As an award-winning bluegrass singer, Laurie Lewis is a natural storyteller. That’s particularly true in her poetic folk ballad, “Barstow,” which she wrote after driving through that California town a few years ago. She was surprised to see that the downtown looked closed up and deserted, then realized chain stores had taken root on the other side of town, just off I-10.
“I started wondering why anyone would choose to live there, and the story just unfolded for me,” she tells CMT Edge. “I pulled off at a rest stop and started scribbling it down madly to capture as much as I could of the place and the protagonist’s circumstances.”
After carrying it around for a few years, Lewis turned her character’s story into a song. Now, “Barstow” is a highlight of One Evening in May, an album she recorded with musicians Tom Rozum and Nina Gerber at the esteemed Freight and Salvage club in Berkeley, Calif.
“Singing a song like this is an exercise in staying present. There isn’t much going on chord-wise or even melodically, so it’s only the story that holds my attention,” she says. “If I start to drift out of the present, I could get lost instantly, but if I stay within the story, it just unfolds easily.”
Asked what runs through her mind when she sings the song, Lewis replies, “I imagine the dry Santa Ana winds, the gritty sidewalks, rundown train yard, greasy spoons and funky old motels juxtaposed with the sterile gas stations, fast food restaurants and hotel chains at the edge of town. And so many types of people just trying to make a living.”
Depending on how you look at it, the character in “Barstow” could take solace in finally settling down or face the frustration that she never moved on. Even though she escaped a tough situation just before arriving in town, Barstow was only intended to be a stopover.
“I love that she ran away to save herself. I don’t know from what exactly,” Lewis says. “I really like the way she started out so anxious to get out of Barstow and, of course, passed that discontent on to her daughter and then how she came to terms with living there and allowed herself to see the stark beauty of the place.”
However, the restless daughter didn’t see things the same way. So, what happens next? Listen to the live rendition of Laurie Lewis’ “Barstow.”