With a distinctive sound marked by the blazing (and often hilariously comic) banjo theatrics of Little Roy Lewis, a big bass drum, and robust harmonies from a contingent of identically dressed Lewis daughters, the Lewis Family has remained an institution of Georgia music and of the bluegrass festival scene for several decades. The "First Family of Bluegrass Gospel" got its start, in a way, when Roy Lewis, Sr., known as "Pop," used a ladder to spirit 15-year-old Pauline Holloway ("Mom" Lewis, who died in 2002) away from her house and to an elopement in McCormick, SC, in 1925. In the late '40s they joined with four of their eight children to form a family singing group, taking the name the Lewis Family for a gospel performance at a Woodmen of the World meeting in 1951. That year they made their first recordings on the small Sullivan label, and by 1957 they were recording for Starday. The family was influenced by the gospel quartet harmonies of the Chuckwagon Gang and by the big-beat gospel of Martha Carson, but their sound and shows were distinctive from the start. In 1954 the Lewis Family began appearing on a weekly television show in Augusta, GA, near their hometown of Lincolnton; it ran until 1992. The family's live performances likewise had a durable consistency; through about 60 album releases on Starday, Canaan, Riverson, and Daywind, their sound remained largely unchanged. They began touring full time in the early '60s.
By the end of the 20th century the Lewis Family played roughly 200 shows a year, appearing at annual Southern gospel events such as the Albert E. Brumley Memorial Singing in Springdale, AR, as well as at bluegrass festivals far and wide. Their shows, marked by cornball humor and stage razzle-dazzle along with a gospel message, offer a unique window on the musical past in their traveling family-group setup. Although the group operates in a sphere separate from the bluegrass mainstream, Little Roy Lewis is recognized as one of the top masters of the five-string banjo in bluegrass. For sheer speed on the fretboard he is unmatched. Daughters Miggie, Polly, and Janis Lewis joined the group gradually in the 1960s and 1970s as several brothers dropped out to pursue business careers, and their harmony singing anchors many of the family's songs; a third generation of Lewis musicians has taken the stage increasingly often in recent years. Many Lewis Family members are talented multi-instrumentalists, and the group plays several upbeat numbers, including "The Good Time Get Together," that are structured so as to allow multiple virtuoso solos on various instruments, sometimes including such novelties as an autoharp. Their repertoire, particularly heavy on the works of bluegrass songwriter Randall Hylton, also contains numerous traditional pieces and unique songs from a network of local Georgia musicians little heard elsewhere. The Lewis Family hosts an annual festival of its own, the Lewis Family Homecoming & Bluegrass Festival, in Lincolnton. They were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and have won several Dove awards. ~ James Manheim