The Sun Keeps Shining on Alice Gerrard
Produced by Laurie Lewis, Bittersweet, the title of which was inspired by an empty candy wrapper on Gerrard’s kitchen table—where she does the vast majority of her songwriting—is another fine addition to the storied, 50-year career of one of bluegrass and old-time’s most important singer-songwriters.
“Laurie Lewis first suggested I make a recording, and I was interested, but we both were busy and the idea just laid there,” Gerrard says, calling from her North Carolina home. “A couple other people approached me about the same thing, and I said, ‘Maybe I should start thinking about this.’ So I got in touch with Laurie, then it was another year or two before we got the recording dates set.”
Funded through Kickstarter (donation rewards included musical instruments and t-shirts from one of Gerrard’s tours with Hazel Dickens), the bulk of Bittersweet was recorded over three days in Nashville with a top-notch band handpicked by Gerrard. “The first musician that occurred to me was Stuart Duncan. I love his fiddle playing and felt like it would work well with these songs; some of them don’t automatically fit into an old-time or bluegrass format.” Joining Duncan are Rob Ickes on Dobro, guitarist Bryan Sutton, and Todd Phillips, the bassist on Hazel and Alice’s “t-shirt tour.” The odds and ends of the album—like Rushad Eggleston’s cello—were added at Lewis’ Berkeley studio.
Bittersweet—composed entirely of Gerrard originals, though she admits she’s not “the most prolific” songwriter—includes a lovely pair of tributes to dear friends. “Payday at the Mill,” a new version of a song recorded for a Harmony Sisters LP, was written for old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell’s daughter (“a great flatfoot dancer,” Gerrard remembers), who worked at a hosiery mill. The swingin’ tune celebrates a “weekday workin’ woman, weekend queen, a time clock lady with a lazy dream” who lives for Saturday night.
The vivid and heartbreaking “Sweet South Anna River” was written in honor of Elizabeth Cotten, the fingerpicking African-American guitarist Gerrard met through her second husband, Mike Seeger. When Gerrard wrote the liner notes for Cotten’s final album, When I’m Gone, the latter mentioned that, after her death, she’d rather be laid out on a river than laid in the ground. Backed by fiddle, cello, and Barbara Higbie’s piano, Gerrard pleads, her voice raw with emotion, “Don’t lay me down in the cold, dark ground in some lonesome old grave/On the sweet South Anna River, where soft breezes fan the air/Just lay me down in a silvery gown/Wildflowers in my hair…and won’t you sing to me as I take my leave? You’re going to miss me all the time.”
Another woman Gerrard met through Seeger would end up becoming an integral part of her life and career. “Mike was working at a tuberculosis sanatorium near Baltimore where Hazel Dickens’ brother was a patient,” Gerrard remembers. “They connected musically, then Mike met Hazel and they started playing together.” Gerrard’s first husband, Jeremy Foster, was a high school friend of Mike Seeger’s, which is how he met Dickens. “My husband came home and said, ‘There’s this little girl with a great big voice,’ and he took me to meet her. That was Hazel.” The two became friends and musical partners; Hazel and Alice would record multiple albums together, writing and singing about women’s rights and labor issues. They—along with Elizabeth Cotten—also took part in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival tours organized by activists Anne Romaine and Bernice Reagon in the 1960s and ‘70s. “At that time, people were rediscovering a lot of the old musicians and taking them up to New York and the Newport Folk Festival or the Philadelphia Folk Festival, but they weren’t really getting a lot of appreciation and exposure in their home territory,” Gerrard says. The tour, which traveled through some of the most volatile regions of the Civil Rights era America, was “both a political statement and a musical-cultural statement. We’d go out with Elizabeth, Ola Belle Reed, Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb, and Mable Hillery, bouncing around in a van, playing communities and colleges.”
When discussing this, Gerrard makes sure to emphasize one of the tour’s credos: integration. “All of us, black and white, had to travel together and eat together in restaurants. We were all out of our comfort zones at times, and we’d get some dirty looks, sometimes some remarks, but we never encountered violence…although in the early days, before we joined, they got chased a couple times by cars or people with guns.”
Looking back, Gerrard considers these trips a vital part of her musical career. “In the early days, Hazel and I were kind of clueless,” she laughs. “‘What’s going on? Why are there so many women at this concert?’ But going on Anne’s tours, getting to talk with people in Eastern Kentucky about how strip mining affected their water supply, how they broke their backs in the mines, it raised my consciousness. With Hazel, I think it gave her permission to express a lot of things that she’d been feeling…it encouraged us both to write more.”
Even with those years of practice, one type of song eludes Gerrard’s pen: “I’ve tried to write funny songs in the past, but it never seems to work out very well,” she laughs. “‘Lighthearted’ is the furthest I can get from ‘melancholy.’” Though she’s drawn to sad songs—and it seems like her expressive alto was made to sing them—the vivacious Gerrard is simply a delight. She recently celebrated her 79th birthday (“it was fantastic!”) and talks excitedly about her adopted dog, a pit mix named, in fitting old-time fashion, “Polly,” her busy summer—which includes a European tour and various teaching gigs at festivals and camps across the U.S.—and her plans for a new album that’s currently in the works. Ssome singer-songwriters of her stature would be content to rest on their laurels, but Gerrard is busy as ever, with a laugh on her lips and a song in her heart. As she sings on the Bittersweet album closer, one of those rare, lighthearted songs, “I’ve got a good feeling/ Sun, keep shining on me.”
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