Eric Lewis has been burning his candle at both ends of late, playing in the orchestra for Circuit Playhouse's stellar production of The Spitfire Grill, then rushing out to the P&H Café or the Poplar Lounge to play with his old partner Chris Scott or with his band the Tennessee Boltsmokers. It's unusual to see a certifiable star of the Memphis honky-tonks playing in the pits, but Lewis, who lives in an apartment in Playhouse on the Square's intern house, is rapidly becoming as well known in theatrical circles as he is in the barrooms.
Lewis never imagined he would find such a close affinity with the theater community, but then again, he never really imagined that he would become a torchbearer for American roots music. Like most teen-agers, he had his sights set on being a rock star. But somewhere along the way, things changed. He began to play more country, more folk, and more bluegrass. His involvement with the theater, and in particular with Fred Alley, author of the musical adaptation of The Spitfire Grill and co-founder of the American Folklore Theatre in Wisconsin, only strengthened his ties to tradition.
"My mom sings and writes songs," Lewis says of his early musical education. "She plays guitar like an old bluesman. She changes timing whenever she feels like it. My grandfather was a banjo player, and I grew up [in Knoxville] hanging out in nursing homes listening to my mom and my grandfather playing Carter Family songs, Bill Monroe, and Hank Williams. I guess it just didn't sink in at the time. But one time this orderly came in and started playing guitar. When he hit his first chord, it was like the house lights went down and the stage lights came up. It was like a Van Halen concert."
Lewis talked his mother into letting him take lessons from the orderly. He went on to study trumpet, piano, and blues, classical, and rock guitar. In high school he started playing in rock bands, and after moving to Memphis, Lewis joined a group called Son of Slam. He went on to play in the Mudflaps, another storied Memphis rock group known for letting its roots hang out all over. He eventually started tinkering more and more with traditional bluegrass and country, learning to play mandolin, fiddle, and pedal steel.
"I was dating a girl named Karen Mal, and she had been doing some theater in Memphis," Lewis says. "She's the one who said I should [start playing for theaters]. She said, 'You can read music and you can improvise. You can play all these different instruments. You could probably make a living doing this.'"
Mal linked Eric up with Jackie Nichols who hired him to play pedal steel for Playhouse's first production of A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. He would eventually play on a national tour of that show.
"Until [A Closer Walk] I had long hair," Lewis says. "[Director] Mike Detroit made me cut it short, and it's been short ever since. Now people call me 'sir.' I didn't know I deserved such respect." And Lewis' hair wasn't all that changed. His career was about to take an unexpected turn. Mal, who had worked at AFT in Wisconsin, also introduced Lewis to Alley.
"He was a great singer and songwriter," Lewis says of Alley. "He was a great athlete, actor. He was just one of those people who was good at everything he did." Alley was the creative force behind AFT, a homespun theater company that now attracts some 50,000 people to its summer theatricals. AFT produces original work as professional as anything in New York, but productions are a far cry from New York theater. The comical characters who walk the stages at AFT are torn directly from the American heartland and Wisconsin in particular. By the time Alley died of a heart attack at age 38, local press had begun to refer to him as "an institution."
In addition to playing for AFT's shows, Lewis also started playing with Alley, who was himself an accomplished musician and songwriter in the folk tradition. They became close friends, and after hearing a bootleg of one of Lewis' shows, Alley put up the money to release Lewis' CD Live at Fish Creek.
"I can't really explain how it feels," Lewis says of his experience playing mandolin and guitar for Circuit's production of The Spitfire Grill. "It feels good to be playing this at home -- in one of the cities I definitely call home. It's just really great to have done all of these things with Fred and to now be sharing them here. You can hear his voice all the way through it."
The Spitfire Grill runs through February 15th. Lewis' band, the Tennessee Boltsmokers, will play a special concert at Circuit Playhouse on Wednesday, February 11th.