The audience spoke and Ovations organizers listened.
“Last year, attendees at the Calaveras County Arts Council’s performing-arts series Ovations had a chance to weigh in on the kinds of music they would like to hear at 2020’s winter concerts,” says a release.
“Bluegrass was one of the top genres requested,” said arts council Executive Director Kathy Mazzaferro. “It’s what our audience wanted.”
And so, Grammy Award-winning bluegrass band Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands is set to grace the stage at 3 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Bret Harte Theater in Angels Camp. The concert is the second of four shows planned for the 2020 Ovations Performing Arts Series presented by the arts council.
Choosing Lewis to scratch the itch that Ovations attendees had was a no-brainer.
“She’s one of the top bluegrass artists,” Mazzaferro said. “By all accounts, she’s amazing. We’re very grateful she was available.”
Fiddler, guitarist, singer and songwriter Lewis has long been a staple in the Northern California bluegrass scene and beyond.
“When I was in my early 20s, I discovered the vibrant bluegrass community in the Bay Area and I just stayed,” she said. She has built a career performing songs that are part of this very traditional American art form, and she helped establish two West Coast legends in the genre: the Good Ol’ Persons Band and the Grant Street String Band. Lewis has twice been voted Female Vocalist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association (in 1992 and ’94), and her classic rendition of the Kate Long song “Who Will Watch the Home Place?” won International Bluegrass Song of the Year in 1994. Lewis’ most recent album with her band the Right Hands, “The Hazel and Alice Sessions,” was nominated for the Best Bluegrass Recording Grammy in 2017. Lewis was an influencer in the bluegrass world before “influencer” was an Instagram or YouTube path to fame.
Bluegrass is the quintessential melting-pot American music, hailing from Appalachia and built on a framework of influences from Africa, the British Isles and mainland Europe. Old-time string music, blues, sacred and gospel music and jazz are intertwined to create the high lonesome sound and rollicking stringed instrumentals that burst into life in the early 20th century with performers like Bill Monroe, the Carter Family and Ralph Stanley.
“It is a very communal sort of music,” Lewis said. “You want to be in a band to play it. It’s so much about communication with the other band members.”
With her “silvery” voice, Lewis weaves intricate harmonies with the Rights Hands: singer and mandolin player Tom Rozum, banjo player Patrick Sauber, fiddler Brandon Godman and stand-up bassist Andrew Conklin.
Linda Ronstadt has appreciated Lewis’ style for a long time.
“Her voice is a rare combination of grit and grace, strength and delicacy,” Ronstadt said. “Her stories are always true.”
Lewis says she and her band gravitate toward older, traditional tunes, as opposed to the modern, “smoother” style of bluegrass often heard today. Although she admits, “I also write a lot of songs, and I’m not necessarily bound to the tradition when I write. It’s impossible to be true to yourself and be a complete dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist.”
Also, in her mind, traditional doesn’t equal stuffy.
“I would argue that bluegrass started out as a pretty cutting-edge music,” Lewis said. “It was music that combined the interests of Bill Monroe. He loved the church singing and old-time fiddle tunes, and he was a singer-songwriter. You could sort of define it as a singer-songwriter with a string band. If you look at it that way, we are perfectly in the tradition.”
Tickets for the 3 p.m. show at the theater at 323 Main St. (Highway 49), Angels Camp, are $25 each for adults and $10 each for ages 17 and under at calaverasarts.org or 754-1774 from Mondays through Thursdays. If available on Feb. 9, tickets are sold at the theater about a half-hour before the concert.
The remaining two shows, both at 3 p.m. at the Bret Harte Theater, include the Diamonds playing classic rock ’n’ roll tunes from the 1950s, ’60s and beyond on March 15, and the Driftwood Consort performing classical French baroque music on historic instruments on April 5.