On The Hallelujah Turnpike With the Lewis Family
Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
June 1980, Volume 14, Number 2
The streets of Lincolnton, Georgia, a small community in eastern middle Georgia, were dark and quiet one recent Sunday about 3 a.m. as the large, silver and green touring bus brought The Lewis Family, bluegrass-gospel music singing group, home from Friday and Saturday appearances in far off states.
Being home would last only a few hours, because at 7:30 a.m. the family had to board their bus once again for a Sunday afternoon concert in southern Georgia.
The old city cemetery that particular Sunday morning accurately reflected the quietness of the small town. Only the steady rumbling of the bus motor disturbed the post-midnight air.
For some strange reason, The Lewis Family and I have become frequent traveling companions over the years. I say strange because I used to hate bluegrass and traditional gospel music. How anybody could stand that stuff, I could never understand. Some six or seven years ago, I was in the old Ryman Auditorium in Nashville during the annual Country Music Association and Grand Ole Opry convention for record company people, writers, radio station announcers and entertainers.
In order to get a good seat for an appearance by Chet Atkins and Roy Clark on an evening show, I decided to grit my teeth and sit through the Earlybird Bluegrass Show. Somewhere down the line, WSM’s famous announcer, Grant Turner, introduced a group from Lincolnton, Georgia. Out came this finely-dressed family I had known about in the Augusta, Georgia, area for years. Somehow I always thought they sang in churches, for dinner on the grounds meetings and things like that. It mentally wiped me out to see them on the same stage where Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold and other great Opry stars had appeared.
They did three songs, including “Let’s All Go Down To The River” and received a good response from the audience. Afterwards I went to a side door and said hello. They, as it turned out, knew of my country music and political writings in Augusta and were about as surprised to see me in Nashville as I was to see them. As we were talking, up walked an elderly lady carrying a brown grocery bag and wearing a fur stole. Janis Lewis Phillips whispered something about the lady being “Mrs. Lee.” I thought maybe it was Brenda Lee’s mother, since I knew Brenda had lived and been discovered by Red Foley in Augusta.
She turned out to be Mildred Lee, mother of Tammy Wynette. Mrs. Lee became a Lewis Family fan and friend after seeing their appearance in Red Bay, Alabama, where Tammy spent a lot of her younger years. I also later learned Mrs. Lee would often appear at Lewis Family concerts carrying brown grocery bags containing George Jones and Tammy Wynette albums for The Lewis Family, who are Jones and Wynette fans.
When we all were back in Augusta, I started going to watch The Lewis Family tape their weekly syndicated television show, which is seen in various parts of the nation. Some people think it may be the longest running religious television program of its type in America. Becoming friends eventually led to them inviting me out on concert trips to view their show on the road.
I discovered a couple of things: One, The Lewis Family can get standing ovations out of crowds numbering in the thousands with their high spirited, professional appearances. Two, being star entertainers on the highways of the nation is not as fun as it appears to be.
Miggie once said, “There’s more to this than being on a stage.” Dozens of albums, thousands of concerts and millions of miles have passed since The Lewis Family started performing more than a quarter of a century ago. The onstage world of The Lewis Family consists of making a good living by singing gospel and bluegrass music each weekend before cheering fans. Their offstage world, however, consists of hours upon hours of traveling on Interstate highways and back roads, catching up on sleep whenever possible, trying to find motel rooms in the middle of the night when their “reserved” rooms have been given away and eating at a countless number of fast food restaurants.
There is a saying in show business that the road can make you or break you. Sometimes it can do both. Traveling holds unexpected dangers for truck drivers, route sales people and entertainers. In the back of their minds always lurk stories of comrades whose trips ended abruptly in accidents.
Weather on the road is almost unpredictable as the next highway. One day the seasoned traveler will find hot, dry weather, while the next will find cold rain. In the west, tornadoes are a frequent hazard. The Lewis Family have been ordered off their bus in Oklahoma by state troopers and told to seek shelter in a low-lying stream during pounding rain. Snow blizzards add hours to driving time in the winter months. I recall Little Roy Lewis once telling about a trip saying, “We like to lost the bus coming out of Detroit. It took us 14 hours to drive from Detroit to Knoxville, Tennessee. It was snowing 13 inches deep on the Interstate. We just followed the tracks where an 18-wheeler had gone.”
Being in demand adds to the bank account back home, but it also makes for weariness on the road. Last August in a nine day period, the performing family was in Athens, Ohio, on the 8th; the next day in Point Pleasant, West Virginia; the 10th in Jacksonville, North Carolina; the 11th in Church Hill, Tennessee; the 12th in Hiawassee, Georgia; home in Lincolnton on the 13th; in Manassas, Virginia on the 14th; in Louisville, Kentucky, on the 15th; over to Fulton, Kentucky, on the 16th and finally being in Little Hocking, Ohio, on the 17th.
