I-75 North, from Toledo to Detroit, measures less than 60 miles and looks like a rust belt documentary bruised by NAFTA. Riddled with orange barrels and lined by smokestacks, it’s a 50 minute drive that I’ve made a thousand times for dozens of reasons, from sporting events and concerts to museum day trips. This time, I’m driving to River Rouge to meet Alison Lewis to talk about her new album Our Lady of the Highway.
River Rouge, a downriver suburb of Detroit, is home to the colossal Great Lakes Works steel mill with blast furnaces that were once the largest in the world. They say that when the blast furnaces ran full bore, you could feel a vibration in the ground 50 miles away, and you could see sparkling metal flakes in the air. The furnaces are idle now, and the mill that once employed thousands has just 500 workers left.
In a too common Midwestern refrain, River Rouge has lost over half its population in the last 50 years, as those blue collar jobs have disappeared.
I met Alison Lewis at her house in a gritty working class neighborhood just off the main drag. We met an hour before Matt Dmits, who accompanied her on harmonies and played guitar on the record, was scheduled to arrive for their first rehearsal in support of the album release party coming December 3rd. That release party is scheduled at Ant Hall in Hamtramck.
Lewis’ home feels like an underground museum that pays homage to her world travels and her Detroit roots. There are mementos from all over the world. Original artwork from artists local and national. Vintage photographs. A piano, a guitar, and a bass drum.
As Lewis and I talk, Glory, her rambunctious two year old puppy, comes over to wrestle every 10 minutes, and Millie, her long time best pal that recently turned 13, walks around to check things out.
The boiler went out the day before I showed up, and Alison launches into a beautiful story of how a kind-hearted repairman went the extra mile to fix it, and how grateful she is to hear the radiators hissing in every room. She’d awakened to a reading of 47 degrees on her thermostat that morning, but the repair was far cheaper than she’d figured on, and that’s how all of Lewis’ stories, in song and real life, seem to go. There’s struggle. There’s worry. There’s kindness, and empathy, and hope, and happy endings. Perhaps, the repaired boiler is a minor miracle from Our Lady of the Highway.
The record is Lewis’ first solo work in a decade. During that decade Lewis moved back to Detroit, then went through a divorce. “I had to learn to just make it on my own,” she said.
The album was started and stopped a few times because it didn’t feel right to Lewis, then the pandemic hit, and Jim Diamond, Lewis’ friend and neighbor famous for playing bass in seminal garage rock group The Dirt Bombs and ushering in the iconic Detroit neo-garage rock sound at his studio Ghetto Recorders, was back in town. He’s who Alison Lewis wanted to work with on this record, and the pandemic grounded them home, and Lewis says they started, two songs at a time, over a year ago.
Then, her long time friend, and harmonizing soul sister, Kelly Corrigan, the revered Detroit harmony singer dubbed “The Assassin” by Don Duprie, passed away during the making of the record. At 37, and fighting a years-long battle with cancer, Corrigan had to be helped down the street to Diamond’s house to record her harmony parts.
“Losing Kelly really put a pause on the whole thing. At least we got her on a couple of songs,” Alison says, tapping her hands on the table, and looking away.
The album features 10 songs, and is as Midwestern roots rock/Americana as it gets. The fact Lewis and Jim Diamond, who splits his time living in Europe and Detroit, were both in town at the same time is a minor miracle. Claim it as another exhibit for miracles performed by Our Lady of the Highway.
Alison Lewis grew up in Dearborn, left to Georgia for college, and was back in metro Detroit a year later. She wanted to be a singer/songwriter. She says she’d always wanted to be one. She grew up playing the cello. Her father, a drummer, gave her his beautiful Martin guitar. She took lessons, and gave it back. “I wasn’t ready for it,” she says.
She left for Oregon, and spent time with dozens of musicians, learning guitar chords, and started to get serious about writing her own songs. From there she went to North Carolina, living some months in a skoolie, a school bus converted into a tiny house/mobile home. It was there she began to introduce herself to others as a songwriter.
