Archive for the ‘Laurie Lewis’ Tag

Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands- The Hazel and Alice Sessions review   1 comment

untitledLaurie Lewis & the Right Hands The Hazel and Alice Sessions Spruce and Maple Music

I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Hazel Dickens. Odd that, because one can’t really listen to Hazel Dickens without knowing you’ve heard Hazel. Her voice is one that isn’t confused with anyone else’s; there is power in her words and melodies—they communicate to the listener the experiences, convictions, and insights of a powerfully strong woman, one who excelled within an industry dominated by men.

Dickens left her home in West Virginia while still a teen, moving to work in the factories and stores of Baltimore. She used her early experiences to inform the realism readily apparent in her songs, be it the emotional turmoil of leaving home (“Mama’s Hands,”) the longing of home from away (“West Virginia, My Home,”) and a sense of place that few writers could capture (“Hills of Home.”) Within “West Virginia, My Home” Hazel captures in ten syllables, seven straight-forward words what others have struggled to communicate in entire essays: “I can sure remember where I come from.”

She was long involved in expressing the struggles and lives of miners in any number of ways, not the least of which are her songs including “Black Lung,” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” and “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” to name but three. She came to tell these songs in the most natural of ways, having had brothers and family working in the deep, dark mines of West Virginia.

Importantly, Dickens was part of the migration of mountain music to the eastern seaboard, one of thousands who moved from rural communities in search of work and bringing with them the music of their home counties. She championed the music, keeping it at the fore of not only her own life but communicating a relevancy with which the urban community could connect.

That she has written some of the finest bluegrass songs is without challenge. These songs have advanced the cause of women and the working poor in immeasurable ways, bringing strength and dignity to places and circumstances where such was often in short supply. Dickens never shied away from subject matter that some would avoid, be they the protagonists of “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” the conditions of the mines (“Mannington Mine Disaster,”) or detailing the impact of miner organization in “The Yablonski Murder.”

So powerful is the Hazel Dickens catalogue that none of these essential songs found their way onto this collection from Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands. And, while they are noticeably absent, they are not missed.

Hazel Dickens left a legacy in song.

And Alice.

Alice Gerrard is one of the living legends of bluegrass music; combined with her decades of recording and performing old-time and folk music, Gerrard has a stout resume that is as varied and dynamic as any you can mention. When Gerrard has completed a song, it has truly been sung. I am so glad that she remains a formidable and important element within folk music. While Gerrard has an extensive resume as a recording artist within several different configurations, as a guardian of old-time music, as founder and past editor-in-chief of The Old-Time Herald, and as a touring musician, she has recorded as a ‘solo’ artist only intermittently.

1994’s beautiful Pieces of My Heart and 2004’s equally resonant Calling Me Home: Songs of Love and Loss appeared on the Copper Creek label. As on those recordings, Gerrard’s voice on her contemporary releases (Bittersweet, Follow Me Home) is pure and powerful: Gerrard’s voice is multi-dimensional, and as Lee Smith wrote two decades ago, she can sing anything: “holler, shout, belt it out, swing a little, croon a little, and then flat-out break your heart.

My appreciation for Alice Gerrard is as firm as my admiration of Hazel Dickens. Together, they were incredible.

Well-documented elsewhere, Hazel and Alice met and began singing at Washington, DC/Baltimore house parties, moving onto coffeehouse performances within a burgeoning bluegrass environment. Their collaborative recording output—four albums as a duo as well as a fifth as the Strange Creek Singers with Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwarz—was limited, but highly significant and exceedingly impressive.

One of their greatest admirers is Laurie Lewis. Like many of us, upon first hearing Dickens and Gerrard, Lewis realized that the hard side of bluegrass need not be the domain of men. 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. Her wide-ranging tribute to Bill Monroe (Skippin’ and Flyin’) was one of 2011’s finest bluegrass albums, and possibly the strongest Monroe tribute released since the bluegrass master’s death.

Lewis 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 years back I saw her 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 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.

Like Hazel & Alice, Laurie Lewis is bonafide.

