Hooked on Bluegrass

Laurie Lewis

I have lived in Berkeley, CA, since I was eight years old. My father was a very good classical flutist when he wasn't being a doctor, and the house was always filled with classical music, either from the radio, the phonograph, or live woodwind quintets in the living room. He used to quiz me about music all the time: things like "What is that strange instrument playing in that orchestra?" (answer: flugelhorn). My mother was/is a music lover who claims not to be able to sing a note (untrue). My older sister played flute, and I was tapped for violin lessons when I was twelve. I loved the instrument, but my lessons were angst-ridden, and I usually ended up in tears.

When my parents divorced, the violin became a casualty of interparental wars, and when I was seventeen (old enough to put my foot down), I quit playing. I had played in the junior high and high school orchestras, though, and I think I had experienced the great joy of playing music with other people. The violin lived undisturbed in its case under my various beds for the next six years.

Meanwhile, I had gotten bitten by the folk music bug at about age fourteen, and began playing folk guitar and singing folk songs a la Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Jesse Fuller, and Doc Watson (the popular music of the day in Berkeley). My best friend, Dana Everts, also sang and played guitar, and we started playing together, a repertoire of the above musicians plus a lot of Irish songs. In the midst of all this, I went to see the Byrds at the Berkeley Community Theater (1965?), and fell in love with the opening act: The Dillards. I wanted to play bluegrass banjo more than anything in the world. My dad got me a little Washburn, and I started taking lessons from a college student. It was about the loneliest thing you could imagine: No one I knew was remotely interested in bluegrass or knew a thing about it, and it was only so long you can try and play "Doug's Tune" all by yourself and keep the fires stoked.

The great thing that happened, though, was that my teacher lent me his record collection when he left for the summer break. There was Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, and more. I listened to it all, and though I didn't attempt to play it, and it often sounded way too raw for my ears, I kept being drawn to it, like an itch that has to be scratched. Simultaneously with all this, and helping to fuel my interest, I was introduced to the Berkeley Folk Festival, a week-long summer event which exposed me to Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, and one summer a band called the Greenbrier Boys. I was fascinated by them, and waited for months for their record, "Better Late Than Never" to come out. The band featured Bob Yellin, John Herald and Frank Wakefield, and had Jim Buchanan playing fiddle on the album (he wasn't at the festival with them). Anyway, to make a long story short, every time I got a chance to hear bluegrass, it drew me to it. But it was never a music that I was exposed to very much, nor did I have any friends who were into it (very uncool, but then so was I).

After high school, I quit playing music altogether while I floundered around in college, until another fateful meeting in 1973. I had dropped out of UC Berkeley in my fourth year to take a job at a dance studio ($100/month and all the free classes I could handle. Rent was $40/month, so it actually worked out). The husband of the dance studio director was a bluegrass musician who found out that I had played banjo at one time. We got together and of course I couldn't play at all, but in the course of things, he found out that I had played violin. He said, "You could play fiddle!" and dragged me over to Paul's Saloon, where I heard and saw musicians picking and singing together (among them: Pat Enright, Paul Shelasky, Brantley Kearns, Bob and Ingrid Fowler, Butch Waller, Joe Zumwalt, Bruce Nemerov, Markie Sanders, Rick Shubb, Sue Ericson, Rich Wilbur, Chris Boutwell, etc, etc). I was completely smitten, and started learning fiddle tunes and going to the jam sessions and hanging out in a smoky bar almost every night of the week. And the rest is history.

(posted 10/30/2004)

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