First, we need some music in the background. Click on this and let it play:
One Man Band
by Stephen Morris (published originally in Livin’: The Vermont Way Magazine)
Spencer Lewis takes the concept of a one man band to a new dimension. Not only does he play all the music (pleasantly unobtrusive guitar and fiddle tunes that have a whimsical lilt, often tinged with sadness), but he writes it … and records it in his tiny studio in the middle of the woods … and he sells it on the Internet and at a host of personal appearances and craft shows … and he distributes it to a series of retail outlets that have put in his proprietary listening stations. He’s the writer, the artist, the engineer, the marketer, the sales force, the publicity flak, and the distributor.
In a world that is going “flat” and where your customer service call is likely handled by a person in the Philippines and where the grunt work on your tax return is done by a graduate student in Bangalore, Spencer Lewis has made himself into a one man, transnational conglomerate.
Not only that, he builds stone walls.
Spencer is a big floppy man, with dark eyes and a shock of black hair graying at the temples that is often held in check by an engineer’s hat. He has the big, rough hands you’d expect of someone who makes a living working stones by hand, but not the hands of a man who is equally proficient with a guitar and violin.
Here, in a nutshell, is his life. He wakes up in his passive solar country home just off Gilead Brook Road, between Randolph and Bethel. He puts on the coffee and begins “to work the riffs.” He picks up his guitar and starts to play. “There’s a song already there,” is how he puts it. He never has to decide what to play or write. The instrument tells him.
Two leisurely cups later, he’s ready to go to the jobsite. His specialty is working with Vermont fieldstone. Each stone is a different note; each project a new song. Sometimes, like the time he built what he calls “the Great Wall of Gilead,” the end result is a symphony.
Building stone walls is not much different than playing music. “You have to train yourself to be intuitive,” says Spencer, now in his 60s. “You have to trust the stones. When I reach for a stone, it’s there. When it’s not, it’s time to go home.”
In between stones and music, Spencer tends to the business of his music, fulfilling orders from around the globe and tending to the listening stations at such places as Shelburne Museum and the Vermont Country Store. He does occasional concerts and craft shows. When the weather turns too cold to work with the stones, he holes up in his rustic studio and records a new CD. He now has more than 20 CD’s in his catalog with roughly 200,000 copies somewhere out in the world.
Business is the third leg that gives stability to his stool. To Lewis, business is just as creative and intuitive as writing music or building a stone wall. “I used to think that work interfered with my music, but now, it’s the other way around. My work protects my music.”
His life was not always so balanced. After growing up as a city kid, he immersed himself in Vermont, wanting to be a farmer and a musician. He bought a draft horse for logging. “I’d cut and sell a cord a week, then live off the proceeds.” He learned that even as a young buck in his twenties energy was finite, and his music suffered. So he over-reacted in the equal and opposite direction, selling the horse and hitting the road to devote himself full-time to music.
“I expected I’d be handed something,” he says. He wasn’t sure what. A recording contract? Sex, drugs, and rock and roll? But nothing came, aside from small gigs in distant bars where no one really listened, so he returned to Vermont where he at least knew how to survive. It didn’t happen overnight, but he finally discovered his audience in non-music venues such as craft fairs. He became a familiar sight on the local and national circuits, working up to 45 weekend shows a year. It was another shortcut to burnout. Although he had achieved his goal to be a full-time professional musician, he was perpetually on the edge.
Then, as he approached his fiftieth birthday, he added stone walls to his repertoire, finally achieving the elusive balance that had always been missing, one-third music, one-third business, one-third stone. Each pursuit makes the other one better.
Most recently his music was featured in “Stone Rising,” a documentary broadcast on Vermont Public Television that chronicles the imaginative work of stone mason/artist Dan Snow. His music provides the fitting acoustic accompaniment for the fanciful creations of Snow. (The original compositions for the program are included in Lewis’s latest CD, Vermont Serenades. They are available at www.quartzrecordings.com .)
“If you want to build a boat out of stone, Dan is your guy. I’m more of a straightforward builder of walls, retainers, and steps,” says Lewis. “Then again, I don’t discount the ‘esoteric nature’ of my own stonework in transforming areas into sacred spaces.”
The music business is currently in free-fall. With MP-3 players and iPods, the old model of being compensated for original music through record sales doesn’t work any more. With $3/gallon oil and attention spans fractionated by the Internet and cable television, the economics of hitting the road to promote a record have changed dramatically. Suddenly the verticality of Spencer Lewis, the one man conglomerate, controlling the creative process, the sales and distribution is no longer ahead of his time. He’s spot on.
There’s always another wall to build. Lewis, as a musician and wall builder, borrows phrases from his fellow stone mason, Snow, to describe this point in his life. He, as have all stone wall builders, has worked through his “moments of difficulty.” He knows, as do all musicians, that one note follows another just as “each stone is in response to the stone that preceded it.”
And it only took him ten thousand stones, ten thousand tunes, and more than sixty years to figure it out.
Find out lots more about Spencer and buy his CDs at:
Weeding the Garden
by Spencer Lewis
Preview or buy on iTunes
A series of luxuriant, pastoral guitar pieces gently seasoned with vocal tones and synthesizer passages.
These songs are simple, relaxing and meditative musical metaphors for tending one’s own inner garden. Although it was inspired by the artist’s efforts to accompany his gardening chores, it has since become a symbol of the healing and grounding energy which results from these efforts.
“The music may draw inspiration from a gardener’s tasks, but the objective here, it seems, is to speak to and from a gardener’s soul. He invites the listener to the inner sounds of the heart, where the grace of nature sings. Lewis offers truly lovely and tender compositions that are texturally rich and infinitely rewarding.” – Scot Carino – Healing Options