“You know, fake it til you make it,” she tells me. “The other musicians saw right through it, but I showed up and played my chords and sang.”
Lewis got married and moved to Chicago, then Colorado, finding her songwriter voice singing in the band, String of Ponies. She paid her dues, earned her chops, touring the U.S. then Europe multiple times, where she toured as the opening solo act for a punk band. She kept touch with her roots in the Detroit area, and it was one of those times when she was back in Detroit for the summer gigging as a bartender at a local venue that Detroit music legends Don “Doop” Duprie and Matt Dmits walked in for an open mic night. They’d just wrapped up recording with Diamond at Ghetto Recorders across the street from the bar. Lewis says she found home that night. She found songwriters, writing and singing Detroit-Americana songs like she did.
“I was the first female in the Inside Outlaws,” she beams. The Inside Outlaws refers both to the band Doop and the Inside Outlaws, as well as a songwriting collective of Downriver artists that includes Lewis, Matt Dmits, Don Duprie and Ty Stone. Ty Stone and Doop and the Inside Outlaws have won multiple Detroit Music Awards in the Americana category and songs written by members of the collective have been recorded by top-40 country artists.
Matt Dmits shows up, and it’s his turn to wrestle with Glory, the relentlessly playful two year old pup. Dmits, Lewis and I talk about the Toledo-Detroit corridor, and shows played here and there. Then they begin to rehearse, picking and strumming, tuning their guitars, and Lewis starts to sing, and she comes alive.
Lewis is a rich and wonderful story teller, and watching her play her music is well worth the 50 minute drive north from Toledo. Watching Lewis play guitar, and sing her Midwestern troubadour songs is to watch her do what she loves. What she knows she was born to do. She smiles and she laughs, and she sings. Lewis has a voice that’s rich from experience. You can hear the highway miles between shows. You can hear the Midwestern fortitude. Lewis has a voice that says lonesome, but hopeful at the same time.
Lewis and Dmits start and stop, picking apart the pieces to songs like “Love it Don’t Care,” a song about love being fickle, unreliable, and prone to leaving.
As Lewis and Dmits start in on “Never Enough,” songwriting giant Don Duprie lets himself in and takes up residence on the piano bench, sipping his drink in the now dim light of Lewis’ little green River Rouge home. Duprie nods his encouragement when they stop and start, discussing where Dmits will come in on the harmony. They work through it, and start from the top. Lewis sings soft in her home, but her big voice fills the room and she gets into it pretty good, really starting to let go. Dmits’ harmony is perfectly-timed, and it’s beautiful to be here.
And then, what we all knew was coming, Lewis’ big looming hit, her anthem, the title song to what is an incredible album, “Our Lady of the Highway.” And there we are, a random Wednesday night in November, the fall chill settling in on us, as Lewis strums the opening chords, and launches into what should be the next great Outlaw hymn, “there’s a bar on the side of the road… where you can come to drink, or you can come to pray, to Our Lady of the Highway.”
Duprie closes his eyes, hand on knee, his work boot tapping along. Dmits hits his harmonies, and even ole rambunctious Glory, the pit bull pup, stops seeking attention, and all is right. All the troubles and struggles, all the road-weary touring and tires treading highway cement fall away. Lewis has found home in the rusted steel of River Rouge. Our Lady of the Highway is watching over us tonight, and you only need a couple miracles to become a saint.
Alison Lewis is a singer songwriter out of River Rouge, MI. She has shared her songs throughout the US as well as Europe and The UK. Alison is the founding member of String of Ponies and also spent many years as the lead vocalist of the dream-pop trio, The Twilight Babies. She is releasing her first solo album in 10 years, Our Lady of the Highway, on December 3rd at The Ant Hall in Hamtramck, MI.
Dan Denton is a poet, fiction writer, and union steward from Toledo, Ohio. His books and chapbooks include $100-A-Week Motel (Punk Hostage Press), Bury My Heart in the Gutter (EMP Press), and Give Us This Day Our Daily Grind: An Ode to the American Factory Worker (Lunch Bucket Brigade).