The first time Eric Lewis played at the Fishstock Concert Series 25 years ago, it was a casual booking for a casual-party-turned-musical-venue.
“I ran into Dave [Ellman, Fishstock’s founder], and he said he had the series up,” Lewis said. “He’d had concerts before, but this was the first year of full concerts, and he wanted to know if I would do it.”
Lewis said yes, but as a multi-instrumentalist who didn’t lead a band or have his own, he had never played under his own name.
“So I just called it ‘Eric Lewis and Friends’ and got my buddy Andy Ratliff to come up,” he said, with a number of other musical friends. “Tons of folks.”
They played in the hayloft at Camp David, rather than on the big, ground-level stage where 300 audience members can fit, with another 200 outside.
“We didn’t have enough crowd to do the main stage, but we had 150 people, which was way more than anyone expected and super well received,” Lewis said.
Fishstock matured into the iconic summertime musical venue it is today, with Eric Lewis and Friends a regular performance on the schedule. Looking back on 25 years of summer performances, those that took place in 2006 and 2007 have a special place in his memory.
“We probably had somewhere between 500 and 600 people – at the barn, spilling outside the barn,” he said. “It was just a zoo. It felt like a massive concert. It was so much fun.”
Lewis has the drawly accent of his native state, Tennessee, where he was born just outside Knoxville and where he lives in Memphis today. His mom always had a guitar around the house, and his grandfather played banjo.
From the time he was 11 years old, Lewis said he knew he wanted to play guitar. Music teachers taught him as much as they could until his playing grew to places they couldn’t follow. Over the years, he would pick up anything fretted – dobro, mandolin, fiddle – or steel-guitar related.
His music career began when he moved to Memphis at 18 years old for a job with a recording studio that worked with famous acts such as ZZ Top.
“A band needed a guitar player, and that’s what I moved for,” Lewis said.
He stayed in Memphis and went to college on a trumpet scholarship – until an up-and-coming rock band with a record deal called. He answered.
“So I dropped out and went on the road,” he said. “And the rest is history.”
Today, Lewis is a multi-instrumentalist who performs and records with some of the top Memphis artists, is a National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awardee, and has won Best String Player awards multiple times. He’s also well known in Door County – not only for Fishstock performances, but also for his work with Buckets of Rain: The Songs of Bob Dylan, Northern Sky Theater, Midsummer’s Music, and local songwriter Katie Dahl.
How Lewis went from chasing a rock-star dream on the road to becoming a professional and celebrated multi-instrumentalist was first a matter of taste – “As I got older,” he said, “my taste changed, and I found forms of music I liked even better” – and then a matter of economics.
“If I played a bunch of different instruments, I could get hired and be working almost all the time,” Lewis said. “And I found, because I had a history of playing trumpet and being able to read music and improvise, I could do theater work.”
That’s how he got to Door County. He met American Folklore Theatre (AFT) cofounders Fred Alley – who died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition in 2001 – and Frederick “Doc” Heide through a Northern Sky Theater (formerly AFT) veteran, Karen Mal, who had heard Lewis play in a bluegrass band in Memphis.
“She brought me up here for a gig, and that’s how I met Fred,” he said.
Lewis is a country and bluegrass musician for live performances, but he transitions to rock at times for session sounds. He does not consider himself a purist, or even a bluegrass musician.
“I dabble in a lot of styles – what suits me at the time, or what I’m into,” he said. “I’m not afraid to grow or change. That can be a problem for the audience. They find one thing you do, and they want you to keep doing it.”
Producing albums for other musicians has brought a different kind of satisfaction lately, and Lewis foresees spending more time in the studio.
“You create something that lasts forever,” he said. “A live performance is fun, but it’s a snapshot. It doesn’t last forever, and sometimes, you wish you could see [it] again.”
To his point, Lewis discovered he had a multi-track recording of the 2007 Fishstock concert when he and his friends “tore the roof off the barn” with their performance. They narrowed it down to 18 songs and mixed it up to offer a double-disk commemorative of that show to celebrate the 25th anniversary. Supplies are limited.
“We only pressed 300,” he said.
Lewis had just driven 13 hours to Door County when he spoke to the Peninsula Pulse. Rather than road weary, he seemed energized to be back in a place that he’s returned to annually to “create, perform and entertain – and be in such a gorgeous place,” he said – a place that allowed him to grow up and into his musical career.
“I consider it the venue that really propped me up and gave me a platform, an audience,” he said.
Lewis also appreciates Door County audiences for their receptivity and wondered aloud whether local musicians take that for granted.
“They are the best audiences in the country,” he said. “They listen. In Memphis, they will talk the entire time you’re performing. You become background noise a lot of times.”
Eric Lewis and Friends
25th Annual Show
Fishstock Concert Series
Sunday, Sept. 3, 7 pm, west of Maple Grove Road at 3127 Cty F in Fish Creek. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $25 for reserved seating.
“It’s not all about me; I really emphasize the friends,” Lewis said.
This year, those include singer/songwriter/string wizard Andy Ratliff and award-winning artists Paul Taylor and Jimmy Davis. Returning for his second time will be bassist/singer/songwriter/producer Mark Edgar Stuart from Memphis.
To purchase tickets in advance or learn more, visit doorcountytickets.com or fishstockmusic.com, or call 920.421.5555. Tickets will also be available at the venue the night of the show starting at 5:30 pm.
Lewis’ latest solo CD, released in July 2023, is Across the Mountain. He’ll be appearing at other Door County venues through October. Go to doorcountypulse.com/events to get details.