Celebrating Winter's Blessings
By Linda Fahey
January 12, 2000
Laurie Lewis grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and learned to play the violin as a child. She was exposed to folk music at the Berkeley Folk Festivals and spent the ’70s playing at fiddle contests and with a variety of bands. Laurie is also an accomplished singer, songwriter, guitarist and bass player and, over the course of her career, has toured and recorded with many of the greats of bluegrass and traditional country music.
LF: Laurie welcome back to A Prairie Home Companion. And thanks for leaving the warmth and sun of northern California to spend a few days in the snow and cold here in Minnesota.
LL: Well, I feel quite good about it, especially with this album we're doing, Winter's Grace. I just feel it's so great to get out and go where there's actually winter to do these songs. It's sort of a cold weather album, and it just seems far more fitting to be singing them where there's snow on the ground and the trees aren't green. Last year we toured up in Montana, Idaho, and Washington and Oregon. It was great up there - we got in some really good snow storms - it felt really good. But this year on the east coast - although it was lucky for driving - we missed all the big storms, and I was kinda disappointed.
LF: So when did the Winter's Grace tour begin for you this year?
LL: The day after Thanksgiving…
LF: Which of course we all know as the first day of the Christmas season.
LL: Exactly. That's when we start. It's funny to have an album that you only want to perform the music from for one or two months out of the year.
LF: Can you tell me a little about the Winter's Grace CD? Who plays on it with you, how you chose the music…the idea behind it.
LL: The idea was a slow growing idea for Tom Rozum and myself. It came out of my Dad badgering me basically. He used to have a Christmas party at this apartment building every year, and Tom and I would come and play music. And that went on for about 10 years - every Christmas - we would do Christmas tunes and instrumental stuff, and play this music one day out of the year. And my Dad kept saying, "You know you should do a Christmas album and I'll pay for it"…and I'd always say, "No, no, no, Dad you don't have to pay for it…and maybe we will someday." So finally, maybe just to get him off my back…I'm not exactly sure…Tom and I sat down and said okay it would be a really good thing to do this, because we started collecting some great songs. The song "The Gift", that Stephanie Davis wrote, is on the album. I'd been singing that, and it got such a great a response every time - but I would sing it one day a year. I thought I've got to record this thing, but it seemed like it should go on a thematic type of an album. So when we actually started sitting down and figuring out what songs we were going to do, we decided we didn't want it to be only a Christmas album. We wanted it to be more all-encompassing than that. We wanted it to be a celebration of the dead of winter. Then our ears really opened up and we began hunting for things. I spoke about it with friends, and asked people if they had any ideas. And somebody suggested we go to the Watersons - the great English singing group. So we got all their CDs and listened to them. They have wonderful Christmas CDs and season CDs ... that's where we got the "Wassail Song" …but we made it into a fiddle tune instead. Then my friend Anne Hills suggested we listen to Jean Ritchie's song "Wintergrace", and that just knocked me out - that really helped us set the tone for the whole album.
LF: Which songs from the CD will you be doing on the show tonight.
LL: Well, we'll be doing "Earth Moves in a Mysterious Way" . It's an old hymn with words rewritten by Betsy Rose from here in the Bay area. Garrison said she's added Unitarian words…but I think they're actually more druidic. We'll also do "Wintergrace", and "The Snowy Road" - that's Tom's instrumental waltz about his childhood in CT. Then we'll do an old-time fiddle tune called "Breakin' Up Christmas - that's one we haven't recorded. Bruce Molsky just plays it great, and it's perfect for right now- for this time of year - because…well I'm not exactly sure of this tradition but…after Christmas day, during the whole Christmas season, there would be a series of parties at various peoples houses in rural areas - in Appalachia. People would go around from house to house and have these parties…and that was called breakin' up Christmas…and that's what the song's about…. "Santa Claus been and done gone, breakin' up Christmas all night long".
LF: Where did this tour take you? You said you were on the east coast for a while.
LL: We went from Raleigh, NC up to Virginia and MD. Then to MA and NH, and upstate New York. On the west coast we played around the bay area mostly, and northern California.
