Jefferson County native C.J. Lewandowski, a bluegrass musician, is headed to Los Angeles this week to see if his band, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, wins a Grammy Award.
Lewandowski, 32, of Sevierville, Tenn., learned last month that the group’s latest album, titled “Toil, Tears and Trouble,” was nominated for Best Bluegrass Album of the year.
The 62nd annual Grammy Awards show will air at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26, on CBS.
The Po’ Ramblin Boys’ Grammy nomination is the crescendo of an exciting couple of years for the band, after signing with Rounder Records in 2018, completing its album last summer and performing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time Oct. 1, where the group received a standing ovation.
“I’ve always wanted to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, and now we’ve done it,” Lewandowski said.
He said getting nominated for a Grammy was not on the band’s radar at all.
“None of us ever imagined this happening,” he said. “It was a complete surprise. It’s crazy for any band this fresh to be in this situation, much less us.”
The band was formed in 2014 and consists of Lewandowski on mandolin, Josh Rinkel on guitar, Jereme Brown on banjo, Jasper Lorentzen on bass and Laura Orshaw on the fiddle. Orshaw, the only “girl” in the group, joined Po’ Ramblin’ Boys to work on the band’s Grammy-nominated album but recently was made a permanent member.
All the band members provide vocals and receive a lot of compliments for their harmonies, Lewandowski said.
“We all like to sing, and we all like to sing together,” he said.
The group’s nominated album includes 12 tracks that appeal to fans of both traditional bluegrass and the new “progressive stringband music,” according to a promotional article from Rounder Records.
Ken Irwin, co-founder of Rounder Records, selected some of the material for “Toil, Tears and Trouble,” the article said.
The band selected four songs, including “Old, New, Borrowed and Blue,” which band member Rinkel composed. The band’s other three selections come from other Missouri songwriters – “Next Train South” by the late Mac Patterson, “Ice on the Timber” by Frank Ray of Hillsboro and “Longing for the Ozarks” by Jim Orchard of Mountain View.
Lewandowski said the songs have a lot of meaning for him.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys album is one of five nominated in the Best Bluegrass Album category, which also includes “Tall Fiddler” by Michael Cleveland, “Live in Prague, Czech Republic” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, “Royal Traveller” by Missy Raines, and “If You Can’t Stand The Heat” by Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen.
Jefferson County roots
While a Grammy nomination was not in Lewandowski’s plans, music always seemed to be his destiny. The journey began in House Springs, where his best friend, Steve Lawson, found a banjo under his grandfather Udell Stout’s bed.
“He said learn it or put it back,” Lewandowski said. “Steve learned a tune on it. And everything he did, I did.”
Suddenly, a new world opened up for the boys.
Lewandowski said Stout, who still lives in House Springs, introduced them to bluegrass musicians and songs. They also watched the film, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which has a soundtrack featuring bluegrass music.
The two also took music lessons from Connie Layton in Dittmer – Lawson, who still lives in House Springs, on the banjo and Lewandowski on the mandolin.
“After three or four years, Connie said, ‘That’s all I can teach you. Now go out to the festivals,’” Lewandowski said.
Stout and Mike Heller of Hillsboro took the two all around the area to perform. Lewandowski met musicians from Jefferson County and beyond, many of whom had been playing bluegrass music since the 1940s, when it was first developed in the U.S. Those seasoned performers showed Lewandowski and Lawson the ropes, or perhaps the strings, and it wasn’t long before the two formed a band called “Blue Generation.” They were about 16 years old, and with the help of local musicians, made their first album, “A Purpose and a Plan.”
They took part in jam sessions held at Hardee’s in House Springs, sometimes performing with the Ozark Bluegrass Boys, which included Heller, Ray Gore of High Ridge, Rich Orchard of Festus, and sometimes Orchard’s brother, Jim.
“I grew up around the best bluegrass boys in the state of Missouri, and I was very fortunate to do so. These were people who made the Missouri bluegrass scene,” Lewandowski said. “Ray Gore sang tenor on the recordings of the Don Brown and the Ozark Mountain Trio. He invested a bunch of time into me when I needed it.”
Gore, 84, said he’s very proud of Lewandowski.
“When he first came down to Hardee’s and was just learning to play the mandolin, he told me, ‘I want to be a professional musician,’” Gore said. “Well, I sat him down and gave him a good talking to. I told him if you want to be a professional musician, you have to be professional yourself. When you’re on stage, dress as nice as you can, and no drinking. I also told him don’t talk; sing. People don’t come to hear you talk.”
Gore said Lewandowski appears to have taken his advice.
“They all dress top-notch,” he said.
Lewandowski lived in House Springs for the first part of his life, but then lived with his mother in the Ozarks until she died and he moved back to Jefferson County, where he lived with his father in Dittmer. He said his family also had a farm in Grubville where he spent a lot of time.
He graduated from Northwest High in 2005 and formed a new band in 2008 called Men of the Week. The Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America named Lewandowski Midwest Entertainer of the Year in 2010 for his work with that band.
Po’ Ramblin’ Boys form
During Lewandowski’s musical travels, he spent time in Kentucky, where he met Rinkel and Brown, who were playing with Brown’s father’s band.
“We were really good friends right off the bat,” Lewandowski said. “We hung out all the time and put together a band to do a show.”
Lewandowski got a call to play music for the city of Gatlinburg as a solo musician playing up and down the parkway, and soon after began playing for Ole Smoky Moonshine, a distillery and tourist attraction.
“They (the distillery) wanted to bring in another band, and I had proved myself a little bit, and they asked if I wanted to put together a full-time band,” Lewandowski said.
He brought in Rinkel and Brown.
“Jasper was working behind the bar. We knew he played bass,” Lewandowski said. “A couple of weeks later, we unofficially started the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys house band.”
Eventually the band started traveling and even did a tour in Europe.
In 2018, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys was named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year.
The band members will fly to Los Angeles this weekend after a show in Alberta, Canada.
“It’s crazy how life leads you,” Lewandowski said. “A lot of people go through life never knowing their purpose. I feel really blessed that I found out what I wanted to do a long time ago.”
He said the band’s recent accolades are nice, but what matters most is the music.
“If none of this had happened, I’d still be in Jefferson County playing music. It’s my love; it’s my passion, my medicine. Bluegrass music has always been there for me no matter what I’m going through,” Lewandowski said.
He said he’s grateful for all the musicians and the friends and family who played a part in bringing him this far.
“If we win it, it will be because of all the time we put in, in something that started in House Springs in the Hardee’s jam sessions,” he said. “I hope I can bring it home and make Jefferson County proud.”