The family way

Veteran bluegrass musician Ralph Lewis knows a thing or two about overly enthusiastic fans.

Take the time he was playing a huge arena in Tokyo in the mid-’70s, during his stint with the legendary Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys: “Bill would always close his shows with a medley of sacred songs, like ‘I Saw the Light,’ and he would always motion for people to help him sing,” remembers Lewis. “So we were on the stage, closing the Tokyo show out, and he started motioning with his hands for the people to sing along.” It turns out that the crowd, some 40,000 strong, thought Monroe was motioning for them to come onstage. “It was just like water running down toward the stage,” says Lewis, laughing at the memory — but adding that it was scary at the time.

Luckily, Lewis and company survived that brush with the more-frightening side of fame. And these days, the 70-year-old powerhouse can be found playing mandolin (and, occasionally, fiddle and guitar) most Saturday nights at downtown Asheville’s Jack of the Wood, alongside his multitalented sons, Don and Marty, plus his self-described “adopted sons,” bass player Gary Wiley and drummer Richard Foulk — collectively known as Sons of Ralph, Featuring Ralph.

Lewis came to music early and naturally, while growing up on a farm in Madison County. His dad was a bluegrass picker, and his two oldest brothers, Ervin and Blanco, were already professional musicians when Ralph was still a tot — famous in the area for their local and regional radio shows, like the JFG Coffee Hour and the Western North Carolina Farm Hour. “They’d give the farm news, then play live music,” remembers Lewis.

His first instrument was a scrappy mandolin he found around the house. “We had a little ‘el cheapo’ mandolin that didn’t even have all the strings on it,” he recalls, “and it astonished my brothers, because I got a tune out of it the first time I picked it up. I was about 4 or 5.

“That was my ruination,” confesses Lewis with a wry smile, adding, “It gets in your blood.”

Make that salvation. As Lewis explains, “Music was easier than farm life. And other work wages were so low in those days — 10 or 20 cents an hour was the going rate during the Depression. But you could go out with a good group and play country schoolhouses, county courthouses, that kind of thing, and come out of there with $20 or $30 in your pocket in one night, when there was people working three months for that. And I kinda figured that out early. I could see these musicians driving new cars and wearing good clothes and getting respect, so I said, ‘I think I’ll do that.'”

And so he did: By the time Lewis was a teenager, he and his older brother, Erwin, calling themselves the Carolina Pals, had their own daily early-morning radio show on WLOS. And when tragedy struck, in the form of brother Blanco’s death — two months after he headed overseas to fight in World War II — the youngest Lewis journeyed north to Niagara Falls, where Erwin and Blanco had based their bluegrass band. Ralph stepped in for his fallen brother and the Lewis Brothers carried on, playing all over the Northeast. Ralph eventually fronted his own band in the Detroit area.

Somewhere in between, however, Ralph managed to be south long enough to catch the ear of Bill Monroe (whom Lewis calls “the top dog”). Monroe, it seems, spent several months in Asheville doing radio shows before he first hit the Grand Ole Opry. “He told me at that time that if I ever wanted to pick music with him, just to look him up,” notes Ralph. “I told him I appreciated it, but that I was with a good band making good money.” Lewis was all of 14 at the time. Finally, in the mid-’70s, when Monroe fired his entire band (except for fiddle player Kenny Baker), he called on Lewis to join him again — and asked him to bring a couple of musician friends along, to boot. With the blessing of his wife, Imogene, Lewis — who by then was running the small refrigeration business that he still owns — took what he thought of as an extended vacation (it lasted two years), enlisted local bluegrass players Randy Davis and Mark Pruitt, and joined the Bluegrass Boys.

But it was with his Detroit band (and later, during a stint in the Navy, when he was relieved of all duties except forming a band and performing) that Lewis began to explore other kinds of music. “Back in the late ’40s and mid-’40s, on up into the early ’50s, I was playing rock ‘n’ roll and didn’t know it,” he remembers. “We were kind of manufacturing stuff as we went. We’d take some old song and change the beat and start to boogie, you know, and get the crowd just in a frenzy.”

Hmmm. That sounds eerily like a Sons of Ralph show. While the band does serve up a healthy helping of bluegrass standards, they’re just as likely to veer off that traditional course for a sound they like to call “la twang.” Aided by drums and electric bass — both shunned by bluegrass purists — Sons of Ralph often gloriously redefines mountain music in ways that, well, “get the crowd just in a frenzy.” Imagine, if you will, “Orange Blossom Special” infused with a sizzling Don Lewis fiddle rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun.” Imagine the Charlie Daniels Band standard, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” redefined as a bluegrass-meets-freaky-jazz-fusion hybrid — again, driven by the breathtaking fiddling prowess of Son Don, who makes the instrument scream, wail, screech and moan. Marty Lewis holds down the guitar end of things with raw talent and a natural ease — plus fast-and-furious finger moves — while Ralph smiles big and plays the mandolin as if it were an extension of his own body. Come to think of it, all the members of Sons of Ralph play as if their instruments were attached to their heart and soul, not just held in their hands.

Sons of Ralph songs — many of them originals (the three Lewises have written more than 100 songs, between them) — aren’t merely played. They soar, taking on lives of their own that the walls can barely contain. Sheer joy in playing lies at the heart of the matter. Both Wiley and Foulk say that’s why playing with the Lewis family is so satisfying.

