Spencer Lewis Biography
Twenty years ago, Spencer Lewis wrote and recorded the music for his first album Weeding the Garden, a series of pastoral, instrumental guitar pieces, and the first release for his own independent label Quartz Recordings. It was produced in his home studio with an eight-track recorder he purchased from Will Wright's Rooster Records Studio that was located opposite Spencer's home on Route 12 in Barnard, Vermont. Inside the liner notes there was a special credit: "to Woody Guthrie whose simple star guides me on." Now, 18 titles later and over 130,000 units sold, it's that simplicity that is still the backbone of his recordings.
In Spencer’s own words:
"When I was eight years old, my Mom decreed that I was to have four years of formal music training with the instrument of my choice, which turned out to be the violin. I took lessons with a member of the New York Philharmonic, Leon Rudin, and progressed as far as I could with classical music before realizing I really didn't understand it. My closest neighbors in Manhasset were the Kantarian’s who bought me a nylon stringed guitar for my thirteenth birthday. Their son Harry taught me chords and took to singing along instantly. When I tired of the pop music of the day, I developed the need to further my skills and enrolled in The Guitar Workshop, a maverick institution located in Roslyn in the next town over. It was here I began my indoctrination into the world of folk music. From the start, I could see this form of music was not outside of one's self, but inside; in other words, it was a lifestyle as much as a discipline. On the technical side I began with basic classical guitar, then learned the Carter Family’s simple 'church lick' that Woody Guthrie perfected, a finger style method called 'Travis picking' and eventually cross-flat-picking where you alternate between the treble and bass strings, almost simultaneously.
Somewhere in the recessed corners of the Workshop I found the songbooks and LP's of Woody Guthrie and the whole picture began to take shape. I also began to be disconnected with anything not of that world, which was pretty much everything else. So, when I was 15 I ran away from home for a week and hitchhiked to California, only to discover I was too young to make a life out of it. Upon returning, my parents, eager to find a place for me in the world, discovered that an alternative school was taking shape for the Fall and we all had an interview in New York City with it’s co-founders, Mike and Diana Cohen. I was invited to enroll in the maiden voyage of the Trailside Country School, a school that was about to travel around the United States studying natural history and the environment where sleeping outside every night was mandatory and our only entertainment was playing music around the evening campfire. Being the only school member allowed the bring along a guitar (my Martin D-18), I began learning how to fit in to this musical setting by following behind its leader banjo player and folklorist Mike Cohen, (brother of New Lost City Rambler co-founder John Cohen). A few months into the school, Mike also convinced me to take up the fiddle seeing as I was already used to the violin and it was in this organic musical environment I began scratching out my first fiddle tunes. But it was learning how to fit in to the music being played around the campfire that made a lasting effect on my work today as it taught me how to be ‘invisible’ yet still contribute musically in this most demanding environment. As a young player, this is where the seeds of my back-up violin work were sown.
I did return to Manhasset High School for my senior year but that summer opted to travel out west with my musical buddy, Jared Barkan, traveling across North America in a '65 Nova from Quebec City to Aspen, CO and then down to Mazatlan, Mexico. It was a chance to perform regularly by playing on the streets and experience how the music integrated with the average human on the street. Anyone who has played music this way knows it is as diverse and demanding an audience as a musician will ever encounter. It was a most prolific time of street singing, writing new songs, and singing many of the old ones."
In 1972 he began playing the music clubs in the ski-boom town of Wilmington, Vermont. That same year he purchased his now-famous Gurian acoustic guitar over the river from Brattleboro in Hinsdale, NH from the father of all the new guitar builders of our time, Michael Gurian. It was a jumbo Brazilian Rosewood with a 3-piece back that would make anyone within earshot do a double take. To accentuate the instrument’s powerful tone, Lewis developed guitar pieces with what one reviewer described as "a cross picking style that emphasizes single notes while allowing for a full chordal sound." Yet before this music had fully developed, he spent 10 years in the Northern Vermont hamlets of Waterville and Belvedere, working on farms or cutting firewood for a living with a draft horse while befriending every Vermonter there, young, old or in-between. He played local barn dances at the legendary Uncle Wallace’s Barn along with the many roadhouse bars in every small town from Wilmington to Newport. He eventually moved to Barnard, Vermont in 1983 with his young family, and in 1988, he founded Quartz Recordings and the new label’s first release - the all-instrumental Weeding the Garden.