Lewis Family calls it quits after more than half a century

The Lewis Family of Lincolnton, Ga., national bluegrass and gospel music stars for more than half a century and inductees into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, have announced that the group's last performance will be Sept. 5 in Dover, Pa.

The advanced ages and continuing poor health of several members were cited as the reasons.

Posted Saturday on the Web site, thelewisfamilymusic.com, was the simple announcement: "The Lewis Family has reached the difficult decision of announcing their retirement. They want to thank all their friends and fans who have supported them during these past 60 years. Continuing health issues and age have caused them to examine their traveling schedule, and they have set their last date as Sept. 5, 2009."

Webmaster Janet McMurrin additionally e-mailed a note to fans saying, "Polly’s health continues to decline, and Miggie also has various health issues. ... Their booking agent, The Harper Agency, has contacted promoters, and they have worked out the final touring schedule for The Lewis Family. ... This is an emotional time for the family as they look back over almost 60 years of traveling and sharing their music. They want you to know how very much they appreciate your support and friendship through all these years on the road. Please pray for the family as they work through this transition in their lives. As the members sort out their future plans you can look on the site for more information. Thanks for being the support group for The Lewis Family!"

Formed originally about 1951, the group would begin as brothers singing on porches in Lincolnton and would go on to perform in such prestigious venues as the Lincoln Center in New York City and the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tenn.

A card mailed last week announced that family comedian and all-around musician Little Roy Lewis and former Lincolnton resident and banjo/fiddle player Lizzy Long would be available for bookings in 2010. The two have been appearing in concerts and festivals many times in recent years separate from The Lewis Family, often with banjo playing legend Earl Scruggs.

In late March it was announced that the family's 22nd annual Homecoming & Bluegrass Festival held annually each May at Elijah Clark State Park near Lincolnton would be the family's last. Festival co-owner Norman Adams said there was not enough attendance to make it profitable. He noted, "It is strictly a business decision, and we just decided to call it quits; plus, there is the health of members of The Lewis Family."

Last month The Lewis Family won two more Dove Awards, the Gospel Music Association's highest award, for the We Are Family CD project, working in collaboration with other national gospel acts Jeff & Sheri Easter and The Easter Brothers. They won in the categories of Bluegrass Album and Bluegrass Recorded Song of the Year (They’re Holding Up the Ladder). The CD is combined in a package with a DVD recording of a performance of all three groups taped Sept. 26-27, 2007, during the annual Mayberry Days festival in Mount Airy, N.C.

Early group members and brothers Wallace and Esley Lewis dropped out in the 1960s to pursue other careers; family matriarch Pauline "Mom" Lewis died in 2003 at age 92; patriarch Roy "Pop" Lewis died in 2004 at 98; bass player Travis Lewis quit the group in 2004 to pursue other interests; and his father, acoustic guitar player Wallace Lewis (the group's main songwriter), died in 2007. Roy and Pauline Lewis had been married for 77 years at the time of her death.

Besides Little Roy Lewis and his sisters Polly Lewis Copsey and Miggie Lewis, the present family group also consists of their sister, Janis Lewis Phillips; Mrs. Phillips' son, Lewis Phillips; and in recent years several guest bass players.

The Lewis Family's first recordings were made about 1951 on the Sullivan label. The next year, Don Pierce released Lewis Family recordings on a 16-song album, Singing Time Down South, on Mr. Pierce's Starday label. The group would continue to record over the next five decades for many respected labels, including Canaan, River Song and Day Wind.

Since the 1950s, the group has averaged about 200 performances a year at gospel and bluegrass music events and have logged more than 100,000 miles annually on their several tour buses. In 1954 the family began a weekly TV show on WJBF (Channel 6) in Augusta, a year after the station went on the air, that lasted until 1992, making it one of the longest-running country and gospel shows in TV history. The family continued to tape annual Christmas shows after that.

The program was syndicated by tapes to several stations around the nation, with one of their WJBF shippers being none other than a young Jim Nabors in pre "Gomer Pyle" days. Their fans have included such diverse viewers at former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and rock legend Elvis Presley.

The Lewis Family was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2005 and the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor in Nashville in 2006.

Announced as the final dates for the performing family will be June 6 at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria Township, Fla.; June 13, Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, Va.; June 19, Lighthouse Restaurant in Chambersburg, Pa.; June 27, Sam Yoders Farm in Houston, Del.; July 10-11, Bluegate Restaurant and Theatre in Shepshewana, Ind.; July 31, Five River Campgrounds in Parsons, W.Va.; Aug. 7, Brumley Memorial Gospel Sing at Cowan Civic Center in Lebanon, Mo.; Aug. 11, Montour-Delong Fairgrounds in Washingtonville, Pa.; and Sept. 5, Union Fire & Hose Co. in Dover, Pa.

Over the years, the group has drawn international acclaim. Harold Closter of the Smithsonian Institution put it this way: ``The Lewis Family has served as a guiding light in the field of bluegrass-gospel music. (They) have reminded us that traditional values, when combined with musical artistry, gives expression to the hopes and aspirations of countless Americans.''

Former U.S. Sen. Zell Miller wrote the back cover notes for the group's 1993 Live in Georgia album, noting, "No one else sounds quite like The Lewis Family. They are in a class by themselves. I love that driving bluegrass gospel style that is uniquely theirs.''

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