Last year, just weeks before turning 79, Alice Gerrard released “Bittersweet,” an album of new material recorded with bluegrass fiddler Laurie Lewis. Now, just months after her 80th birthday, the champion of old-time music is back with “Follow the Music,” a bracing set of traditional and original songs produced by the roots musician Hiss Golden Messenger, a.k.a. Mike (M.C.) Taylor, out on Tompkins Square Records this week.
At such an advanced stage in their career, most musicians might be content to rest on their laurels. This would certainly be understandable in the case of Gerrard, who, with the late Hazel Dickens, founded Hazel & Alice, the pioneering duo widely heralded as the first female-led band in bluegrass. As someone who toured with mountain music greats like Roscoe Holcomb and Ollabelle Reed and whose own life and music have had an enduring influence on country and neo-Appalachian artists like Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and the Judds, Gerrard definitely has nothing to prove at this point.
“I had just finished ‘Bittersweet’ and wasn’t really looking to make another record when Mike approached me about the project,” Gerrard explained, speaking by phone from her home in Durham, N.C.
She had been teaching a course at the Center for Documentary studies at Duke University and Taylor, who was working on a master’s degree in folklore, was the graduate student assistant assigned to her class. “When the term was over,” she said, “he told me that he’d like to produce a record for me and he had some definite ideas about what he wanted. He said that wanted it to be a dark album, and that he knew that I had always been drawn to the darker stuff in my own music. The trick was to balance it in some way so that it wasn’t too heavy.”
Taylor said that his goal was to make an album in keeping with Gerrard’s austere early recordings with Hazel Dickens. “High mountain stuff” is how he described the sound and spirit for which he was striving. “I wanted the record to feel haunted,” he said, “because Alice’s voice is so distinctive and she does that stuff so well.”
“Follow the Music” is certainly a haunting affair. It also succeeds in being as stark and unvarnished as the rough-hewn recordings that Hazel and Alice made for the Folkways and Rounder labels in the 1960s and ’70s. Plaintive, yet as dignified as a rugged old oak, Gerrard’s loamy alto seems at times to emerge from a primordial mist, an impression that’s only heightened by the immediacy of the arrangements, which are built around fiddle, acoustic guitar and banjo but augmented by piano, viola and resonator guitar.
“We recorded pretty much live — we didn’t go into separate booths and stuff — and the musical settings really helped create that feeling of darkness,” Gerrard explained. “The traditional numbers, ‘Bear Me Away’ and ‘Wedding Dress’ and ‘Boll Weevil’ — those were all done live in one room.”
Gerrard and Taylor both remarked that they had occasional differences of opinion in the studio, although always, each was quick to add, in a spirit of collegiality and collaboration. “I had to fight a little to get some of those minor chords on the record,” Taylor admitted, half in jest. “But to me, the minor feeling comes as much from Alice’s voice as from whether we’re playing minor chords or not.
“It’s amazing to me how she deals with this emotional music that so many people treat academically or with kid gloves,” he went on to elaborate. “She treats it roughly and that’s the way it should be. Traditional music doesn’t need to be treated delicately. It’s been around forever.”
Just as personal as Gerrard’s treatment of the handful of public domain numbers on the album is her rendering of “Goodbyes,” the elegiac lament that closes the record. Written by her grandson, Adam Heller, the song nevertheless has the feel of being a Gerrard original, particularly when heard in light of the recent deaths of, among others, Mike Seeger, her former husband and fellow mountain music preservationist, and Dickens, her longtime friend and musical partner.
“My grandson wrote that song when he was a teenager,” Gerrard explained. “He wrote it at the end of summer camp one year, when everyone was going back to school, and the sadness in the song really spoke to me. It spoke for me.”
Taken as a whole, “Follow the Music” serves as a stirring testament to Gerrard’s rich and abiding career. And not only her music, but also her work as a song collector and documentarian — through film, recordings and the publication “The Old Time Herald” — of mountain culture, much of it collected in her archive in the Smithsonian Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Alice has achieved so much in her life,” said Taylor. “She has done so much that it’s frustrating, from my perspective, that she isn’t better known than she is. I mean she’s toured with people like Doc Boggs and Elizabeth Cotten and inspired generations of female country musicians who might not have had careers without her influence, but she just sort of floats above it all. She just sort of laughs it off.”
Gerrard’s own assessment of her legacy certainly bears Taylor out. “I’m always really surprised when I hear stuff like that. I know that when Hazel and I were doing our stuff, we were completely clueless. We’d play somewhere and go, ‘Whoa, there’s a lot of people here, and they really like us!’ And I still kind of feel that way. I’m still kind of a reluctant accepter of accolades.”