LF: And how was it received? Did you have good crowds?
LL: We had very good crowds…it was quite gratifying. To go out there and do what we love for a living and have people support it. I love it…I feel like I'm among a fraction of a 100th of 1% of the people in the world who get to do what they love and can make a living at it. I count my blessings everyday.
LF: So what's next for you now that you're putting the Winter's Grace tour to bed for the year.
LL: Well, right away Tom Rozum and I are going off on a tour of the greater Southwest…CO, NM, AZ…and we'll be doing that for a couple weeks, then jumping up to the Northwest for concerts up in OR and WA, and then going over to Hawaii to play for a couple weeks.
LF: Now, sounds like a sort of working vacation to me?
LL: Well, it is…we're going to play four concerts, but we'll be there for two weeks. And we'll have plenty of time for some R & R…
LF: This reminds me of Kristina Olsen (folk singer from California) who travels all over the world, goes to all these great places, and does all these incredibly fun things. She sings while she's at it, but just has such a great approach to touring.
LL: Yeah, your right, and I've tried to really learn from that because the tendency is - because we're self employed musicians - to say yes to everything and spend all our time running from one place to another to play. And over the last couple of years, I've really tried to build in time to actually sit and look around at where I am and be the tourist that I am in my heart.
LF: I guess this sort of thing ties into these river trips I've been hearing about - where you'll go with a group on a multi-day trip down rivers in different parts of the West.
LL: Yeah, we plan on one, but sometimes two, trips per year. We were doing one trip in California or in the northwest and one in the Southwest. But there have been such bad drought conditions in the southwest, we've had to cancel the trip on the Salt River in Arizona a couple of times…And down on the Rio Grande in Big Bend there's also been similar problems, so we've sort of been concentrating on California and the Northwest. This year we'll be doing, just about my favorite river, a three-day trip on the Tuolumne River here in California. I think it's August 2-4, it's with a wonderful company called Echo - The Wilderness Company .
LF: So they handle all the logistics and everything - they set it up?
LL: Yeah, and they're wonderful - great river guides - they're just a great bunch and work really well together. And on the Tuolumne - it's a very steep, fast moving river, we do a run you could actually do in one day, but we do it in three days…so it gives us plenty of time to hike around and swim in the tributaries, and in the river itself…and it's just beautiful. It's the quintessential California river experience.
LF: Who are these trips for - who goes? Is it mostly fans of yours or other musicians?
LL: They fill up with people who actually want to go and hear Tom and myself as the entertainment. So yeah, it's usually people who are familiar with our music, but it isn't always. A lot of times it's people who want to take a trip and that's the time that's available, so they just go. But most of the time it's fans, and what we do is go and enjoy the river all day long like everyone else. Then when we set up camp, we just sit around and play music. It's wonderful. I love it.
LF: Do other folks bring instruments too? Does it turn into a nightly jam?
LL: Yeah, people do. Sometimes on the last night we'll have a talent show…which gets really good like on a six day trip because everybody's loosened-up. On a three day trip, there's of course only two nights, so the second night the people are maybe still a little bit nervous about doing there incredibly great tricks. There are often other musicians who come, and there is room for other instruments, but it's limited room…if everyone who signed up for the river trip brought a guitar, we'd have to leave the food behind…and that of course wouldn't be a good idea.
LF: Well it sound's like you're keeping yourself pretty busy between touring and playing on the rivers. Do you have any new project you're working on, or a new CD we can look forward to?
LL: I've been working - for the last couple of years actually - on finishing up an album that I started producing with Charles Sawtelle, a guitarist who was in Hot Rize for years. He passed away, it'll be two years ago in March, and this album will be coming out this March, finally. It's on Acoustic Disc - David Grisman's label - and I just feel really good about it…it's a bunch of beautiful, beautiful music, and it's taken me a long time to put it all together. I mean it's very difficult to record an album without the artist around to consult with, but we had a whole lot of basic stuff down when Charles passed away, and it just seemed like we had to finish it. And that has taken up a lot of my time and energy, and it's about to see the light of day.
Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).