Laurie Lewis Releases Title Track of Forthcoming Album - TREES

Article Contributed by Dreamspider Pu… | Published on Saturday, April 27, 2024

With five decades of music-making to her credit, multi-GRAMMY nominee Laurie Lewis has emerged as both a successor and contemporary of the many greats in bluegrass, old-time, and folk music. Unafraid to venture beyond established boundaries, she has carved out her place as a uniquely singular vocalist, songwriter, instrumentalist, and frontwoman in genres revered for their adherence to tradition, authenticity, and the canon of the forebearers. She’s won IBMA Awards, sung and recorded with Linda Ronstadt, set poems by Wendell Berry to music—at his request. She’s influenced and inspired folks like guitarist phenom Molly Tuttle—one example of an entire generation of pickers and singers who call her a mentor. Ultimately, Lewis occupies a unique, superlative niche in American roots music that is all her own.

Lewis' 24th album, TREES, presents a profound and multifaceted perspective with life, loss, and grief.  While deeply ruminative, this set includes danceable music that drips with community and never feels burdened by its subject matter or apparent solitude. These songs—seven originals and a handful of covers—aren’t too concerned with genre, especially given that bluegrass and old-time tend to spout from Lewis like a bubbling mountain spring, in so many distinct manifestations. Self-produced, TREES will be released on Lewis’ own Spruce and Maple Music label on May 31.

Lewis has chosen today, Arbor Day, to release the title track from her upcoming album. The a cappella quartet, “Trees” is an imagined message from our fellow inhabitants of this planet, whose sense of time is measured in decades rather than seconds. Lewis says, “The stubbornness and indomitable striving of these providers of the oxygen we breathe give me hope for the future of life on Earth.”

Would you try to turn this whole world into dust?
Don’t you know you cannot wrest the land from us?
For we are patient, we are old
And though we fall, our roots will grow

Folk Alley calls TREES a “stunning new album” and premiered the “Trees” music video. Henry Carrigan writes, “‘Trees’ reminds us just how deeply planted we are in the natural world, and it encourages us to celebrate the moments of joy and to be aware of the enduring beauty that surrounds us in nature and that will be here long after we’re gone.”

As on many of her past recordings, Lewis finds her music-making rooted in the natural world. As an avid walker, she is both an urban explorer and a wilderness wanderer—plus a self-taught naturalist and conservation activist. Her skillset in songwriting and recording is frequently outward-looking, text-painting to evoke the landscapes she adores and to interpret their voices to us. On TREES, Lewis looks inward instead, while utilizing all of the literary and naturalist skills at her disposal to observe and process seasonal, organic, inevitable life changes.

TREES expresses the emotional turmoil in Lewis’ life at the time of its making. On the upside, there is the unbridled joy of a walk in the mountains, where she spent many a happy day while unable to play music communally during the COVID pandemic. The flip side of that period—and its long wake—includes a six-month period of grappling with the loss of her singing voice, and most notably, the landmark of creating a recording without her musical and life partner, Tom Rozum. The pair met and began making music together in 1986 and for every album since 1989’s Love Chooses You they’ve been credited alongside each other, often in duet. In recent years, Rozum developed Parkinson’s Disease and the illness’s progression has left him unable to play mandolin or guitar, or to tour with Lewis, record, and perform—as they have done, full time, for decades.

Granted, picking up the album will immediately reveal Rozum is still, in fact, credited alongside Lewis, singing harmony vocals and drawing the cover artwork for TREES. The vacuum left by Rozum as a creative partner on these recordings is most perceptible not musically, but in Lewis’ reckoning with that vacuum: naming, processing, and contemplating the losses, myriad and varied, when a lifelong musical partner is forced to step aside. With these intentions and her trademark deliberation, Lewis has framed TREES as a long-play journey, a vinyl trek, inviting each of us to put the needle to the record and join her as she traverses the Sierra Nevada or rafts the Tuolumne River, singing.

Her band has chameleonic quality, varying a bit across the entire sequence. It includes Lewis on guitar and lead vocals throughout (along with fiddle on one track), Hasee Ciaccio on bass, Brandon Godman on fiddle, Patrick Sauber on banjo, and George Guthrie on guitar and banjo. Special guests on the album include Andrew Marlin on mandolin, Sam Reider on accordion, and Nina Gerber on guitar.

Long Gone” (written by Bill Morrissey) was the first single released and its video was premiered by the Bluegrass Situation and featured in Cowgirl Magazine. That song, along with album opener, “Just a Little Ways Down the Road” (an original, inspired by writings of ecological thinker and environmental advocate John Muir, featuring Marlin on mandolin), feel like classic Laurie Lewis, forward-leaning, categorical bluegrass ready for the radio.

A stand-out track from TREES, among a veritable forest of stellar company, is “Enough,” which concerns California wildfires and the ever-accelerating climate crisis. The song features Guthrie's honeyed, low-tuned banjo and Reider's cinematic accordion, as well as Guthrie, Ciaccio, and Rozum harmonizing with Lewis, who sings, “I’ve had enough fire, I’ve had enough rain; Lord, I’m so tired of all this pain.”

“Why’d You Have to Break My Heart” is reminiscent of lyrics by Lewis’ friend, mentor, and collaborator Alice Gerrard—timeless, storied, and burnished. Written on the occasion of John Prine’s death, it grapples with grief as a facet of the everyday, instead of an outlier or aberration, utilizing a question Prine asked her, directly—years prior to his loss. More minimal musically—with Lewis on guitar and lead vocals accompanied by Guthrie on lead guitar—the song speaks volumes.

“The Banks are Covered in Blue'' is a collaboration with Godman, and Lewis says “Brandon wrote this lovely waltz, and posted it on a social media platform as part of the ‘Quarantune Challenge,’ wherein he had to produce a tune every day for a month during the quarantine. I took a listen, wrote the lyrics, and posted them in the comments. And our first co-write was done!” Premiered by Bluegrass Today, the song is available now exclusively at Bandcamp.

The nostalgic and uplifting original tune, “Texas Wind,” recalls an incredible rainstorm of the past, while reflecting on present circumstances, and was dubbed a "country love song" by J. Poet of the East Bay Express. Lewis further mixes in a handful of covers on TREES including the upbeat tunes “Quaking Aspen” (featuring Lewis on fiddle, written by Mark Simos), “Hound Dog Blues” (Tom T. Hall), “Down on the Levee” (John Hartford), and “The Day is Mine” (Kate MacLeod).

The album’s final tune, “Rock the Pain Away,” another highlight of the record, listens like a lullaby, with Lewis’ signature intimacy underscored by her tender, emotional vocal, mixed so close to listeners’ ears it feels like you’re in the booth with her. Here, Lewis’ perspective feels most like a mother tree, an old-growth survivor of wildfires, lightning, and droughts, inviting us to rest beneath her boughs and in the crook of her roots. Gerber joins the band on this gentle song on lead on guitar, while Laurie sings:

Let me hold you for awhile
Enfold you in my arms like a child
And if you could let go
And if you would let me, you know,
I would try to rock the pain away

TREES is not simply a metaphor or parable; it’s not merely an introspective, emotional inventory; it’s not a performative challenge to the powers and systems that be—powers and systems that leave us alone to encounter, interpret, and reckon with such grief and loss. This LP is all of these things together, at the same time, held in place by a remarkable linchpin and a gorgeous, maternal tree under which all of us can learn, grow, and flourish. Each of us on this beautiful, complicated Earth should count ourselves lucky to encounter TREES as stately and as nurturing as Laurie Lewis.

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