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A Q & A with Alice Gerrard on her new release, 'Bittersweet'

September 12, 2013

by Kim Ruehl, for

Alice Gerrard has played with some of folk music's great legends: Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, Elizabeth Cotten. Her career has spanned a half-century and touched upon the realms of country, bluegrass, and old time, influencing generations of players and songwriters alike. But, it wasn't until this summer that she ever released a solo album of all original songs. As she told me in a recent interview, it was an idea she first heard during a week at MerleFest a couple years back, when Laurie Lewis offered her producing skills to the project.

The result is a lovely, catchy, stirring disc full of great story-songs. From lusty love songs to ruminations on life, love, purpose, and death, Bittersweet makes clear why Alice Gerrard's legend is so hugely influential. Of course, she was helped out by some of folk and bluegrass music's most talented players: Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Rob Ickes, and others. But, at the core, it's just a collection of great songwriting.

Recently, Gerrard was nice enough to hop on the phone and discuss the album, as well as her remarkable legacy as a folk music trailblazer during her collaboration with the late Hazel Dickens:

Kim Ruehl: Is Bittersweet something you've always wanted to do, or is that something you just started thinking about recently?

Alice Gerrard: I have thought about it over the past number of years... I wanted to do an album of all originals, rather than having them mixed in with other stuff. I'd been feeling more and more that way. Then Laurie Lewis talked to me several years ago at Merlefest about the possibility of her producing an album of all my originals, and that seemed like a good thing to do. But I was busy, she was busy. We talked about it briefly and then it lay there for a number of years until a couple other people talked to me about doing the same thing. So, I went back and talked to Laurie because she was the first one to ask me about it. I had a few [original songs] here and there but never put them all together before this, in one cohesive album of solo material.

KR: Sometimes you can tell songwriters are telling a story about someone else, and sometimes you can tell they're relating a more personal tale. But, I think sometimes it's hard to tell which you're doing.

AG: I think it's both. I guess most of these are [other people's] stories. "Lonely Night" is certainly more of a personal tale. "Play Me a Song I Can Cry To" is based on a woman who came when I was having a music session with Tommy Jarrell, she came in and plopped herself on the couch and said, "Play me something I can cry to. I just want to cry."

"Sweet South Anna River", that was about something Elizabeth Cotten said to me one time about how she didn't want to be buried when she died. She wanted to be floated down the river, and then all her friends could stand and wave at her as she floats by.

"Sun Keeps Shining on Me" was about my own experience from a long time ago, when I was just getting over something and somebody came into my life and it was pretty nice...

So, I guess I'd have to say most of these songs are telling stories, but they're based on my experiences, like driving around in the country and seeing these old abandoned houses. One time a friend and I went to find the home of a very old, famous fiddle player. We found his old house and that's the house that was in my mind when I was writing "Tell Me Their Story". That was a big, old abandoned house, overgrown. It had a broken window with a curtain in the window. I was thinking of the person who lived in that house, and other places you pass when you're driving through the country and see abandoned houses. [They're abandoned] either because the people built a nicer home nearby or they've been thrown out because the house was repossessed, or whatever the reason. I always wonder, what are those people's lives like? Who lived there?

KR: You've been plugged into the folk and bluegrass worlds for a long time. What do you think of how that's evolved, what younger folkies are doing now?

AG: I think there's a real revival. I don't really think in terms of the folk music world so much as bluegrass, old time, country of all kinds. Whether it's Tex-Mex or African-American or whatever, I think there's a real revival of interest in roots music. There are a lot of younger people really holding the line on tradition and also experimenting with it. It's kind of exciting. One thing I've noticed is that a lot of younger musicians are incorporating singing into it. Before, they were mostly drawn to the instrumental side of [traditional music]. But now they're doing the traditional singing, too, which is great.

KR: I always wonder when artists have had such a huge influence on so many others... did you have any awareness of what kind of strides you and Hazel Dickens were making back then?

AG: I feel like we were both kind of clueless back in the day. One of the things that was happening to us, that was very big in our musical and personal lives, were the tours we went on with Anne Romaine. She and Bernice Johnson Reagon started this thing... they put their heads together when they were both in Atlanta working on civil rights, and decided it would be a great idea to do tours in the South with traditional musicians. [We would] go around and do concerts in communities and colleges. It was an integrated tour of black and white musicians.

It was twice a year - once in the Mountain South and once in the Deep South. It was political because of the people who were on the tour. They didn't necessarily sing political songs or make political statements, but we had people like Roscoe Holcombe, who was a coal miner, who had a really hard life and, just seeing his style of singing the songs, it was a statement. Johnny Shine the great blues player. Quincy Jones, Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Boggs went on the tour.

We went maybe five or six at a time, in one van just kind of bouncing around. It was marginal in the money-making sense, but it was really a consciousness-raising experience for both of us.

For Hazel, I think it sort of gave her a mission to raise her voice and speak overtly about the things she was feeling, in the sense of exploitation of women, exploitation of poor people and all those things. We were in an environment where that was happening. We'd go into these southern mountain towns where coal was creating issues for people, as well as providing a living, but also creating issues.

In the Deep South on this integrated tour, we traveled together and ate in restaurants together. We experienced people giving us looks and saying things. Hazel was feeling these things, but it was hard for her to express that until the encouragement of this tour and the encouragement of being political.

For me, it raised my consciousness hugely. That was a big thing in both of our lives. We went on those tours for about ten years off and on. When I think back on it, it was an amazing experience. I think we were a little clueless in regards to what was going on in the women's movement. It was pretty interesting. I think we realized more in retrospect that we'd had this big influence on people.

KR: I guess when you're in the middle of something like that, it just sort of seems like what you're doing.

AG: Yeah, we were just doing what we do. Of course there was something that made us want to play together. We had a connection to women that she had not had at that time with the men she was playing with. She was always a chick player in guys' bands. In that world of old time, bluegrass, and country. I think having me... she definitely mentored me. She was this streetwise, older person who had played in the bars and stuff.

KR: What's the strangest gig you ever played?

AG: Probably high school gyms are pretty strange. Like, are we the assembly for the students? Do they really want to be here? I've never had a really bad experience. I mean, sometimes it's bad if the sound is terrible. But if you're talking about something like [what] the coal miners [thought of us], well, we were in their territory. It always struck cords with people no matter where we were.

I don't remember any bizarre experiences. It was more bizarre if we'd be dashing from one gig to the next and we would miss the second gig because there wasn't time, or something. Or they'd bill it as folk dancing and people would get there and it would be Elizabeth Cotten. I don't remember ever getting people who hated it. Of course if I really had a chance to look back through the memorabilia, I might think differently. I just remember it as being hectic at times, but traveling with these great people... and little things like Elizabeth Cotton carrying Doc Boggs' hip flask in her purse.

Posted by Linda Fahey at September 12, 2013 8:36 PM

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