Ashley Lewis was around 7 years old when she started playing the guitar around the family’s home in rural Sandwich.
“I just loved everything about music,” Lewis recalled. “Ever since I was very, very young, I was performing.”
Lewis now makes a living playing in her own bluegrass band, Ashley Lewis and Legacy, based in Nashville, as well as writing and publishing songs.
Waubonsee Community College recently recognized Lewis for her professional accomplishments over the years as one of the school’s distinguished alumni. Lewis received an associate degree in fine arts, musical performance from Waubonsee in 2009, according to the school.
Lewis said her mother, Jan, was a musician and songwriter who led her own bluegrass band, and invited her daughter to play in her band.
“My mom had a band when I was really young, and she let me be in it, and we toured for years and years,” she said. “And that kind of evolved into my band now, Legacy. We just had so many adventures, you just wouldn’t hardly believe.”
Lewis was 18 when she and the band recorded their first record. She recalled going on a trip to Nashville as a young woman and falling in love with the town.
“I think my first trip down there I was maybe 17, and I just wanted to move there,” she said. “I was begging my parents ‘Please let me move there!” And they were like, no.”
“I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m gonna find a way to get there,’” she said.
When she was 18 years old, she connected with a bluegrass band called the Grascals and their mandolin player, Danny Roberts.
“[Roberts] took me under his wing; he’s my hero mandolin player,” she said. “Him and Sam Bush are, like, ‘it’ for me.”
To her, Sandwich will always be home, but there is something about Nashville, Lewis said.
“The city is so friendly,” she said. “There are so many people from different places, and everyone embraces each other. And it’s a musical mecca – there are studios everywhere. You’re immersed in this entirely different musical culture.”
Roberts produced her first record with the Grascals backing Lewis up.
“That was so much fun,” she said.
She is currently recording the follow-up to her last full-length album, 2014's “Captivated.” Jimmy Mattingly, a master musician in his own right as the touring fiddler for Garth Brooks’ band, produced the last record and is producing the one Lewis is working on currently.
“He’s such a wealth of musical magic,” she said of Mattingly. “He’s an amazing producer and he has this way of making things sizzle and sparkle in the studio.”
“Captivated” featured contributions by Nashville heavyweights like Vince Gill, Jon Randall and Carl Jackson.
Making a living in music
Lewis said she has been fortunate enough to make a living out of making music, while she teaches lessons or writes songs in between bluegrass gigs.
“I know there are a lot of musicians who have to juggle a day job with their music; that’s gotta be really, really hard,” she said. “I have been fortunate enough that my music has been able to be a career, a financially sustaining career. And part of that is because I’ve always had a hand in something musical. Maybe it hasn’t always arisen from performing. For example, I’ve taught private lessons quite a bit.”
Lewis said being involved in publishing and songwriting helps her earn a living as well.
“I’ve wanted to have a handle on the business side of it,” she said. “You can’t say ‘I want to make music’ and not have a handle on the other stuff because that’s all part of it. So I really immersed myself in learning the business of music and making sure that I was doing things the right way, so I was set up to receive those royalties. And that’s made a huge difference, too.”
Lewis said that, while belonging to a major record label has its pluses, independent musicians can make it work, especially with modern technology allowing people to bring their music to the masses.
“I salute those who have record label homes,” she said. “That’s a huge, huge plus. But I also want to encourage indies out there that you can do this. You can totally make this on your own.”
See her perform
Ashley Lewis and Legacy have a couple performances coming up in Illinois.
Ashley Lewis and Legacy played a concert as part of the Concerts at the Quad series at Illinois State University on July 2. The band's next performances in Illinois are scheduled later this summer and early fall. The band will perform at the Art on the Prairie Festival in Warrenville on Sept. 15 and then return to Warrenville for an Oct. 6 performance as part of Family Field Day.