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Bluegrass Pioneer Alice Gerrard Goes Cap in Hand

Alice Gerrard has championed traditional music for more than 60 years

One might be excused for thinking that music – if not life – has gone full circle when an artist who was once acclaimed as a pioneer in a particular genre is forced to resort to a Go Fund Me campaign to meet the cost of a new studio album.

But that is exactly what Alice Gerrard was forced to do after devoting more than 60 years to bluegrass, old timey and folk music.

Gerrard turned 89 on July 8, around the time she released an impressive single “Remember Us” to promote her latest album Sun to Sun, scheduled for release on October 20.

Gerrard and Hazel Dickens became known as the female pioneers of bluegrass music when they teamed up as duo in the mid-1960’s. Their instant success, not only as singer-songwriters but as innovative instrumentalists, shattered the gender segregation barrier that existed in bluegrass music at the time. Their 1973 release “My Better Years” – written by Dickens – became a classic and would be covered by some big names in bluegrass.

It is because of their ground-breaking efforts that the likes of Rhonda Vincent, Alison Krauss, Rhiannon Giddens and Molly Tuttle found fame on the bluegrass/folk scene today. And indeed that no one bats an eye-lid these days at the widespread gender-mix of bands in the genre.

In fact, Gerrard and Dickens were among the first women to ever record a bluegrass album when they released Who’s That Knocking in 1965, the first of four together. There would be two successful compilation albums, Pioneering Women of Bluegrass in 1996 and Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes in 2018. Dickens died in 2011, aged 85.

While most of their high lonesome sound repertoire featured older, traditional songs, their music became more politicized as their writing soon drew attention to social injustices - from gender and racial inequality to unfair labour laws, especially in the coal industry.

Gerrard would go on to record four solo albums; another two with husband Mike Seeger (younger half-brother of folk legend Pete); and five others with various musical combinations, not to mention contributing to a selection of compilation albums released under the Smithsonian Folkways banner.

Sun to Sun will be her first solo release since her Grammy-nominated Follow the Music in 2014 and it feature a dozen tracks all written by Gerrard. In promoting the up-coming album, she confronts the obvious: “In the dark of the night I think sometimes about how this might be my final recording, my final mattress, my final car, my final dog – but then you never know …”

The Go Fund Me campaign was Gerrard’s first. She set a goal around $20,000 and when “Remember Us” – a beautiful gospel-style a cappella arrangement featuring harmony vocals from Tatiana Hargreaves and Reed Stutz - was released in July, she was half-way towards her goal with more than a 100 donations. The fund closed in mid-August, with organisers noting “we covered the expenses for the album.”

When launching the campaign, Gerrard nicely reflected on her long career and, in particular, those barrier-breaking years with Dickens.

"I cut my teeth in D.C. and Baltimore's politically-informed folk revival and bluegrass scenes of the 1950's and 1960's," she wrote. "I met Hazel in nearby Baltimore, and we soon established ourselves as one of the earliest female-fronted bluegrass groups. Hazel and I toured in the post-Jim Crow South with the Southern Folk Revival Project, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Anne Romaine's ground-breaking racially-integrated coalition of traditional musicians. This tour shaped both of us, our music, and our outlook on the world."

She added: "I've championed traditional music for more than 60 years. Beginning with my trail-blazing early duo-recordings with Hazel, my music has always been grounded, anti-establishment, and heartfelt."

And it seems, this provocative approach to her music continues.

"I wrote many of the songs (for Sun to Sun) during Covid as I drew inspiration and musical ideas from observations, memories, and my strong feeling about the need to address social and justice issues surrounding us in our daily lives."

There is no better demonstrated than in the album;'s title track which she says showcases traditional music as a humanizing and galvanizing force. And to illustrate, she released sample lyrics from Sun to Sun:

What's wrong people with this old town?

Everywhere I go I hear the same old sound

Talk, talk, talk

Talk from sun to sun

And while we talk, another fool goes and buys a gun

The album has been somewhat of a joint project with her other passion - writing about, and illustrating, the old-time music community. She founded and was editor-in-chief of The Old Time Herald magazine from 1987 to 2000. In 1989, Gerrard also began donating a lifetime of

collected materials, including live field recordings, to the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Library on the campus of the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill.

Now she is working on a memoir based around this vast collection, including documentary photographs, which will form a central feature of her upcoming book

"Around 2009, Tom Rankin, former head of Duke's Centre for Documentary Studies, saw the treasure trove of images I had collected over the years, and suggested I create a book. Thousands of images, directly from my vantage point, tell an incredible tale on their own of playing music, parenting, touring in the rural South with legendary artists like Elizabeth Cotton, Ola Belle Reed, Johnny Shines, Sparky Rucker, Dock Boggs, and more," she said.

"Added to that, the stories I will share from these captured moments and documentation, it seemed that creating a memoir around them became imperative," Gerrard added.

No doubt her book will not only provide a rare insight into the emergence of old time and bluegrass music into the modern phenomenon of Americana, but also document both Gerrard and Dickens as true trail-blazers not only in a particular genre traditionally dominated by men but in the music business itself where they helped dispute widespread sexist notions.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation


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