Courthouse by day, country stage by night
John D. Lewis, Jr.’s office looks like what most would expect for a Kentucky county attorney. Dozens of law books line the bookshelves. His framed certificate to practice law hangs on the wall.
Another key item Lewis likes to keep in the office: his banjo.
“I tell people that I play the banjo to stay sane. Playing music and playing the banjo was just something that relaxes me; I can get my mind off of something for a few minutes,” Lewis said.
There’s a lot that can weigh on the mind of a county attorney. Lewis is in his 30th year of practicing law, 18 of which as the Elliott County Attorney. His work includes preparing for court, assisting law enforcement with warrants, child support collection, working with the school system and providing legal guidance to county officials.
“I like the idea that every day is a new challenge,” Lewis said. “You never know what that next case is going to be. We’re a small office, but we try to get a lot of work done.”
Much like he enjoys the variety of work as an attorney, Lewis says he enjoys a variety of music.
He heard it often growing up. His mother played piano in church. As a boy, Lewis remembers his father and uncle each bought themselves a banjo and were determined to learn how to play. They drove up to Middletown, Ohio, for weekly lessons from Noah Crase, a banjo player who had performed with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.
“They had a cassette that Noah Crase would record of the lesson,” Lewis said. “One would sit with the banjo, and the other would sit with the tape recorder and just hit rewind and rewind.”
Although his father had the passion, it was Lewis’ mother who had the better ear for music.
“I can remember my dad just sitting there trying to play, and my mother would say, ‘Well, it sounds like he’s doing it this way.’ And I can remember her leaning over my dad, and my mother would show him what he what she was hearing from the tape,” Lewis recalled. “So the story goes that dad took the lessons, and mom learned how to play the banjo from it.”
It wasn’t long before Lewis picked up his own banjo at age 13, and he’s been playing ever since.
“I like everything about the banjo. One of the things that's really unique about the banjo is that anymore you hear it in all kinds of music, not just bluegrass,” he said.
Kentucky has long been a hub of bluegrass and country music; Bill Monroe, J.D. Crowe, Keith Whitley (Elliott County’s most famous son) and a host of others all called the Bluegrass State home. Opportunities to perform came early for Lewis. At 14, he started playing with his friend, Don Rigsby, at local events and spaghetti dinners. Rigsby grew up to become a Grammy-nominated musician who has traveled the world.
“I’ve kind of lived my bluegrass dream vicariously through Don,” Lewis chuckled.
After graduating law school, Lewis worked in Pikeville and Grayson before returning home to Elliott County. His wife, Anita, is a guidance counselor at the high school and the two have a son and daughter. Lewis has lost track of how many banjoes he owns (probably 20, he says, and a lot of parts), one of which generally stays at his law office.
“Some of the people that may come through in the course of a normal day, if I know that anybody picks any at all, I'll let them play me a song on the banjo first. So, I keep one handy here as well.”
Lewis has done his fair share of performing with several groups throughout the years. Since 2011, he’s been a member of the bluegrass band, Wildfire, along with lead singer and guitarist Robert Hale, Curt Chapman on bass, resonator guitarist Matt DeSpain and Scott Napier on mandolin. Wildfire’s 2022 album “Quiet Country Town” is in the top 10 of Roots Music Report’s Bluegrass Album Chart.
“The thing I like about Wildfire, picking with these guys, is that we do a lot of different kinds of music. Robert writes much of the material that we play. He’s a really good songwriter,” Lewis said. “It's bluegrass-based, but with a little more of an edge.”
Playing the banjo and practicing law have each left indelible marks on John D. Lewis, and he can’t see one as being more important to his life than the other. He is both a musician with a law degree and an attorney who plays banjo.
“Music has been a big part of my life for a lot of years. But when we’re here at the office, there’s much work to be done here,” Lewis said. “It's all part of who I am. I think people in general can love a lot of different things. Other people play basketball or play golf. Music just happens to be something that I love. And I love my job. I've been blessed beyond measure.”