Laurie Lewis has been leaning more toward contemporary folk music lately, as witnessed in her 2013 live recording One Night in May. So I was probably expecting something along those lines when I hit “play” on this new disc. Imagine my surprise and delight when I got a full-on blast of bluegrass and two powerful women singing the Stephen Foster classic “Oh! Susanna.”
The Laurie & Kathy of the title are Lewis and Kathy Kallick, who were founding members in the 1970s of the ground-breaking Northern California bluegrass band Good Ol’ Persons. Fiddler Lewis has gone on to play solo and with her own band but the two remain friends and have recorded together at times. Both of them were highly influenced by two fellows I’d not heard of until now, Vern Williams and Ray Park. Both were from the Arkansas Ozarks but became known as top bluegrass musicians in California in the 1960s and ’70s. Both Lewis and Kallick played in their bands, and now they’re revisiting Vern and Ray’s influential repertoire on this duet album.
The two sing fabulous harmonies together, swapping lead vocals with ease, and form the core of the band with Kallick on guitar and Lewis on fiddle and upright bass. Rounding out the group are Tom Rozum on mandolin and Patrick Sauber on banjo, both members of Lewis’s band the Right Hands (Sauber’s the youngest of the bunch, a second-generation California bluegrass player). They’re joined at times by some other top-notch players including Annie Staninec on fiddle, Sally Van Meter on slide guitar, and Keith Little on banjo and guitar as well as lead vocal on the last track, the bluegrass gospel “Touch of God’s Hand.” Beautiful three-part harmonies on this one, and Little’s tenor is classic bluegrass. (Just as an aside, how come so many bluegrass gospel songs including this one are in waltz time? This song actually makes me want to dance, which would probably get me kicked out of any church where it would be sung!)
There’s no need to give a song-by-song rundown of this disc because they’re all classic songs and the performances approach perfection. I got goosebumps listening to their version of the Carter Family chestnut “My Clinch Mountain Home,” and that was before Kathy started yodeling after the first chorus! Other classics include “Black-Eyed Susie,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Cowboy Jack,” and traditionals like “Little Birdie” and “Flying Cloud.” One that did make me sit up straighter was Ray Park’s song “To Hell With The Land,” which Laurie sings lead on. It’s an environmentalist bluegrass song. I wasn’t aware any such existed, in the mostly conservative world of bluegrass, but then Vern and Ray did spend their careers in California. It’s a straightforward condemnation of a culture that values commercial and industrial development over the land and the people who live on it.
Here’s a swell live video of Laurie, Kathy and band performing “Cabin On A Mountain.”
Promoter, booker and longtime friend of bluegrass Randy Pitts writes in the liner notes that “… the wildness that made the music of Vern & Ray what it was is omnipresent in the gorgeous, full-throated, expressive sound of their voices, singly and in harmony.” I couldn’t have said it better – “full-throated” is exactly the way these two sing these songs, and their joy comes through in every line.
The physical CD package, with a bunch of old photos, full credits and liner notes, is beautiful and very impressive, as is usual with projects by Laurie Lewis’s Spruce and Maple Music. This is a superb production all around, a must for all bluegrass lovers.
(Spruce and Maple, 2014)