I’m told that Laurie Lewis has, with others, led the charge to have Hazel and Alice inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, that induction hasn’t yet happened. One wonders, why?

I’ve been told there is a faction who believes Alison Krauss must be the first female artist/bandleader elected to the Hall. Fair perhaps, but dang short-sighted. Hazel and Alice definitely deserve a place among the heroes of the music, and one could make a convincing argument that Lewis herself also deserves consideration for inclusion in bluegrass music’s most hallowed hall.

These powerful bluegrass forces come together on Laurie Lewis & the Right Hand’s The Hazel and Alice Sessions, surely one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of this year.

No disappointment here.

With songs drawn from 1965’s Who’s That Knocking through to Gerrard’s 2002 masterpiece Calling Me Home, a full half of the songs are from the Pioneering Women of Bluegrass anthology (a collection of their 1965 and 1973 recordings,) with a spattering culled from two ‘70s Rounder albums and an additional Dickens’ release.

The album kicks off with the energy of “Cowboy Jim,” a song Dickens wrote for the first album based around a scattered lyric partially remembered by her father. The album continues on, exploring the many shades of love, devotion, loss, faith, and heartbreak one would expect from a classic bluegrass set. “James Alley Blues,” one of the few songs here not written by either Dickens or Gerrard, contains a couple brilliant lines of insight including, “Could have a much better time if men weren’t so hard to please;” joined by vocal guest Aoife O’Donovan, Lewis retains the acapella arrangement to most excellent effect.

Tom Rozum is not only one of bluegrass’ most secure mandolinists, but he is a fine vocalist. He is featured taking a couple leads, doing justice to “Who’s That Knocking?” This decision confirms the gender-neutrality of the finest music, songs that reveal themselves no matter who is taking the lead and conveying the story. He also fair nails “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling,” a tipping of the collective hat to Mr. Monroe.

Hazel Dickens is quoted once saying, “My relationship was always with the words and the story.” The songs Lewis has chosen give truth to the statement. Perhaps Dickens’ greatest achievement, is there a finer song capturing the truth that is the “Working Girl Blues?” Lewis’ rendition is stellar, mournful yet spirited with Lewis’ fiddle conveying equal parts pride and misery. That Gerrard offers up the harmony here makes the experience that much more fulfilling; not surprisingly, it is this song that best captures the spirit of the original recordings. The further treat here is a previously unheard third verse that Dickens once recited to Lewis.

Chad Manning contribute fiddle to a few tunes including “You’ll Get No More of Me,” one of those songs that Dickens might have been referencing in the previous quote; the liner notes don’t make it apparent, but this one must be sung by Patrick Sauber,  the Right Hands’ banjo man. “Pretty Bird,” previously released on a Linda Ronstadt compilation a couple years back, comes from sessions for a Rounder Dickens’ tribute album that never emerged.

The Right Hands are Rozum (mandolin, mandola, and guitar) as well as Sauber (banjo and lead guitar on a single track) and Andrew Conklin (bass.) Fiddler Natiana Hargreaves is on five tracks, with Dobro from Mike Witcher on three, including “Working Girl Blues” and Gerrard’s “Mama’s Gonna Stay.”

The album’s vocal showpiece is “Let That Liar Alone,” a song featured on the 1975 Rounder album Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. With Rozum driving the bus, this four-part vocal gospel song will leave listeners mesmerized; Harley Eblem drops in some bass vocals that are impressive. Avoid the devil, folks.

Laurie Lewis places Hazel Dickens with the bluegrass vocal big-three: Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and Lester Flatt. Alice Gerrard is a fearsome master of vocal folk, old-time, and bluegrass. The Hazel and Alice Sessions is not only a worthy tribute to a key bluegrass partnership, but an entertaining and formable collection of music. It’s early of course, but doubtless a strong contender for bluegrass album of the year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: Dolly Parton, Town Mountain, Lewis & Kallick, Ralph Stanley   Leave a comment

A few reviews have been posted over at the Lonesome Road Review.

untitledLaurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick’s tribute to Vern Williams and Ray Park is a stunning bluegrass collection.

