Raging roots

Gumbo, Grits & Gravy is not a new downtown eatery.

Instead, it’s a three-headed evening of acoustic American music — featuring some of the top young voices in the Cajun, blues and bluegrass genres. Balfa Toujours provide the gumbo, opening the show with their soulful Cajun sounds. Bluesman Guy Davis brings the grits, and Laurie Lewis and Her Bluegrass Pals pour on the gravy.

Led by singer/guitarist Christine Balfa and her husband, fiddler/accordionist Dirk Powell, Balfa Toujours offers a historical and cultural panorama of Cajun Louisiana, in musical form. Balfa Toujours (which means “Balfa still and always”) takes its music from the swamps of Mamou, La., inspired by the efforts of the late legendary fiddler and radio host Dewey Balfa (Christine’s father). “Cajun is a great party, and we love to [explore the festive side of the music] as well,” Balfa told Folk Roots. “But there’s so much behind what we do. We want people to know a little bit about that.” The group’s latest release, La Pointe (Rounder, 1998), was recorded in Christine and Dirk’s living room. It pays homage to Acadian culture, as well as to Native American and African-American influences on Creole and Cajun music.

Guy Davis — musician, composer, director, actor and writer — is a dedicated proponent of acoustic blues. While growing up in New York City, he heard tales of life in the rural South from his Southern-born parents and grandparents. Soon, he was trying to make those stories his own, through song. A self-taught guitarist, Davis learned by listening to such blues greats as Blind Willie McTell, Skip James, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton and Buddy Guy. He’s a three-time W.C. Handy Award nominee, including a nod for this year’s Best Traditional Blues Album for his latest release, You Don’t Know My Mind (Red House Records). That album prompted Playboy’s Charles Young to write, “This is blues made for humming along, stomping your foot, feeling righteous in the face of oppression, and expressing gratitude to your baby for greasing your skillet.”

Northern California may be known more for unique rock and funk stylings than for acoustic music, but Laurie Lewis is doing her best to change that perception — most recently with the release of Laurie Lewis And Her Bluegrass Pals (Rounder, 1999). (Her Bluegrass Pals feature vocalist/mandolinist Tom Rozum, banjoist Craig Smith and bassist Mark Schatz.) Lewis holds the high distinction of being a two-time International Bluegrass Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year winner, and is also a California state fiddle champion.

Lewis moved to Berkeley, Calif., at the age of 8, and the “Tall Pines” she sings about on Bluegrass Pals might well be the ones she sat under in the Oakland hills. “I used to take the bus up and walk around in Tilden Park all the time,” she recalled in a recent telephone interview. “I think of pines everywhere. I travel a lot and [have] a lot of favorite places. The ocean, the mountains, the desert, the big hardwood forests back East. I’m like the quintessential tourist: I find things of interest and beauty everywhere, and I think it’s because I have a real strong sense of home.”

Lewis fell in love with acoustic music after attending the Berkeley Folk Festival as a child. The traditional song “Black Waters” — which she covers on Bluegrass Pals — left a particularly strong impression. “I’ve known that song since I heard Jean Ritchie sing it at the Berkeley Festival when I was just a kid, and I just think it stands out as a truly great song,” she reveals. “The way it’s written, the power of its story, and the way it’s told — it’s not preaching. It’s just telling it like it is.”

The wind is also a frequent topic in Lewis’s songs. “The wind can be a powerful metaphorical image, and it’s also an extremely powerful — as any North Carolinian should know, these days –natural force,” she notes. “For poetry, you can’t beat the wind, birds, earth, trees.”

“The Wood Thrush’s Song” is an a cappella number lamenting the disappearance of one of nature’s wonders. “I used to teach bluegrass at a college in West Virginia, and there were woods there where I first heard the eastern wood thrush,” remembers Lewis. “It was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard; it was just thrilling. I went back one year, and they had completely cleared the woods to build this giant library. It’s one of the noisiest buildings I’ve ever been around, with all these engines on it. Anyway, the wood thrush disappeared. I never heard it there on campus again. There are other woods there, but it just liked this really deep-wooded ravine. I think it’s a great loss.”

Brisk numbers like “Big Eddy” and “Going To the West” attest to Lewis’ love for fiddle players Kenny Baker, Curly Ray Cline, Ray Park and Chubby Wise (who played with Bill Monroe in the ’40s and went on to play with Flatt & Scruggs and Hank Snow.)

Lewis has worked with the Bluegrass Pals’ mandolinist Tom Rozum for more than a dozen years, and has known banjoist Craig Smith for nearly a quarter-century. “In the Southern California scene, there was a bit of male chauvinism going around, and I got squeezed out of a few jam sessions down there,” the singer recalls. “But I never got squeezed out of a jam session with Craig — we just really hit it off. I’ve been planning on doing an album with Craig playing banjo all through it, and then doing some touring behind it, which is just great. I’m loving playing with Craig.

“I’m really looking forward to [Gumbo, Grits & Gravy],” Lewis continues. “I love Cajun music, and Balfa Toujours is about my favorite Cajun band. Kevin Wimmer’s fiddle playing just brings me to tears; it’s so beautiful. Dirk Powell is an amazing multi-instrumentalist. And Christine Balfa is wonderful. I’m really looking forward to collaborating with them. Guy Davis takes his roots directly from black rural traditions, and I’m a real fan of his music, so I’m looking forward to getting to work with him, too. We’ll each do our own part of the show, and then we’ll kind of mix things up.

“It’ll not only be musically exciting, but you’ll actually get some background and a little bit of education from the show,” Lewis concludes.

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