By Amy Nicole Tangel
Stories of musicians and their struggles to keep the music alive during the pandemic are countless, but as the fog starts to lift, glimpses of hope are shining through and a fiddler player in Nashville is not only persevering in her career, she is carrying on a family legacy.
Fiddle player Merna Lewis was born into a family of women who were pioneers in paving a path for female musicians playing instruments long before she was born. With new-found time on her hands, Merna has turned to her ancestry to learn more about her family tree and has in-turn found stories of profound women in music history.
Growing up in Monte Vista, Colorado, Merna started playing fiddle at age seven under the instruction of her aunt Bettie, an accomplished fiddle player who began giving her lessons. For Merna’s aunt, her mother and her mom’s sisters, it was a family requirement for the children to learn to play an instrument, and in keeping that tradition she grew up playing the fiddle and learning from her family band known as, The Bowen String Band.
Years later, Merna is using her experiences as a musician and her family history as tools to inspire future generations and pass the baton by sharing her story. Merna said that while she was growing up she knew what she was doing was special, but she also knew she was not like other kids and it was the female musicians who she especially looked up to who welcomed her into their circles when she was young and encouraged her to keep going.
“I want kids to know it’s a cool thing they are doing (playing an instrument). It’s okay to be different; It’s okay to play music, and if it is something they really love, to keep pursuing it,” she said.
Merna’s great grandmother and namesake, Merna played piano, and Merna’s grandmother Marie played violin. Merna said her grandmother was “a little virtuoso” at the age of four who eventually attended Julliard and taught lessons to people in high society such as the daughters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the children of Irving Berlin. Although her grandmother passed years before Merna was born, Merna said she has been learning more about her grandmother’s life and legacy every chance she gets.
During junior high, Merna said she became involved in school activities and put fiddle playing on the backburner to an extent until she turned 14 and her aunt Bettie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Merna’s aunt turned to her and asked for her help to take over her students’ lessons while she went through her treatments. In turn, Merna stepped-up and took over teaching a roster of 40 students per week all while going to school. In addition to her teaching students and going to school, Merna’s aunt was also teaching her how to play songs with bands she was in, so when she became too sick to play Merna would be able to also fill-in on stage.
“She was teaching me how to play, ‘Amarillo by Morning,’ ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ and ‘Fiddle in the Band,’ so when I was 14, at night I was in the bars on the weekends playing with these bands; that’s where I got introduced to that and I fell in love with it,” she said.
Sadly, her aunt lost her battle with breast cancer, but Merna continued to grow and build on everything her aunt had taught her as she went through her high school years and continued playing with bands. Merna would travel two hours each way for certain gigs and said she was able to experience more than many musicians her age thanks to the people who played with her who protected her and always kept a close eye on her. Merna’s parents accompanied her on any performances close to home, and she said her father loved to dance, so it was a perfect opportunity for him to have fun. She played regularly at Harold Dean’s Saddle Saloon in Pueblo, Colorado, and said not only did the lead singer of the band she played with and his wife keep things in check on stage, they were also the owners of the establishment, so regulars were well aware and looked after a young Merna when she traveled with the band.
“People there knew, don’t mess with Merna,” she said.
When she was about 17 years old, Merna said she had a poignant moment in her life when she was listening to an interview on the radio with country music artist Lee Ann Womack and learned the singer attended college to study music in Levelland, Texas, at South Plains College Bluegrass and Country Music Program; the only of its kind in the country. Merna said she knew right then that was the only school for her. She applied to that school only and was all-in. She was accepted and drove to Texas to begin the next phase in following her family tradition.
It was during her time in college when she became known as “The Barefoot Fiddler.” While playing at a club in Amarillo, Texas, when she was with a band called, Copperhead, Merna said she recalled wearing horribly uncomfortable shoes, so she kicked them off. A regular follower of the band came up to the front of the stage with a cardboard sign that said, “You have pretty feet!” She said ever since that moment it stuck, and she is more comfortable playing barefoot, especially when she is in a recording session or onstage with someone she admires; leaving her feeling more grounded.
“I only play with shoes on if it’s highly inappropriate to be barefoot, if it’s really a cold stage, or a cold outdoor gig. I’m currently looking for a shoe that I can wear that protects the bottom of my feet, but doesn’t show on the top,” she said.
