Review: Bittersweet – Alice Gerrard

The most enduring testament to a musician’s life work is the love and respect of other musicians, and a generation of artists cite Alice Gerrard as a source of inspiration and encouragement, and a reason that they came to love the music of the American South.

In the 40 plus years that she has been singing and playing American Traditional music, Ms. Gerrard has played a pivotal role in the preservation of music from the Southern Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains, while herself being one of the founding figures of the modern folk and roots movement. From her early Rounder and Folkways recordings, Alice has performed with some of America’s pre-eminent traditional musicians including Tommy Jarrell, Enoch Rutherford, Otis Burris, Luther Davis and Matokie Slaughter.

Her early work with Hazel Dickens in the 1960s and 70s inspired country and bluegrass artists alike, including female artist such as Emmylou Harris, the Judds, and Laurie Lewis in what was then a primarily male-dominated industry. Her work with Brad Leftwich and Tom Stauber began in the 70s and as Tom, Brad and Alice, they continue to perform today. A tireless advocate of traditional music, Alice founded The Old-Time Herald and the Old-Time Music Group, a non-profit organization that oversees publication of The Old-Time Herald and served as Editor-in-Chief until 2003.

In this new recording, Alice Gerrard marks the end of a 10 year hiatus in her recording career. Produced by Laurie Lewis, a friend to the HBVA, who also contributes background vocals, this CD features an impressive lineup of supporting musicians, including Bryan Sutton on guitar and banjo, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Rob Ickes dobro, Tom Rozum mandolin and Todd Phillips bass. Beverly Smith, who has collaborated with Ms. Gerrard over the years sings harmony vocals on several songs, with Tom Rozum and Chloe Tietjen on others.

The thirteen songs have been written by Ms. Gerrard, a gifted songwriter, inspired by episodes in her life. Ballads, Blues, Folk, Swing and Old-Time genres are all represented. The styles are varied but all work together nicely as the band brings just the right approach to extract the best out of each tune.

The disc starts off with “ Lonely Nights” a haunting a cappella lament. Her voice here is unadorned, straightforward, honest and true, as if reaching down through centuries of pain to describe love lost.

Bittersweet” the album’s title track is a delightful contradiction of a tune that contrasts a lovely finger picked melody and with bittersweet memories of life.

“Sweet South Anna River” is a gorgeous tune that evokes visions of the languid landscapes of the south as the protagonist’s life on earth is ending. Inspired by Elizabeth Cotton’s wish to be laid out by a river when she died, it is performed here on piano by Barbara Higbie with Rushad Eggleston on cello and Mr. Duncan on fiddle. This is easily my favorite track on the album.

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“Sweet South Anna River”

“Maybe This Time” is a straight-ahead country ballad featuring the extraordinary Rob Ickes with perfectly sparse mandolin accompaniment by Tom Rozum.

In listening to the many styles on this recording, it is no surprise how many musical genres Alice Gerrard has contributed to and influenced over the years. While the subject matter of her lyrics is somewhat sad, the beauty of these songs is undeniable. This is an important recording by an important figure in our musical tradition, expertly recorded by Ben Surratt and produced by Ms. Lewis. I for one am glad she’s back.


Spruce Maple Music

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