The Lewis Family is known to many of their fans as “The First Family of Bluegrass Gospel”. The group originated from Lincolnton, a modest Georgia community (some 1,500 residents) located in the northeastern portions of Georgia, close to the South Carolina state line.
Lincolnton is named after Benjamin Lincoln, a Revolutionary War general, and the Lewis Family infused their shows with typical country charm and a characteristic thick Southern accent.
Originally, the band included Roy “Pop” Lewis, the family patriarch, on bass, daughters “Miggie” Polly and Janis (vocalists) and sons Wallace (guitar), Talmadge (mandolin & fiddle), Roy M. “Little Roy” ( banjo).
The Lewis Family first started out in 1947 as the Lewis Brothers and this line-up included another brother, Esley (bass) along with Talmadge, Wallace, and occasionally “Little Roy.”
This line-up was playing fiddle tunes and country music at some regional square dances. In 1951, the rest of the family joined the band and they switched to bluegrass gospel music which they continued throughout the band’s existence.
In 1953, the band had a first chance to make recordings. A session was set up in radio station WJAT’s Swainsboro studio in Georgia. The band’s recorded music was supposed to be released on the Bibletone label, but that label ceased its operations before any of the recordings could be released, so the band’s records were released by Sullivan Records (Greenwood, South Carolina).
In 1954, two 78-rpm discs got on the market. The first record contained the songs “He’s the Only One” and “Lights in the Valley” while the second disc included the songs “Did You Do What the Lord Said To Do” and “Wait a Little Longer, Please Jesus.”
The owner of the record label, Hoyt Sullivan, played a prominent role in the following phase of the Lewis Family’s career. In April 1954, Sullivan introduced the band on WJBF, an Augusta, Georgia, based television station. The show was live on TV every Sunday afternoon from noon until 1 pm, and this went on for the next 38 years, though later with other sponsors.
Before landing at the Starday record label in 1958, the Lewis Family released three singles with the Hollywood record label, part of King Records. Ar first, the Starday records were extended play (EP) 45-rpm records that included two songs on each of the records’ sides, but eventually, these as singles released songs were brought together on the band’s first long play (LP) album titled “Singing Time Down South”.
All following Starday recordings were released specifically as LP albums, and in the period 1960-1969, the Lewis Family produced no less than 13 albums on the Starday label. These albums included a “Little Roy” banjo album as well as an album recorded together with Carl Story, another legendary Starday gospel artist. A few of the best-known songs that The Lewis Family recorded for Starday label include the touching “Slippers With Wings” and “Pop” Lewis’ favorite “Just One Rose Will Do.”
As the band’s popularity was growing, the Lewis Family had to make longer travels to perform their shows far away from their Georgia home. In those days, typical venues were including fairs, civic centers, high school auditoriums, and churches. To make their travels more comfortable, the group bought a big 1948 GM Silverside travel bus, which made them actually the first gospel bluegrass band that used this way of transportation.
In the early 1960s, various members of the Lewis Family quit their jobs to become full-time professional musicians, and this all was intensified in the years 1963-64 because their weekly television shows, which were live happenings thus far, were videotaped and broadcasted by more than 25 different television stations which not only increased the band’s popularity but also enlarged their operational reach.
In 1969, the Lewis Family performed for the first time at a major bluegrass festival in Hugo, Oklahoma, and by then, the band had already a perfect show on stage. They played gospel music and presented a well-paced and entertaining program. The featured instrumentals around the hard-driven banjo by “Little Roy”, songs showcasing the three Lewis sisters, gospel songs that were popular at the time, spirituals, and everything accompanied by a healthy dose of “Little Roy’s” comedy (though this happened most of the time at the expense of other Lewis Family members).
“Pop” Lewis’ genial emcee work usually kept the band’s program on an even keel and visually on stage, the Lewis Family was striking. The women were dressed in beautiful dresses on stage, and the men were dressed in matching suits, and a large portion of the fabulous clothes was actually handcrafted and sewn by “Mom” Lewis.
In 1970, the band moved from Starday records to the Canaan Label, a Waco, Texas, based company, at that time a leading independent label in the gospel music world. The Lewis Family released, over a 14-year period, no less than 23 albums. Memorable great songs from that period include “Joshua,” “Honey in the Rock,” “Baptism of Jesse Taylor,” “Hallelujah Turnpike,” “Me and Jesus,” and “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal.”
In those days, the Lewis Family’s next generation started to come of age, and they, too, were joining the band. Next-generation members included Travis (son of Wallace) on bass and Lewis Phillips (Janis’ son) on lead guitar and banjo. Travis, who also was driving the band’s bus, was highly decorated. For five years in a row, the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA) voted him Best Bluegrass Bass player of the year. Lewis Phillips made his first recording in 1977 at age 5 when he appeared on Lester Flatt’s 1977 Bluegrass Festival double LP set.
In 1978, Lewis Phillips aired together with Carol Burnett and Dolly Parton in a TV special called Dolly & Carol in Nashville. He made one solo recording named Empty Fields and he received the Gospel Music Association Dove awards twice and was nominated three times. Polly’s daughter Sherri, together with her husband Jeff Easter, also contributed to the band, but they launched their own successful career as a duo act.
In more recent years, the group made recordings with the Riversong and Daywind record labels, and from 1999, the Lewis Family’s records won eleven (!) Dove awards for Best Bluegrass Album/Best Bluegrass Band. The band won many other awards and in 1992, they were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
In the year 2000, “Pop” Lewis’ was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the magazine SGN Scoops in 2003. In 2015, the Lewis Family was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Gospel Music Association and received four SPBGMA awards. The band additionally received two IBMA awards: in 2002 a Distinguished Achievement Award and in 2006, the group was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Many of the original group members are no longer among us. “Mom” Lewis passes away in 2003, “Pop” Lewis died a year later, and Wallace Lewis passed away in 2007. Other Lewis Family members retired due to illness and the Lewis Family ceased to exist as a band in 2009. Today, several offshoots are keeping the legacy alive, and The Lewis Tradition is featuring several former Lewis Family band members: Wallace’s son Travis, Travis’ son Jameson, and Janis together with her son Lewis.