I was asked to submit a version of my Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II duets album of earlier this year.

Rising bluegrass band Town Mountain has released a ‘stop-gap’ live set that is brief, but still pretty enjoyable.

Finally, I was assigned Dolly Parton’s latest. Despite having enjoyed her music for decades, I wasn’t impressed this time out.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

 

Roots Song of the Week: American Nomad- Country Mile   Leave a comment

I’ve been distracted of late, and therefore have fallen behind on many things including my Roots Song of the Week series. I was hoping to go 52 weeks in succession, but…

shiloh-and-hassan-mediumWe’re back this week with a cut from a recently released album entitled Country Mile. The title track from American Nomad’s first disc has a lot going for it, from my perspective.

The vocal treatment is appealing. The male lead- Hassan El-Tayyab- is confident, but not overly aggressive. His is an amiable voice, one well suited to teaming up with Shiloh Parkerson, herself a fair vocal dynamo- sultry and tightly-wound.

The song has three distinct chapters, and nothing too much develops lyrically. As much as I love story songs and descriptive phrases, sometimes it is nice to just have singers play with words while expressing emotion. I’m not saying the lyrics have nothing too them- indeed, they do as it is a chain gang/indentured worker-type situation being experienced- but they are words that are scattered about like poetic pearls without narrative constraint.

I enjoy the song a little more each time I listen to it.

The instrumentation is acoustic and is from the same world as Crooked Still and Bearfoot.

The album is produced by Laurie Lewis, and that is what first caught my attention. Having listened to the album a couple times now, I am impressed by the sound she and the band have captured.

The band’s bio can be found here. No need for me to rehash it herein.

There is a clip of the band performing the song “Country Mile” on their website here. It is the fourth video box from the top.

Generously, they have provided us with a Soundstream of the entire album as well, and I have found it to be well worth the listen. I’ll write more about American Nomad in the coming weeks; I’m quite taken with their music.

Thanks for sticking with me- Donald

@FervorCoulee

 

Roots Song of the Week: Laurie Lewis- Sailing Boat   Leave a comment

untitledLast night I decided that I wanted to feature Laurie Lewis’ brave and challenging new live album within my Roots Song of the Week feature. Unfortunately, I could only find one of the songs streaming online, and it wasn’t the ‘right’ one.

I was pleased today then to find that Engine 145 decided to feature a track from One Night in May, both as a streaming track and as a video. “Sailing Boat,” it turns out, was the right song.

I suggest that One Night in May, Lewis’ new live album is both brave and challenging for good reason. On this trio album- Lewis is joined by long-time collaborator Tom Rozum and electric guitarist Nina Gerber- Lewis has elected to capture songs recorded live on a single evening at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage. (Some songs also feature harmony from the T Sisters, and one track has fiddling by Tristan Clarridge.)

Not only that, but she has chosen to build the bulk of the album around newly written songs. Therefore, few of these songs will have been heard by any but the most ardent of Lewis’ listeners. (I’ve been intently listening to Lewis for more than a dozen years, and nothing sounded familiar to me. Well, almost nothing. More on that later.) No “Who Will Watch the Home Place?” No “Tall Pines.” No “The Wood Thrush’s Song.”

This album then is a whole new listening experience, one that captures Lewis and her cohorts in a very comfortable setting. The song I’m bringing to your attention is one of the album’s most significant. “Sailing Boat” could have come from Guy Clark or Mary Chapin Carpenter. Like many of Lewis’ compositions, it uses finely hewn words to create images and a contemplative mood that remain fixed in the psyche long after the chords fade.

Beyond the quality of the production- both the sound recording and the album packaging and graphics (kudos Mr. Rozum)- what is readily apparent with this recording is that Laurie Lewis continues to peak. Her recordings stretch back some thirty years, and among them are several bona fide classics including The Oak and the Laurel, True Stories, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, Skippin’ and Flyin’, and Guest House.  I would suggest that we add One Night in May to that list.

What was familiar about this album? A great version of “Ring of Fire!”

