Laurie Lewis "Skippin' and Flyin'" Spruce and Maple Music
I've been told that I have a tendency to occasionally write more than people want to read, given these days of shorter attention spans and such. So here is the capsule review: West coast bluegrass maven Laurie Lewis pays the ultimate tribute to Bill Monroe by exploring his roots and branches in ways that he may not have imagined. 5 stars; 9.5/10; 93.7/100; Essential listening.
2011 has been deemed by the greater bluegrass community as 'the year of Bill Monroe.' In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Father of Bluegrass has been feted far and wide: tribute bands have performed and tribute albums and songs have been recorded and released, some very good and some simply bordering on exploitive. Even Garrison Keeler and his Prairie Home Companion friends are getting in on the act, taking the show on the road to Kentucky in November for an evening of Bill Monroe music and stories featuring several Blue Grass Boys.
The most impressive Bill Monroe tribute to arrive this autumn may also be the most understated. Nowhere on the cover of "Skippin' and Flyin'" is Mr. Monroe mentioned or illustrated. Rather, Laurie Lewis appears in full-blown Blue Grass Boy regalia, dressed with the same precision of style and substance that has been her hallmark for the past several decades as one of bluegrass and acoustiblue music's beautiful flowers.
Also unlike most of the previously released projects- and again, some of them have been quality albums assembled for the 'right' reasons- "Skippin' and Flyin'" is not simply a collection of 10 or 15 Monroe tunes recorded by a contemporary band. Rather, "Skippin' and Flyin'"goes to the heart of Mr. Monroe's music, exploring its soul and his motivations and influences. This is an album that embraces elements of those Mr. Monroe himself recorded.
While Mr. Monroe didn't follow any rules other than his own, it wasn't unusual for him to record songs from folk, country, and mountain traditions. One of his substantial talents was for making those songs seem entirely new in his hands. At the same time, he would sometimes go back to his own catalogue and breathe fresh life into songs he recorded many years previously. Mr. Monroe also had a talent for identifying and recording songs from contemporary writers. From all I've learned, he had affection for the blues and brought disparate rhythms into his music, making it all work through his intense vision of what was right for his music. Of course, he also wrote songs- great songs, 'true songs,' songs that will last.
The above also clearly describes Laurie Lewis' beautiful project, "Skippin' and Flyin'". As she writes in her detailed, insightful, and very personal liner notes, "Bill Monroe was not a follower of styles but steadfastly played his singular music through the good times and the tough, inspiring me with his example to be free to explore my own musical path. Almost all of the songs here are performed with a 'traditional' bluegrass band: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass. All of the harmony singing stems directly from the school of Bill Monroe."
Laurie Lewis is no newcomer to bluegrass music, having played almost every festival there is and having recorded excellent albums over the years, "The Golden West" and "Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals" being just two. However, she has never narrowed her field and has recorded some of the finest folk-inspired music of the past three decades, among them her incredible collaborations with Tom Rozum "The Oak and the Laurel" and the under-heralded "Guest House."
She has always been versatile, performing as a duo with Rozum or leading a full-fledged bluegrass band with equal effectiveness and charisma. As a musician, she is frequently called on to provide session fiddle and vocal performances and to augment an established group. In a one week period two years back I saw her filling in with Kathy Kallick- a frequent singing partner- in a Red Deer bluegrass setting and the next weekend filling in with Dave Alvin's hard-hitting Guilty Women at Hardly Strictly.
She has at least one signature song, Who Will Watch the Home Place? Kate Long's exceptional song that was awarded the IBMA's Song of the Year award in 1994. She has also been awarded the same organization's Female Vocalist of the Year award twice and has been nominated frequently.
"Skippin' and Flyin'" takes its name from Old Ten Broeck, which opens this magnificent 55-minute album: "Old Ten Broeck is skippin' and gone away, Old Ten Broeck is skippin' and flyin'."
Lewis has taken this instantly recognizable precursor to Molly and Tenbrooks, a song frequently performed by Bill Monroe, back to its roots in the music of The Carver Boys and Cousin Emmy while working in elements from Mike Seeger and Monroe. Thank goodness for artists, like Lewis, who believe in the value of song notes!