So why do it? Well, the money from concerts and record sales is pretty good, Pop Lewis admits. There also is no feeling in the world equal to receiving standing ovations in an outpouring of love from thousands of people at one show. Wallace Lewis also notes, “Friends are what keep you going.” The fans and friends of The Lewis Family bring them everything from hand-carved cypress tables and homemade ice cream to apple cider and potato chips.
Perhaps an entertainer’s deep feeling for the road is best expressed in a T-shirt worn by Jack Hicks, who had played banjo with Bill Monroe, Conway Twitty, Sonny James as well as others. On the front of the shirt was the drawing of a touring bus, like the kind used by top-notch performers, with the word “Home” written across the bus. On the back of the T-shirt was the message, “Home Is Where The Bus Is.”
A recent album release by The Lewis Family, “Hallelujah Turnpike” (Canaan Records CAS 9847) contains these words in the title song composed by Randall Hylton; “I’m rolling up that Hallelujah Turnpike./I’m loaded up with joy in my soul./Oh, this rig is glory bound, and the devil can’t slow me down./Jesus already has paid my toll.”
I was thinking of those words upon boarding The Lewis Family’s bus for a weekend of far off show dates. I had gotten up at 4 a.m. in Augusta to make the 45 minute trip to Lincolnton and soon arrived at the spacious, brick home where Miggie and Roy Lewis (both single) live with Pauline and Roy Lewis Sr., affectionately called Mom and Pop Lewis by all Lewis Family fans.
The two women were up and moving about the kitchen as Little Roy and his father came stumbling from the back of the house in a sleepy daze, looking more like bowery bums than gospel singers. The electricity had gone off sometime during the night and had thrown the clocks off, so everyone was one step behind the game this morning.
Dressed and looking better, Pop Lewis went outside to feed a mother cat and her new litter of kittens. “Here, Sammy. Here, Sammy,” Pop called. It is later explained the large cat was thought to be a male until she had kittens. Luckily, the family is better at judging hit songs than determining the sex of cats. Sammy came up to Pop, followed by her brood which began to climb in and out of flower pots, up nearby trees and even onto the bus.
Soon, Wallace and his son, Travis, came from their home down the road and Janis and her husband, Earl Phillips, and their young performing son, Lewis Earl Phillips pulled into the driveway, followed shortly afterward by the third Lewis Family sister, Polly Lewis Williamson.
As the bus pulled out of the driveway, Wallace stood in the front section and began taking orders for a scheduled stop at McDonalds. What started out as a serious, respectful business degenerated into mass confusion as everyone started calling out their requests at the same time. Some family members added to the confusion by asking what other family members ordered, and then ended up changing their orders. Anyone who comes from a big family knows what kind of scene I am talking about. Wallace just stood at the front of the bus looking perplexed.
When he got off the bus with his list, which has been revised several times, Little Roy turned to me and said, “This happens every time we go on the road. We start row by row and everything is fine, but it always gets confusing. The other day we started taking orders 20 minutes from one place, and they were still trying to decide 15 minutes after we got there. We do about 225 show dates a year, so that’s over 400 times a year this happens.”
While Wallace was gone, Miggie told about forgetting her suitcase on a recent trip and having to borrow clothes from her mother and sisters that weekend. She also told about another time when, in a hurry to leave, she took along one sandal and one bedroom slipper, leaving matching shoes at home.
When the bus was finally underway again and the food eaten, Wallace began checking his road atlas to figure out the mileage to the first performance date of the weekend; Miggie and Mom Lewis were talking; Pop was watching the scenery go by; Travis was talking with me; Little Roy was driving and Janis and her son, Lewis, were using crayons to color in a drawing book while Earl napped nearby. Janis and Lewis were using separate books, and when Lewis left to go in the back of the bus to play, Janis kept coloring until she finished her picture. It was obvious the girl had been on the road too long!
In keeping with the Lewis Family tradition, Sheri Williamson, Polly’s daughter, sang in her place during April and May. Polly was home recuperating from surgery.
Talking about concerts led Little Roy to remark, “I like songs where everyone sings along on like ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ ’They Baptized Jesse Taylor,’ ‘I Saw The Light’ and ‘Let’s All Go Down To The River.’ As far as my own performing, I guess the three people who influenced me the most were Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe.”
The talented banjo player continued, “Martha Carson, the gospel singer, was a big influence on our group. She would fill both sides of the stage at Bell Auditorium in Augusta when she came to town. I remember we saw her in a long dress with her guitar having her name on the side. She had beautiful auburn hair and looked like a doll. Her group rode in two green limousines. Flatt and Scruggs played Augusta the night Hank Williams died. That was the first time I saw them in person. We used to go sit in our car under a chinaberry tree everyday at 1 p.m. to listen to them over the car radio when they had a program in Raleigh, North Carolina. I recall that first time I saw them in person Earl made a mistake, and his face turned blood red because he was such a professional, and he had made a mistake that embarrassed him.”
