Alice Gerrard Appeals to Folk Fans Through Bittersweet Songs

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“I’ve traveled enough back roads that I see a lot of abandoned houses and it makes me want to know who was there,” says the veteran singer, songwriter and folklorist Alice Gerrard.

Sure, you could chalk a statement like that up to an active imagination or a nostalgic disposition. But the fact of the matter is that Gerrard has spent the past half-century championing, interpreting and thoughtfully expressing herself through bluegrass, old-time and folk music and somehow always made it feel timely.

A case in point: Back when she and Hazel Dickens performed as a duo and became the widely emulated heroines of the folk revival, Gerrard wrote a ballad called “Mary Johnson.” After a long work day, the song’s female protagonist perches by herself at the bar and unapologetically shuts down a man’s unwanted advances. Although that recording was released by Rounder Records in 1975, about a decade into the duo’s career, its storyline still packs a punch today.

Bittersweet is only Gerrard’s third solo album, and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that she turned to a decidedly of-the-moment resource in order to be able to record it: an online, fan-funded campaign.

CMT Edge: People usually offer rewards like CDs and T-shirts in Kickstarter campaigns. You offered rewards with a personal touch: recipes you’d collected from other musicians and photos you’d taken at so many music festivals over the years.

Gerrard: At first, that didn’t occur to me. I was thinking in terms of, “OK, CDs, a download, the autographed CD.” And I didn’t even think of the T-shirts until we were wracking our brains to think of some other things that would be personal to me. … I had some old Hazel & Alice T-shirts from, like, 1992 or something. [Hazel] ordered way too many. I found ‘em, so I said, “Oh, this would be a good thing. Let’s put these up.” Plus the recipes.

I like it to somehow be connected to music. Down through the years, I’ve kept a few of the recipes that musicians have given me, you know, people that I’ve visited. … I know I had more than I was able to find. I found seven or eight. So I said, “Well, that’ll be a fun thing to do, too.”

You discovered bluegrass, old-time and folk music in college. That’s a prevalent model now. Far fewer musicians of younger generations have rural upbringings or musical traditions handed down within their families.

Yeah, I feel really, really fortunate that I was able to get to know so many of the people that I consider to be the touchstone people for the music. Every generation has their touchstones, but I was so lucky to be up close and personal with people like Bill Monroe and Hazel. … And go to visit people in their home communities. I was lucky to be able to do that.

I wonder how kids now, what they do. Who do they go to? The industry has become so huge, and you can’t just call up somebody and say, “Hey, I’d love to come and visit you.”

It’s a lot more professionalized, which means there’s usually more distance between performer and audience.

I remember going to these country music parks when I lived in Washington [D.C.]. Hazel and I and all the rest of us who were just crazy for the music would pack up the car on Sunday and drive up to Sunset Park. … The Stanley Brothers would come through and play all afternoon. You’d take a big picnic lunch, and during breaks, they’d come and have lunch with you — potato salad, fried chicken and deviled eggs. That just doesn’t happen much anymore, I don’t think.

Not only did you get to know and make music with lots of foundational musicians, you also interviewed, photographed and recorded them. What drew you into that work, including founding The Old-Time Herald?

I feel like there’s a part of me that is a documentarian. I feel like, in some ways, this is still kind of a marginal music compared to the rest of the popular music that’s out there. So there’s a bit of the underdog thing going on. I’ve always felt like it was really important for people to understand how great this music is, for people to know about the musicians who made this music their lives.

So it’s always been really important to me to include that aspect, to take pictures and to tape people as much as possible. … As a musician, I feel like when you know the context of the music, it has more meaning to you and you understand it better. You do a better job, and you can sing it with more feeling and soulfulness. It becomes more a part of you.

People have all sorts of different takes on what you and Hazel accomplished during the decade or so you recorded together, including making female voices heard in a sea of male bluegrass musicians, choosing your own musical direction, writing your own songs and introducing feminist consciousness in a real-world way. What do you think is the most significant thing that you accomplished during that time?

I think that all of those things kind of come into play to some extent.

There were these hippies and country people and labor organizers and different people [that were] part of that ‘60s folk movement. They were all getting together, and it was a very interesting meeting ground in that Baltimore/Washington area for all these young high school/college kids who were getting interested in bluegrass and old-time music. Then there were all these people from the country who’d moved up around there and were playing in these bars and were playing mostly bluegrass music. It was its own little melting pot of people getting to hang out with one another.

I think as far as Hazel and I were concerned, it was two people who were willing, to some extent, to suspend preconceived notions about the other person and open up their minds to each other. She was very much the mentor. I was very much the mentee. She was older and she was smart. … So I spent a lot of time listening to her before it ever sort of happened. We hung out a lot together. So it took open-mindedness from both of us.

Then I think the other very significant factor was this tour that was put together by a friend of ours named Anne Romaine.

Right. The tour of Southern colleges.

Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project. She and Bernice Reagon were very active in the civil rights movement in the South. … They put together a tour of traditional musicians, an integrated tour, that would go around the South, which at that time was kind of a novel idea.

It was a two-fold idea: to help people appreciate their own musical culture more and also to make a political statement. It would definitely be integrated, and when you had people like Bessie Jones, who was the granddaughter of a slave from St. Simon’s Island, telling her story and somebody like Roscoe Holcomb, who had been through some of the worst times of coal mining in eastern Kentucky, up there singing his songs and telling his stories, that in itself was a political statement.

I feel like touring with these people for a number of years raised my consciousness for sure. [Hazel] didn’t need hers raised, but she needed to have it sort of brought out, which this tour really did. And that’s when she started becoming more political and we wrote more songs.

How did you relate to the women’s movement?

In the very beginning, I don’t think either [Hazel or I] had a clue. There were a couple of times that Hazel and I played somewhere back east, and we were completely taken aback by the fact that the place filled up with mostly women. I think we were aware that something was going on as far as a larger movement was concerned.

We had all had experiences. I mean, Hazel in particular was the girl singer/bass player: “We’ll let the girl sing a song now.” She had lots of really negative experiences. Me much less so. … She grew up in sort of an oppressive society where women stayed at home and cooked and just did what their guys told them. That was her upbringing, but there was also a real strength there with a lot of the women in her culture. She inherited that. And there was a lot of strength in mine, too. My mother was an extremely strong person.

We both grew up with this, but I think it wasn’t until a little bit later that we felt like we had permission to write about it and sing about it, and that this was a good thing.

If I didn’t already know that Bittersweet is your first album comprised entirely of originals, I might’ve looked at the track list and thought that “Play Me a Song I Can Cry To” was the Jerry Lee Lewis song by that name.

Oh, I didn’t know he had one by that name.

Yours was inspired by time you spent at [old-time fiddler] Tommy Jarrell’s house.

Yes. It actually came directly from a neighbor of Tommy’s. We’d go and stay there for a few days at a time, always sitting around the living room playing music and talking. A neighbor friend of his named Lola came by. She had just been to church or something. She kind of plopped herself down in a chair, and she said, “Oh, I need a good cry. Play me something I can cry to.” That’s just like manna from heaven when you get a line like that.

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