James Robert Lewis — better known to his peers and fans as “Smilin’ Bob” — was born in Paris, Arkansas, and died at his home in Van Buren. Those facts, taken alone, might give the impression that Lewis lived only one life. If half of the stories people tell about him are true, though, Lewis lived several lives in succession, and yet all at once.
He was a luthier with a shop at the rear of Musicians Exchange in Crawford County. He was a black belt in karate with a majestic high kick. He lived in a cave for nearly a year while he built a cabin nearby, his goddaughter and protege Rachel Ammons told us. He was a veteran and an engineer, setting up cryptography machines behind enemy lines in Vietnam to transmit encrypted messages. He grew up on a farm, “baled and stacked hay, dug hundreds of fence posts, worked hard,” Ammons said. “He wasn’t afraid to go primitive. He was primitive. His kids remember living in a place with no running water for quite a while.” At one point in time, Lewis was roommate to “a rescued deer, a rescued bobcat, two dobermans and a giant Grey macaw that ruled over them all,” Ammons said. “And that’s just some of the indoor animals.”
Lewis was a daredevil, a “neon man, a sign maker,” mounting 8-foot-tall satellites and dangling from buildings to hang signs and letters on skyscrapers. “Long story short,” Ammons said, “anything that you had ever done or thought of doing, Bob had done it earlier and in a more extreme way than anyone else you know would dare. And I mean anything. And that’s all I can say on that.”
Lewis was also a multi-instrumentalist and historian, lending gravity and grace to the myriad bands he played in — Tyrannosaurus Chicken, The Ben Miller Band, River Mountain Band, Bluesmith, J.R. & The Mighty Rhythm Kings, The Crumbs. He was, by all accounts, endlessly generous to those in need. He bought cheap guitars, fixed them up and gave them away to kids. He handed over a beloved brand-new pair of gloves to a stranger in for a long haul via bicycle. And when it was called for, he wasn’t afraid to rumble. “I saw him kick a guy flat once for harassing us while we were on stage, trying to grab our instruments and stuff,” Ammons said. “Bob was playing a mean banjo solo, smiling his head off. Kicked the guy. Didn’t miss a note.
“He just loved the old blues — the real blues. He gave respect to people like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn and he was glad that the Brits pretty much preserved the blues for a couple decades there, but his real heroes were the originators. People like Robert Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, the hundreds of thousands of forgotten people who worked in the fields and gave their souls to music to lift their burdens for a while and turn the darkest of human suffering into the most beautiful music ever conceived of (in my opinion). Blues is really representative of the beauty of the human soul overcoming the worst of the world and shining through, leading others home or helping them bear it. And that is what he did with his life, too.”
What follows are reflections on “Smilin’ Bob” from Ammons (also of Tyrannosaurus Chicken, The Ben Miller Band and a solo project under her own name), as well as Matt White, co-owner of the White Water Tavern, where Rachel and Bob played together many times.
I am not capable of expressing how much Bob means to me, how much of who I have become he is responsible for, and how much he has shaped my future.
He gave so much to me, but then he gave to everyone he met, even complete strangers.
Bob was magical for countless reasons, but one that will stick with so many was his ability to see the good and potential in everyone. He could draw it out. You could be doubting yourself in the most profound way, then he would say something that just dispelled it, made it seem like only a nightmare that fades out of reality, as if another person thought those thoughts, not you. Suddenly you stop focusing on your weaknesses and focus instead on your strengths and what he sees in you.
He makes you feel worthy somehow. If he believes in you, you can sense it, and if he believes in you there is probably good reason. He’s been around long enough to know.
I just hope we can all honor his belief in us, his hope for the best of humanity in the face of despair. I hope that we can honor him by loving our fellow man as he did, by protecting the weak, by putting aside philosophical differences and making friends of our enemies. He could fight with you like there was no tomorrow, but no matter how bitter the dispute, he would do anything for you.
In the process of trying to live as he did, we will all become bigger.
We need to because he leaves so much space to fill.
Fill it with love, kindness, abandon pettiness, and think of him wherever there is an opportunity to go above and beyond the call of duty for another.
I know it would make him proud.
— Rachel Ammons
courtesy of Rachel Ammons
Smilin’ Bob Lewis on the mainline, tell him what you want. Howlin’ Wolf pleading “How Many More Years?” Smilin’ Bob singing on Cherry Street in the yellow light of October. Heading to Helena every fall must have felt like going home. I saw him there once, standing near the river, holding one of his strange guitars.
When an old bluesman dies, a library burns to the ground. Though the loss of such wisdom is painfully profound, Bob never felt old to me. Somewhere I saw a picture of him sitting next to Pinetop Perkins in Mississippi on the piano player’s 93rd birthday; Smilin’ Bob was smiling from ear to ear.
When it was late at the White Water, when the show was over and the van sagged under the weight of his instruments, when it was time to bid adieu, Smilin’ Bob Lewis’ last words were always, “I love you, my brother.” What a feeling: to know that he had your back, to understand that he believed in you.
Like one of his cats out dozing in the heat, Bob was gentle, but no bully was to be tolerated. Bob was a veteran of war who longed for peace. Bob thought all ye fascists are bound to lose. Bob despised all of this bigotry and greed. Bob knew there is a more righteous way forward and he sang about it all of the time.
His and Rachel’s blues were far-out and hard-driving. He believed in her so much, you know. Hearing them play, witnessing their hypnotic duel, one got the faint impression the two of ’em might become suddenly beamed up, transported to conduct their otherworldly Delta blues in a galaxy far away from this one. Theirs was a spaceship bound for glory.
Tonight I am thinking of Bob and Rachel out there working hard, burning up I-40, crossing the Arkansas River, winding through the Alps, passing another foreign border, singing together in Munich, Chicago, Little Rock, Brussels. Sleeping in a bathtub, in a van, in a mansion, always giving it hell.
What’d he think about on those late-night drives? Did he wish upon a burning star? How many times did he feel the sun come up, rolling down a blue highway that led to home, dog-tired and grateful after another show? What were the dreams of his children and grandchildren? My chest swells with all of the questions I foolishly failed to ask.
Tonight I am thinking of Smilin’ Bob Lewis returning to his Arkansas River Valley for good on Wednesday morning. I am so grateful that I knew him. We love you, my brother.
— Matt White