“Sailing Boat” can be heard over at Engine 145.

Happy listening. As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

@FervorCoulee

 

 

Laurie Lewis- Skippin’ and Flyin’ review   Leave a comment

I rewrote my review of Laurie Lewis’s latest at the request of the Lonesome Road Review; without doubt, an incredible album.

Laurie Lewis
Skippin’ and Flyin’
Spruce and Maple Music

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

West coast bluegrass maven Laurie Lewis pays tribute to Bill Monroe by exploring his roots and branches in ways few others have attempted. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, several Monroe ‘tributes’ have been released. Skippin’ and Flyin’ is easily the most impressive and 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.

Skippin’ and Flyin’ is not simply a collection of Monroe tunes recorded by a contemporary band. Rather, the disc goes to the heart of Mr. Monroe’s music, exploring its soul and his motivations and influences.

Laurie Lewis is no newcomer, having played almost every bluegrass festival there is and having recorded several excellent albums over the years. However, she has never narrowed her field of vision 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.

Throughout this recent album, Lewis doesn’t mimic what Bill Monroe did in 1947 and 1957; she goes deeper, exploring what he may have heard and been affected by in earlier years. In doing so, she gets to the root of Bill Monroe in ways that many other artists have not attempted.

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 precursor to “Molly and Tenbrooks” 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!)

She takes a different approach 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 and beautiful mandolin from Rozum.

The final ‘Monroe’ song included here is also the lonesomest. As recorded here by Lewis and her touring band (Rozum, Scott Huffman, Craig Smith, and Todd Phillips) “A Lonesome Road,” recorded by Monroe in 1957, is blue and bluesy. A similar mood with a very different execution is found on “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues,” a flirty tune Lewis learned from Wanda Jackson.

A contemporary gem is Mark Erelli’s lyrically rich song of devastation, “Hartfordtown 1944.” Monroe never heard the song, but one can imagine that he might have given it more than a passing nod.

Songs from Del McCoury, Wilma Lee Cooper, and Flatt & Scruggs are also included, as are fresh interpretations of “What’s Good For You (Should Be Alright for Me)” and “I Don’t Care Anymore.” Going back even further, “Fair Beauty Bright” has hauntingly ideal mandola offerings from Rozum.

Laurie Lewis has created many excellent albums, and may have recorded “better” ones than this. But none have been more important or have affected me more. By exploring Bill Monroe—his music, his tradition, his influences—in this manner she has paid him the ultimate tribute.

Fervor Coulee’s Ten Favourite Bluegrass Albums of 2011   Leave a comment

Donald Teplyske’s  favourite ten bluegrass albums of 2011:

Unlike last year, I feel that I did a very good job of ensuring that I heard the vast majority of excellent bluegrass that was released in 2011. I’m still not being serviced by one particular publicist and a couple of the major bluegrass labels, but others keep me ‘in the know’ and I’ve been able to continue purchasing other albums as I’ve become aware of them. Still, there are no doubt outstanding albums I’ve missed, albums that I may have enjoyed and favourably reviewed- Clay Hess, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Grasstowne, and others. But I am more than aware that you can’t hear everything and so what follows is my Ten Favourite Bluegrass Albums of 2011 as submitted to the Lonesome Road Review survey. The paragraphs that follow have been largely recycled from my previously written reviews of the albums.

