Michael Lewis. Humble craftsman of legendary mandolins and arch-top guitars. Beloved miracle worker and savior of damaged instruments. A wizard of luthiery. His instruments are discussed in reverential tones during jam circles, and those folk who own a Lewis creation have crossed off a major item on their bucket list. Despite his legendary status, Michael is an accessible, low-key guy who treats the low-born and the mighty with equal respect.
The first time I played a Lewis mandolin was at Plymouth Bluegrass Festival. As our late night jam wound down, Don Timmer asked me if I wanted to take a closer look at his mandolin. Don knew I was a 13 year-old intermediate mostly newbie, yet in his typically effusive way he thrust the mandolin in my hands and said, “Here. Wanna play it?” I cradled it to my chest, fearful for it’s safety. Fearful not because of it’s monetary value, but because even in the lantern light, I could see it was a perfect thing of deep beauty.
Question: What was your first instrument and when did you get it?
Lewis: A violin when I was in 4th grade, but it was a loaner. The first instrument that was mine was a small Harmony guitar I paid $27 for in 1960. I was a sophomore in high school.
Q: What bluegrass event or recording first “blew your mind”?
Lewis: The Folkways record of the Watson family featuring Doc Watson, about 1963 I think.
Q: What was it that made you want to try your hand at building instruments?
Lewis: I wanted a 5 string banjo and had very little money. My dad found an article in Popular Mechanics titled “How to make your own banjo for $16”. It was not so good, so I tried to make it better. And tried some more. Eventually it was quite playable but didn’t look so good.
Q: What’s the best part of the art of luthiery?
Lewis: That’s a tough one. Probably the people I get to meet and instruments I get to see and work on. There are a lot of very talented musicians that are really nice folks, most of them.
Q: What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
Lewis: Everybody getting along and having a good time, like at a good jam, or a picnic.
Q: What’s your greatest fear?
Lewis: Probably damaging some extremely valuable instrument, or damaging me.
Q: What is your greatest extravagance?
Lewis: Wasting time.
Q: Which living bluegrass person do you most admire?
Lewis: There are too many to name and I wouldn’t want to omit any so I won’t say. The world of bluegrass has many inspirational folks, some are famous and many are not.
Q: What bluegrass memory makes you smile?
Lewis: Thinking of Hugh and Sadie Portwood, they were my “new” bluegrass parents when I started going to festivals. They got me introduced to folks and showed me around, and just were wonderful to me. Sadie always had a smile and something cheerful to say.
Q: What would be the “Holy Grail” of instruments you’d like to have come across your workbench?
Lewis: I’ve seen quite a few legendary instruments and have learned by looking carefully and taking note of things I hadn’t noticed on other instruments. Old pre-war Martins, Loar signed Gibsons, D’Angelico guitars. They are all wonderful and have something to tell. It would be nice to see a real Stradivari violin, but not much chance one of those would show up around the bluegrass crowd.
Q: What was the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Lewis: That would depend on the situation. Some advice wouldn’t be appropriate for some situations. Probably “Do your best”, you know, like the old saying, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well”. If you’re going to spend the time and effort doing something make it worthwhile.
Q: What do you regard as the lowest depth of luthier misery?
Lewis: Oh, I don’t want to go there!
Q: What is your most treasured possession?
Lewis: My tools and workshop.
Q: How would you like to die?
Lewis: Uh, no thanks. Reminds me of what Woody Allen said, “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”.
Q: If you died and came back as a person or thing, what would you want to be?
Lewis: I always remember the saying, “Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it”. I always think otters have the most fun, at least they look like they do.
Q: Who are your heroes in real life?
Lewis: Some that come to mind are Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, Mohandas Ghandi, my parents , grand parents, and great grand parents. All these folks are gone now but have left a deep impression on me that guides me in life.
Q: What is your motto?
Lewis: Which one do you want? There are so many. How about, “Be good, be fair”.
Q: Who is sitting there in your dream jam?
Lewis: Doc Watson, Jim Schoggins, Ken Reynolds, both Frank Solivans, Clair Lynch….
Q: What’s your favorite way to spend a free weekend?
Lewis: What’s a free weekend????
Q: Got any good luthier jokes?
Lewis: Not really, but I have seen some real jokes of instruments. You know, some home made over repairs and such. I guess most humor comes from pain, someone else’s.
(Cameron Little is a teen bluegrass enthusiast who is always in awe of great instruments and the people who love them.)