“Playing with them is just plain fun,” notes Wiley. “Instead of having to deal with marketing and record labels, like I did in Nashville [he toured and recorded for a time with such latter-day country-music luminaries as Shelly Wright and Martina McBride], when you get up there with Sons of Ralph, you play it how you want and have a blast. We all have a respect for tradition, but … we’re also all so open-minded, we’ll play anything.”

Foulk met Don and Marty at an open jam at the now-defunct Gatsby’s six years ago and has played with them, in one incarnation or another, ever since. The three had a wildly experimental band called The Lids for a time, and Foulk remembers that’s how he first met Ralph. “I’d never heard him play before,” says Foulk, “and then he came and jammed with The Lids one night. He just jumped in and started jamming the wild stuff and could play any style we were playing.” (He can’t stop himself from emphasizing that Ralph’s as good a cook as a musician — citing his chicken-and-dumplings, ramp meatloaf and “mighty mean” gumbo as prime examples.) “It’s impossible to play with them and not smile,” he continues. “And there are always surprises; it’s challenging, because we never play the same song the same way twice.”

It shouldn’t be so surprising that Ralph Lewis has so few problems stretching his musical boundaries. After all, this revered bluegrass picker also plays a mean electric guitar. As Wiley puts it, “How many 70-year-old musicians will pull out a Jerry Jones white-faced baritone guitar and play the Osburne Brothers’ ‘Big Spike Hammer’ to a reggae beat?” — a feat Lewis performed at this year’s fall L.E.A.F. festival.

Not to mention that the elder Lewis was a big Beatles fan in his day. “When I first heard them, I thought, ‘What the heck is this?’ It was more shock than anything else,” he remembers. “Later on, though, I was as big a Beatles fan as there ever was, mainly because they were so different. … They went into chords that weren’t supposed to be played that way. They broke all the rules.”

Don and Marty, like their father, took to music young and easily. The house was filled with music during their childhood, as Ralph rehearsed with another of his bands, The Piney Mountain Boys, every Wednesday and Saturday evening. Various musicians also hung out and even lived at the Lewis house intermittently — sometimes, unwittingly, at risk of life and limb. “I remember a real great banjo player named Curtis Burch, who played with Newgrass Revival, coming to live with us, and I bit him on the leg,” says Marty, adding, “I saw him at Bill Monroe’s funeral,and he still had the scar.”

The young Lewises were playing Shindig on the Green all by themselves at the tender ages of 6 and 9 — and, during breaks from school, went on the road with their dad during his stint with the Bluegrass Boys, around that same time. “We acted like we were playing music, on brooms and things, from the time we were so young I can barely remember,” points out Don. When they did get around to playing real instruments, Don chose the mandolin and Marty chose guitar. (Musical instruments abounded around the Lewis house: Don remembers sliding down a snowy hill, using a cello as a sled.)

The boys say their biggest early coup, besides sharing the stage with Monroe, was accompanying Miss Asheville as she sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” at the Mountain Folk Festival. “She kissed us afterwards, and we like that,” notes Don.

The Lewis boys also had the honor of playing, with their father, at a special mountain-music tribute at the Smithsonian Institution in 1977. The show was recorded, and, to this day, you can push a button on the museum’s mountain-music exhibit labeled “Madison County, N.C.” — and hear the Lewis family, joined by a few other musician friends.

Monroe would introduce Don and Marty as “the youngest bluegrass boys,” and the legendary mandolin player worked out an elaborate skit to get them on-stage. The boys would run on-stage and pull on Monroe’s pant legs, begging him to let them “pick.” When he agreed, they’d say in unison, “We want to pick a Stanley Brothers tune,” and proceed to do just that.

But it was Monroe’s fiddle player, Kenny Baker, who first urged Don on to take up the instrument that has since become his trademark. It seems Marty had asked for and received a fiddle, but Don soon “stole it,” as he says. He took to the instrument like a fish to water, playing it with the grace and fire of a child prodigy. “Kenny told my dad to take the mandolin away from me, after he heard me play fiddle,” remembers Don.

While other boys played Little League, Don and Marty were playing hide-and-seek in the hallowed halls of the Grand Ole Opry and getting hugs from Dolly Parton. “I’d run into one room, and there’d be Grandpa Jones putting on his fake beard,” recalls Don, “then I’d run into another one, and it’d be Roy Acuff.” Marty took things a few steps further when he ran out onto the Opry stage in the middle of a 10-band jam session and jumped right in.

The two also remember lonely times when they weren’t able to travel with their dad. “I remember dad playing on the radio sometimes,” says Don, “and you couldn’t get the Nashville station around here anywhere except real high on this mountain, and Mom, Marty and me would drive up there.

“It’d be like, ‘Daddy’s gonna be on in a minute,” remembers Marty, “and we’d be sitting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere listening to Dad on the Opry.”

It was just these lonely times that caused Ralph to give up touring with the Bluegrass Boys after two years. “It got to where I was away from home so much, even if they did travel with me sometimes, that it was hard,” he says. “We’d be gone five or six weeks on overseas tours, or if we were playing the West Coast. I quit to spend more time with them. But it was undeniably a great, great opportunity.”

Now, Ralph’s ready to become “known” again — this time, in full partnership with his sons. At the age of 70, he’s selling his refrigeration business and gearing up to hit the road with Sons of Ralph, The Lewises have just purchased a vintage “flex” bus — “the kind Flatt & Scruggs used to tour in,” notes Don — and, as Ralph puts it, “We’re gonna be wide open by springtime.” The group is in process of cutting a CD, also due out in the spring.

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