Before even finishing college, a once in a lifetime moment came when she played alongside LeAnn Rimes during the 2002 Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day Half-time show at Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas. Following that, upon her graduation from college in 2003, Merna moved directly to Nashville from Texas and never looked back. A couple of months before her permanent move, she visited Nashville and played for the first time at the historical landmark, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. She said a friend of hers was playing there and helped her get her foot in the door, but it was a time where you couldn’t just walk in and people would hire you, so she auditioned and then sat in with the band where they decided how good you were. Only then you would get calls to play after you passed the tests, she said.
Merna has been getting calls ever since as news of her talent spread through word of mouth. She still plays at Tootsie’s and also plays regularly on Nashville’s downtown Broadway at Rippy’s Honky Tonk, Honky Tonk Central and Kid Rock’s Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse. Over the years she has played with countless musicians such as Tanya Tucker and Trent Willmon, performed on the Emeril Live show, and played the Grand Ole Opry stage alongside 105 fellow artists for a tribute to American bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley, which she recalls as one of the highlights of her career.
“When I finally moved, I was the classic story. I threw everything I owned in the back of my truck and drove to Nashville,” she said.
Of all of the places playing the fiddle has taken her over the years, Merna said the most meaningful and memorable times for her were when she toured in 2005-2006 with a group that played for troops overseas through The Armed Forces Entertainment Program (AFE) and United Service Organizations (USO). Merna traveled to various countries and said the troops are the best people to play for, because of the genuine appreciation they all had for the music and for the bands being there to play. She said she is so grateful to have traveled and for the opportunities she had to give back and say thank you through her talent.
“They ate it up. You can feel the emotion, the excitement and the release too, and that in itself is the reward,” she said.
Merna said she has never been inspired to do much solo work and has played with so many people she respects that she said she just wants to collaborate with them in jam sessions and see where it goes in case she ever does sit down to create new solo work; however, with the current pandemic, Merna said she has been exploring ways to think outside of the box creatively.
This year, Merna re-released a recording she made in her early teens titled, “Fiddlin Favorites Re-Released,” and she plans to re-release another recording of cover tunes and traditional songs recorded with the family band before her aunt Bettie passed away. She also has a Christmas recording on the horizon which she has been wanting to do for years and has promised her followers it will happen one day. But in the meantime, she said she just wants to play with the band.
“I’ve never really been inspired to be a solo artist. I love being onstage and supporting other people,” she said.
Since the shutdown, Merna has tried to look at the blessings in disguise. She said it has forced her to slow down and be even more thankful for all she has. Before the pandemic, she said she was just going with the flow, living everyday with expectation she was going to be able to get up every morning and go onstage. When faced with the idea of not being able to play onstage, Merna was forced to look at things from a different perspective, and that’s when she began doing more research about her grandmother Marie and what it meant for her to be a female violinist in her time and how it carried through generations leading up to her.
The now 38-year-old musician said she has been grateful for little gigs here and there and has been doing livestreams that kept her going when everything was completely shut down. Through Merna’s livestreams she said she has been moved to see how much they have been helping people on the other side of the screen. Many people have reached out to her to thank her for playing for them in such difficult times.
While things continue to re-open slowly across the country, Merna said she is seeing a pick-up in business, but it is nowhere near where it was. Setting her sights on the future, Merna said there are so many opportunities ahead for her to still experience. Until that day comes, she said she is grateful for how hard the establishments are working to keep their doors open in safe and clean environments and in turn allowing Merna to be able to work as well.
Currently, Merna can be found playing regularly at Nudie’s Honky Tonk and she is working on creating a more regular livestream schedule for fans to follow. When she is not playing on Broadway, she said she is just a homebody who enjoys helping her musician husband with his Ebay business and often goes with him to estate sales, yard sales and thrift stores. Even after accomplishing so much, she said she still has big dreams like any other artist and hopes the day will come when she gets to play on the opry itself. As she waits for the moment to happen, she said she hopes she finally hears a song she played when she turns on the radio some day.
Until then, as Merna noted, she has, “lots of things to strive for and lots of things to still do.”
To catch Merna’s livestreams and to keep up on all happenings with The Barefoot Fiddler, follow her on Facebook and Instagram, or visit www.thebarefootfiddler.com.
Photos courtesy Merna Lewis.