Bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe might be attempting to claw his way out of the grave at this very moment, trying desperately to stop the madness just unleashed by another bluegrass patriarch — and one of Monroe’s former Bluegrass Boys — Ralph Lewis.
But then again, maybe not. The 72-year-old Lewis — the fearless leader of Asheville’s “Sons of Ralph, Featuring Ralph,” a band known for taking bluegrass on a calamitous ride through a mind-bending array of genres — says the supposedly staunch traditionalist with whom he toured and recorded in the mid-’70s (bluegrass music was actually named in Monroe’s honor, referring to his home state of Kentucky) might have been a little more flexible than his reputation suggests. Ralph thinks that even applies to Sons of Ralph’s debut CD, Grab a Root and Growl (Root Records, 2001).
“I kinda think he’d grin a little bit and tap his foot if he heard our music,” notes Lewis of the famed mandolinist and singer. “He was more open to other people’s music than some people think. He just wasn’t going to change his music.”
Lewis obviously has no such qualms about running afield of the mountain music he grew up listening to and playing on his family’s Madison County farm. With sons Don (fiddle, electric guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Marty (guitar, dobro, vocals), plus bass player Gary Wiley and drummer/percussionist/vocalist Richard Foulk, Lewis formed Sons of Ralph, Featuring Ralph approximately three years ago. The band was the result of what Don calls “fooling around with electric stuff,” which the Lewises had been doing together for years. “In the ’80s when we started playing at Bill Stanley’s Barbecue & Bluegrass, we were trying to mix electric with some banjo,” remembers Marty. “We were always into The Byrds and that kind of thing, mixing country and bluegrass with rock and whatever.”
Between the three of them, the Lewises have written more than 100 songs. But they’ve always enthusiastically tackled pretty much any tune.
“When we were kids, Ralph would bring home LPs from wherever; he might get them from the flea market and get a good deal on them and bring a whole stack of records home, and Marty and me would pick them up and try to play every song on them,” recalls Don. “We wouldn’t know what was on there, but we’d just try and play it all — Blood, Sweat and Tears, whatever. We’ve always been influenced by a lot of different kinds of music. Right now our drummer comes from a rock ‘n’ roll background, and our bass player is from a country background, so we just blend all those influences and it seems really natural.”
In the early ’90s, Don and Marty formed an experimental rock/bluegrass/you-name-it band called The Lids, also featuring Foulk on drums. Ralph would sit in sometimes and “just start jamming the wild stuff, playing any style we were playing and completely hanging with us,” as Foulk once described it.
The elder Lewis grew up in a musical Madison County family. His dad was a mountain-music picker, and his older brothers, Ervin and Blanco, were already renowned professional musicians when Ralph was still a child. He first picked up an old mandolin he found around the house when he was 4 or 5 — way before the term “bluegrass” was even a thought in the frazzled head of some sleep-deprived music writer.
“I was raised from my earliest childhood on what they called mountain music, because there was nothing called bluegrass music back then,” Ralph remembers, going on to explain, “The term ‘bluegrass’, according to the real historians, wasn’t coined until 1947, when Earl Scruggs started playing with Bill Monroe. He was doing the fast mandolin chops that had never been heard before. And Earl’s fast banjo on top of that just turned the music into something different. Some promoter said, ‘That’s bluegrass music,’ because Bill came from Kentucky. And [Monroe] didn’t want to be called that, but he hadn’t thought of another term, so ‘bluegrass’ was what it became.”
As a teenager, Ralph left the family farm and joined his older brothers to play in several esteemed bands based up north (specifically, in Niagara Falls and Detroit). Blanco was killed just two months after heading overseas for World War II combat, but Ralph and Erwin carried on The Lewis Brothers family band for a time. Ralph ended up fronting his own band — also based in Detroit — for a few years.
Ralph’s mandolin and guitar playing (along with his brothers’ musical prowess, often heard collectively on the radio in these parts and beyond in the early ’40s) caught the ear of Bill Monroe just as he was starting out. “Before Bill was even off on his own, [when I was playing with The Lewis Brothers], Bill and his brother Charlie came up to Madison County to try and find us,” remembers Ralph. “The way Bill told it, he drove up to the creek [near the Lewis farm] and just stopped and looked across a big stretch. And Bill said to me later, ‘I told my brother we might get shot if we start going across that creek. But that’s probably where they live.’ My oldest brother was really a noted fiddle player through the South at the time. And the Monroes wanted to meet us.”
