ronstadt and Dale Ann Bradley to lend their voices.
I have known Linda since we sang together in the Bluebirds (with Maria Muldaur) in 2005 at Wintergrass (bluegrass festival in Tacoma, WA). We have been singing together informally ever since, when we have the chance. I asked her to sing on the CD, and she said "Yes!"
Dale Ann and I have known each other for about 10 years I would guess, and have been talking about recording together almost ever since we met. We finally got a chance to do it.

4) In the days of musical downloads, its nice to find such informative liner notes. Is this a regular practice on your CDs?
I do like liner notes, and try to include them. The last few CD's I have put out have had downloadable liner notes online, but I found that not many people actually read them there. So I decided to have a booklet this time. The fact that I dedicated the CD to Bill Monroe meant that I had more explaining to do than usual.

5) My favorite track is probably "The Pharaoh's Daughter". Do you have a favorite track?
I rather like "The Pharaoh's Daughter," too, and very much like "Going Away" and "Dreams" and "I Don't Care Anymore." Actually, I like them all at different times.

6) The next track, "Hartfordtown 1944" may be the saddest and most chilling songs I've heard. When did you first hear of this song?
My former booking agent, Mike Green, sent me a copy of Mark Erelli's CD with "Hartfordtown 1944" on it. It really hit me the first time I listened to it. I mentioned it to Tom Rozum, who grew up not far from Hartford, and he said that everyone there knew the story and talked about it even 10 and 15 years later, when he was growing up. It is a real trick to go from the light beginning of the song to the darkness that follows. I hope it works.

7) I'm also interested in "American Chestnuts" for the reason you stated - I never heard of their plight. Please give us a little more insight.
I have always been what you might call a "tree hugger." I love all kinds. With the advent of Sudden Oak Death here in the West, it has made me very aware of how trees shape the landscape, and how we humans can mess things up just by traveling around so much. You really need to look at the photo here: to get some idea of what it must have been like 100 years ago in the Eastern mountains.

8) Moving to other artists, who are you currently listening to?
I have to say that I really love the old music. Given my druthers, I would listen to Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, and the Stanley Brothers. There are some great modern bands, though. I love to hear Sammy Lind play fiddle with Foghorn String Band. But then again, they sound old. There are some very wonderful instrumentalists these days, and almost anything that Brittany Haas is involved in is worth a listen.

9) For a young person wanted to sample more old time country music - where we would point them after they've listened to Skippin' and Flyin'?
I would say go back to the originals: early and middle-era Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, the East Texas Serenaders, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Molly O'Day, Hazel and Alice, and on and on.

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