As she does throughout the album, Lewis doesn't simply mimic what Bill Monroe did in 1947 and 1957; she goes deeper, exploring what he may have heard and been impacted by in earlier years. In doing so, she gets to the roots of Bill Monroe in ways that many other artists have not attempted in 2011.
She takes a very different tack with Blue Moon of Kentucky. It is almost as if Lewis is saying, 'This is Monroe, and we'll honour him by performing it as he did." Lewis takes liberty with the chorus, switching up the 'left me blue' and 'proved untrue' lines, but otherwise maintains the spirit of the early, pre-Elvis Monroe recordings of the song, including an extended, mournful fiddle feature.
The final 'Monroe' song included on "Skippin' and Flyin'" is also the lonesome-est. As recorded here by Lewis and her usual touring band (Rozum, Scott Huffman, Craig Smith, and Todd Phillips) A Lonesome Road, recorded by Monroe in 1957, is blue and bluesy and works nicely in tempo with the album's mid-set flavour. A similar mood with a very different execution is found on Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues, a flirty tune Lewis learned from Wanda Jackson.
Songs from Del McCoury (Dreams) and Flatt & Scruggs are also included, I imagine because- as Lewis writes in the notes- "If Bill Monroe hadn't come along, there probably wouldn't have been Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, or any of the modern bluegrass bands you hear today." (And, before shorts get twisted too tightly, she continues: "But there would have been and would be someone playing some sort of tradition-based string band music. And it would hold appeal for many people today, just as it has for generations.")
So we have fresh interpretations of What's Good For You (Should Be Alright for Me), as fine a justification for cheatin' and hurtin' as has been written, and I Don't Care Anymore. Going back even further, Carter's Blues (from the American tradition) and Fair Beauty Bright (from the British)- two ribbons well-mined by Monroe- are included. Tom Rozum's mandola offerings on the latter tune are haunting and ideal.
On the contemporary front, Lewis offers stellar gems. Mark Erelli's lyrically rich song of devastation Hartfordtown 1944 is given a full-blown bluegrass setting (and check out his version on 2006's exceptional "Hope & Other Casualties," the album that convinced me that Erelli is every bit as 'good' as the singer-songwriters you have heard). While Monroe never heard the song, one can imagine that he might have given it more than a passing nod.
I've often stated that everything I know and appreciate about religion has been learned through bluegrass songs, and Lewis continues my education withThe Pharaoh's Daughter. Expanding on the story of Moses, Lewis tells of what became of his rescuer. In an entirely different manner, Lewis shares her admiration for lost giants of Appalachia; American Chestnuts is Lewis's take on an ecological Rise Again, a promise that that which is lost will return.
I believe that leaves only two tracks unmentioned, Wilma Lee Cooper's I Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow and Going Away which comes from Utah Phillips. With Cooper's passing last month, I Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow serves then as a tribute to one of the leading ladies of country and bluegrass music and it is entirely appropriate that today's first lady of bluegrass, Dale Ann Bradley, joins in on harmony.
Similarly, and yet entirely differently, Lewis acknowledges Phillips by performing his Going Away in a style that would have been out-of-place on a Monroe album but which is entirely sensible within the context of "Skippin' and Flyin'."
Fifteen hundred-plus words to analyze an album of 14-songs? There is something to be said for brevity, but in the case of "Skippin' and Flyin'" fewer words wouldn't do, at least for me. Better writers than I will be able to distil the essence of this artistic creation, but for me it took all these words to capture what I believe is a beautiful and landmark album.
Laurie Lewis has created many excellent albums, and may have recorded 'better' ones than this. But none have been more important or have impacted me more. By exploring Bill Monroe- his music, his tradition, his influences- in this manner she has paid him the ultimate tribute.
The bluegrass album of 2011? Perhaps not, but on my list with Dale Ann's "Somewhere South of Crazy," Blue Highway's "Sounds of Home," Junior Sisk's "The Heart of a Song," and Alison Krauss & Union Station's "Paper Airplane."
"Skippin' and Flyin'" is released October 18, 2011. Lewis appears at several events and festivals through to December, including a CD release show at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, CA November 26.