No shots were fired.
That early meeting came long, long before Ralph actually agreed to tour with the Bluegrass Boys as a guitarist/vocalist, in 1974 — a heady time to join Monroe on stage at the venerable Grand Ole Opry. Stepping onto that hallowed stage for the first time was a life-changing event for Ralph. “I actually forgot the words to the song that I was going to sing lead on with Bill,” remembers Ralph. “I had to start it out by myself. And I got to looking out at all the people and the glitter and everything, and just lost it. The song was ‘On and On.’ So Kenny Baker [Monroe’s fiddle player] started, and in a minisecond, it just came to me, and I did it.”
Don and Marty — who were practically playing music in the womb — can also trace a part of their musical beginnings to jamming with their dad and Monroe at the Grand Ole Opry. The boys would rush onto the Opry stage, having previously worked out an elaborate skit where Monroe would first look askance at their pleas to play with the band, then allow them to “pick” — to the delight of the crowd.
Both boys were musical prodigies as children, and even today, Don’s searing, soaring fiddle playing defies earthly explanation.
Ralph came off the road with the Bluegrass Boys to spend more time with his wife Imogene and four kids (neither of his daughters plays music professionally, although Sherry occasionally lends her vocal talents to Sons of Ralph).
Long before his stint with Monroe, Ralph was something of a musical rebel.
“We were playing in clubs up North, in Detroit, when I was just a teenager, and we were actually playing rockabilly music in the 1940s,” he remembers. “It was not called rockabilly. There was not even rock ‘n’ roll at that time. We called the crazy stuff we were doing boogie. So there was freight-train boogie, horse boogie, cow boogie — everything was boogie.”
You might call the music from Sons of Ralph’s debut CD “Lewis boogie.” It’s as good a term as any. “We’re open to suggestions on what type of music we’re playing,” notes Ralph. “We don’t even know ourselves, because we just do it wide open and let it fall where it will.”
Grab a Root and Growl features a mix of Lewis originals and bluegrass standards — make that standards with decided twists, of course — punctuated by Foulk’s aggressive drum rhythms and unexpected percussion excursions, and Wiley’s down-and-dirty bass.
“Big Spike Hammer” — a traditional song originally recorded by bluegrass greats The Osborne Brothers — takes on a full-fledged reggae beat, of all things.
“Pete Goble, a good friend of mine, wrote ‘Big Spike Hammer,'” Ralph reveals. “I like his writing and I like the song, but I figured we would change it. I hope he likes what we did with it.”
Similarly, the familiar bluegrass ditty “Salty Dog” becomes a beautifully bizarre mix that writhes somewhere between hip-hop and hillbilly. In an interesting twist, Ralph actually recorded “Salty Dog” with its writers, Wiley and Zeke Morris, in the early ’70s. “I recorded that in its original version on Rounder Records number 00222,” Ralph remembers, adding with a grin, “I wonder what they’d think of this one?”
Another friend was Jimmy Martin, whose song “Skip, Hop & Wobble” is covered on the disc.
“Our version is just raw and right out there,” notes Ralph, explaining that Marty used a “stringbender” on his electric guitar, which added an ass-kicking pedal-steel-type sound absent on the original.
Jimmy Skinner, who penned the CD’s first track, “Doin’ My Time,” was yet another friend of Ralph’s. And his tune also gets the Lewis treatment: It’s likely Skinner never meant his song to lead off with an edgy version of “fiddlesticks” (meaning Foulk plays lightening-fast percussion licks literally on the body of Don’s fiddle).
It’s the disc’s original tunes that make the band most proud, though. “Homefires” and “Women Have the Right” are tender love ballads written by Marty. The rocking “River Rushing By” (co-penned by Don and Marty) and the downright warp-speed title track (written by Ralph just before the CD was recorded, and probably its most traditional bluegrass song) — in addition to Don’s enigmatic “111” and his Celtic-infused “Don’s Breakdown” — round out the most memorable Lewis-written songs.