Little Roy related the history of The Lewis Family recording career by noting, “We recorded our first songs, ‘Lights In The Valley Outshines The Sun’ backed with ‘Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus’ at the WJAT radio studios in Swainsboro, Georgia, run by Johnnie Bailes who used to be with The Bailes Brothers of the Grand Ole Opry. The songs were put out on the Sullivan label. Johnnie gave us the address of Don Pierce of Starday Records in Nashville, and we got signed to Starday. Later we changed to Canaan Records. Hugh West and Jack Wisley ran the tape recorders for us in Swainsboro when we recorded those first numbers. Jack once introduced us at a show saying, ‘When the Lord was pouring out talent, he stopped at The Lewis Family’s house.’”
After several hours on the road, the conversation again turned to food. Travis said with a mock-sophisticated accent, “The french fries at Hardees are standard to the potato procedure.” He added, going back into a normal tone of voice, “One time we stopped at Wendys because we wanted four Frosties. It was late and near closing time, but the people in the Wendys thought we were a bus load of people with a lot of orders, so they threw about 15 hamburger patties on the grill. They weren’t too happy when I just ordered four Frosties.”
The bus soon pulled into another McDonalds, and Wallace again stood in the front taking orders. Once again it started off orderly, but eventually it turned into something akin to that of 500 ladies fighting over the same dress at a clearence sale.
After Wallace got off, Little Roy picked up a pencil and some paper, stood in the front of the bus and began imitating Wallace. He concluded a long, hilarious monologue taking orders and then got off the bus. Mom Lewis, apparently not finding the recital funny, remarked to no one in particular, “He just wants to make a mountain out of a molehill.”
The concert that day went as routine as thousands of other before it. Upon arriving, Roy, Wallace, Travis and Earl set up the record sales table complete with a small tent covering the area for Mom Lewis, while Miggie, Janis and Polly started getting ready for the show. When you watch The Lewis Family closely, you begin to notice how each has their own tasks on and off the road. It is like a well run business, which, of course, it is. For instance, they will check into one motel room with two double beds. Mom, Miggie, Polly, Janis and Lewis will sleep in the room while Pop, Roy, Travis, Wallace and Earl will sleep in bunks on the bus.
In the mornings, the women take showers in the motel room, dress and go eat in the motel restaurant, turning the room over to the men for bathing and shaving.
The best times on the bus are in early evening heading on an Interstate for somewhere. On several occasions, the family has wanted me to hear a new song they were working up. Roy gets out his guitar or banjo, and all on the bus sing their parts of the song without any other musical accompaniment. I cannot describe the beauty of hearing such great harmony done in such a peaceful setting.
The worst times on the bus are in the early morning hours when the family is still searching for a vacant motel, because some dumb night clerk has given away their reserved room. On one such morning I asked Janis, “It’s kind of hard, isn’t it, to feel like a star when you’re looking for a motel at 3 a.m.?” She replied in a weary voice, “Yes, you’re right. Being on stage is the easy part to performing.”
In spite of their importance in the bluegrass, gospel and country music worlds, the family does not let the recognition go to their heads. I recall one time Wallace getting off the bus, going up to a gate guard and coming back on the bus to report, “That guy asked me if we are entertainers. I told him, ‘We’re supposed to be.’ ”
I have rarely seen any of The Lewis Family members lose their tempers, but it happens as is human nature. One time in Cambridge, Ohio, we pulled into a Holiday Inn at 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday in summer to find out a night clerk had given away the reserved room. Earl Phillips, who handles a lot of business matters for the group, let the motel employees know in no uncertain terms that he was mighty unhappy with the situation. I urged Earl to write the president of the Holiday Inns in Memphis, Tennessee, but he said it wouldn’t do any good now that the damage had been done.
The good times on the road make up for the bad, though. It’s times like John and Bob Gibson hosting a major dinner for the family during their Columbus, Ohio, appearance. It’s times like Little Roy coming across a fine sounding banjo at a good price and sitting in the stairwell of the bus going down an Interstate to play non gospel, non-bluegrass songs like “Petticoat Junction,” “Beer Barrel Polka” and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” with Mom Lewis in a rare moment singing the words to the last mentioned song.
When a concert weekend is finished, the unsold Lewis Family albums are packed away in their special cases, the instruments are put in their cases and stored under the bus and the family heads for home. Mom Lewis observes, “I don’t care where we go. Home looks good to me when we drive into Lincolnton.”
Roy once told Bob Young of Augusta’s WBBQ, “We can go anywhere in the world, and we don’t like any place as good as Lincolnton.” When Polly said into that taping, “It’s always good to see that Lincoln County sign.” Roy added, ‘That Georgia sign. You can tell you’ve been somewhere when you get to Fort Smith, Arkansas, and you say, ‘Looky there, we’re just about home.’ ”
Of course, no trip home would be complete without stopping somewhere for a late night snack. Just like the Keystone Kops movies where there was always a chase scene, just like in the western movies where the good guy won and just like in April when taxes are due, you can always see one scene on The Lewis Family’s bus.
On that recent weekend trip I was out with them, as we stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken place on the way home, Wallace took a pencil and some paper and stood in the front of the bus. As the family members began calling out their orders, changing orders and even asking for pizza, Little Roy and I just looked at one another and proceeded to double over with laughter.