  1. Dale Ann Bradley- Somewhere South of Crazy (Compass) Critically lauded, praised and recognized by her industry and a fan favourite wherever she appears, Dale Ann Bradley’s third Compass album, and eighth overall, continues her measured but steady ascension to the highest levels of bluegrass performance and reverence. Again working with producer Alison Brown, Somewhere South of Crazy is Bradley’s most obviously contemporary bluegrass recording. Over recent albums, Bradley’s music has become increasingly polished while retaining the traditional spirit that has been her hallmark. It is this duality that makes Bradley’s music so appealing. As a recording artist should, Dale Ann Bradley improves her performance with each album. Fully realized and confident, Bradley exudes bluegrass and has never sounded better than on Somewhere South of Crazy.
  2. John Reischman & the Jaybirds- Vintage & Unique (Corvus) Over the past decade, John Reischman & the Jaybirds have become increasing popular in western North America. They are a great bluegrass band, always adding new material to their repertoire. Still, when exceptional mandolin players are mentioned, John Reischman’s name is often forgotten. On Vintage and Unique, the quintet takes Bill Monroe’s “The First Whippoorwill” for a spin and refreshes “Shady Grove” and “Last Chance.”  Trisha Gagnon and Jim Nunally’s voices- which always sound wonderful together- are especially beautiful throughout this recording. The band delivers new songs alongside their reimagining of classic and long-forgotten tunes. “The Cypress Hills” and “Consider Me Gone” are just waiting to be discovered, while “Cold Mountain (Cam Saan)” examines the Canadian railway experience of Chinese labourers. Every track, each break and harmonic moment are highlights within a flawless album.
  3. Larry Sparks- Almost Home (Rounder) An album of blue mountain memories: sons returning home, family history, faith, country roads, lonesomeness, country stars, Sunday dinners with nanner puddin’, and Momma’s apron strings. Larry Sparks’ voice continues to be pure and strong and the instrumental accompaniment he receives on this disc- largely from his touring band- is second to none. There remains a naturalness about the way Sparks approaches his music that is incredibly appealing.
  4. Alison Krauss & Union Station- Paper Airplane (Rounder)A delicate balance of the wistful-yearnsomeness that appeals to a wide-spectrum of the population and the more driving bluegrass sounds that link to the traditional foundation of the band’s history, Paper Airplane is three-quarters of an hour of pure aural pleasure. AKUS further refine the acoustiblue parameters that they have established and explored over the past fifteen years since So Long, So Wrong. The acoustic instrumentation is, as expected, exemplary in its tone and execution and while some of the songs- it could be argued- have a similar calm and sedate sound, there are enough lively moments to maintain momentum. Singularly, the songs are arrestingly enjoyable. Collectively, the cohesive flow of Paper Airplane amounts to one majestic performance.
  5. James Reams & The Barnstormers- One Foot in the Honky Tonk (Mountain Redbird Music) A wonderful bluegrass album that is just waiting for more of us to discover. As he has consistently done, within this new volume James Reams’ life experiences and those of his ancestors permeate the songs- whether he wrote them or not- not lending them authenticity but ensuring they are authentic. When listening to James Reams, one is on a bridge connecting the present to the past, where the waters below blend the relationships and lamentations of today with those who birthed and shaped them. There are few bluegrass singers who match the lithe and masculine timbre Reams brings to the songs he is called to perform. With One Foot in the Honky Tonk, James Reams further defines his bluegrass, blending the varied elements of the roadhouse with sounds from the hills of Kentucky and her neighbors. One foot in the honky-tonk indeed, but the rest of the Barnstormers’ bodies and their souls are deep in the bluegrass performing songs from the likes of Kevin Welch and Mike Henderson, Chris Gaffney, Fred Eaglesmith, Stonewall Jackson and Harlan Howard- folks who know honky tonks, to be sure- as well as original and traditional tunes.
  6. Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice- The Heart of a Song (Rebel Records)
  7. Blue Highway- Sounds of Home (Rounder)
  8. Laurie Lewis- Skippin’ and Flyin’ (Spruce and Maple Music)
  9. Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers- Rare Bird Alert (Rounder)
  10. Rebel Records digital reissue campaign featuring releases from Ralph Stanley, The McPeak Brothers, Bill Grant and Delia Bell, Dave Evans, and others.

Honourable mentions to: Charlie Sizemore Heartache Looking for a Home, Ralph Stanley A Mother’s Prayer, Barnstar! C’mon, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper Fired Up, Sarah Jarosz Follow Me Down, Dehlia Low Ravens & Crows, Paul Williams & the Victory Trio Satisfied and The Del McCoury Band Old Memories.

As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Laurie Lewis- Skippin’ and Flyin’   Leave a comment

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 with “The 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 can 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.