Chico has a contingent of bluegrass aficionados. I’m one of ‘em, and I’ve seen some of the greats when they swept through town—Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury, Rhonda Vincent, and a range of others, including Laurie Lewis, who will be playing the Sierra Nevada Big Room tomorrow evening, April 15. Bluegrass produces a lot of angelic voices, but I can’t think of any sweeter than hers. She’s showing up this time with her partner, Tom Rozum, who has a voice that blends with hers like coffee with cream, and they’re going to be joined for the gig by Jacob Groopman and Melody Walker, two younger singer/ songwriters.
The first track on the new Laurie Lewis album (An Evening in May) is a cover of the Johnny Cash classic, “Ring of Fire.” Laurie gives a strikingly different musical spin to that familiar refrain—“and it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire.” The way she sings those words took this listener by surprise, and it’s likely to do the same for you. “Where did that come from?”
I asked her in a recent interview. Her answer provides a glimpse of a musician’s inner world.
“It’s kind of an interesting story,” she said. “I had a dream one night that I had a twelve- string guitar, I’ve never been drawn to that instrument, but then I thought maybe I should check out 12-string. I’d try ‘em out in music stores sometimes, but every one I played just sounded terrible, just a big jangly mess. But for some reason that dream wouldn’t go away. About a year or two later, I was at Mike Seeger’s house, visiting Mike’s widow, Alexia. Instruments were all over the place. I happened to ask Alexia if Mike had a 12-string, and she said he did, and I should go take a look at it. I did, and it was like a light shining up from this case. It had been made in 1905 in Baltimore, and the sound of it was just wonderful. Alexia wanted me to have it, but I found it too hard too play, so I didn’t take it. But I kept thinking of it, and I finally arranged to get the guitar against everyone’s advice.
I didn’t know what to do with it. The neck is so crazy, and I had it tuned low. One night we went to see this little band play and they did “Ring of Fire,” and the band sounded dopey covering that song, but I went home from that gig and wanted to do it myself. I picked up the 12- string, and what came out was the way you hear the song on the new album. It started with a dream of a 12-string, and the sound of Mike’s guitar was what brought that out.”
For readers who may not know, Mike Seeger was one of the giants of American folk music, and it’s interesting to think that his spirit, through his old 12-string guitar, is still contributing to the music that people like Laurie Lewis live to perpetuate. That perpetuation continues tomorrow night at the Big Room.