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MUSIC : Fiddle Virtuoso Brings Her Acoustic Sound to Festival : * Laurie Lewis & Grant Street will take the stage on Father's Day afternoon at the Live Oak event in Santa Barbara.

June 16, 1994|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Live Oak Music Festival, a three-day epic featuring all sorts of eclectic acts, will offer those in attendance a chance to slurp and slug under the oaks up the road apiece from Santa Barbara. The site is approximately 10 miles north of Santa Barbara on Highway 154. There's no address, but that's why there are signs.

Acoustic music fans can thrill to the gigs by the Cache Valley Drifters, the Acousticats and Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan. Mellow blues fans can check out Charles Brown on Saturday, while those of the pointy-shoe persuasion will be aiming toward fiddle virtuoso Laurie Lewis & Grant Street when they take the stage on Father's Day afternoon.

Lewis is a famous fiddle player with over 20 years of experience, twice winning the California State Women's Championship. Jerry Logan is the new bass player of Grant Street as of last February, joining mandolin player Tom Rozum and guitarist Peter McLaughlin. The group's latest, "True Stories," came out on Rounder late last year.

"We play roots-based original music that's acoustic," said the fiddler during a phone interview from her Berkeley home. "When I first started playing in the Bay Area in the early '70s, there were a lot of women in the bluegrass music scene, and a lot of old-time fiddle players. But right now, there don't seem to be many women doing what I do."

Lewis is one of those in-betweeners whose music is difficult to pigeonhole. She received Female Vocalist of the Year award for 1992-93 from the International Bluegrass Music Assn. Her stuff gets played on Country Music Television because she's got that twang; but other times, the band plays relatively straight folk music; and there's some blues in there somewhere sometime too. In any case, it's all performed acoustically.

Many of Lewis' country-flavored songs have recurring themes--nature and the nature of things, which is often love gone bad. Happy-ever-after country love songs are about as common as Clint Black doing Beach Boys songs.

To quote the late Harry Nilsson, who definitely had it figured out, "If you never had an answer, you never had a question. And if you never had a question, you never had a problem. And if you never had a problem, everyone would be happy. And if everyone was happy, there wouldn't be any love songs." Not really, says the fiddle player.

"I think country music has a lot more to say besides love stinks. The many messages of country music are what attracted me to it in the first place. It's very direct when it comes to speaking about problems, but in an entertaining way with visceral qualities. You can use that forum to spell out anything you want. I'm actually a fan of the early country music, stuff like Bill Monroe and Jimmy Rogers."

Yet, one of the more memorable songs on "True Stories" is "You'll Be Leaving Me," a potential theme song if and when there's ever a Soap Opera Channel. Here's a sample line on this subtle serenade for sobbing suckers:

"When your heart breaks for the first time, you know it's not that hard to mend. But the healing goes more slowly every time it breaks again. Where once you gave love freely, now you're holding it inside. You say you're learning how to live, but you're just learning how to hide."

Besides writing clever songs, Lewis has the voice to pull it off. Crystal clear and perfect, Lewis' voice has been compared to Alison Krauss, but there's really no one who can sing any better.

"The songwriting process really varies for me. Sometimes, they just jump out whole and it's over. Other times, it takes years to get the words just right and keep rewriting a song. How long it takes has nothing to do with which ones are my favorites; it just varies. Between everyone in the band, we could probably play almost forever. We know a lot of songs between us."

Lewis and the band are firmly entrenched in that endless bluegrass festival circuit, doing almost 200 dates per year, and they recently returned from Europe. Since they're usually doing festivals or workshops, the band rarely plays bars, so the drunks screaming for "Freebird" aren't really an issue.

"You know, I'd like to have a bigger audience and I'd like to be able to pay the band more money. But our music isn't really that accessible; and people have to seek it out if they like it. Yet, I feel real lucky that I get to do what I do and make a living. I think if you really want to do something, then just do it. If you're doing something you don't want to do, then do something else. I do this because I have to."

Things are looking up for the band. For one, they're still alive after being involved in a bad car accident in March. They'd much rather be in Santa Barbara than opening for Elvis. Lewis suffered a fractured skull among other assorted dings. Rozum broke his hip, wrist and shoulder. The band canceled six weeks of gigs to recover, but everyone is playing again.

The band is booked through September at venues all over the country, according to its newsletter. Lewis will be easy to spot. She'll be the blond with the fiddle--and without a Dodger hat.

"I'm a little out of it this year, but we don't like the Dodgers up here."

* WHAT: Laurie Lewis and others at the Live Oak Music Festival.

* WHERE: Live Oak Camp, approximately 10 miles north of Santa Barbara on Highway 154.

* WHEN: Friday through Sunday.

* COST: Friday, $20, Saturday or Sunday single day, $25; only available at the gate.

* ETC.: For more information, call 800-549-8855.

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