In late September, the absence of Durham's Alice Gerrard in downtown Raleigh—where the International Bluegrass Music Association had taken over the city center for five days—seemed like a conspicuous omission. For decades, Gerrard's been heralded as one of bluegrass and folk's select female pioneers, especially for her work with her musical compatriot, Hazel Dickens, in the '60s and '70s. She and Dickens were even mentioned from several stages during IBMA's week of concerts. So why wasn't she there?
That same week, the 80-year-old Gerrard released Follow the Music, her first solo output in more than a decade and her first for acoustic-and-Americana bastion Tompkins Square Records. Many of the songs on the album are traditional folk and bluegrass tunes; others are exquisite Gerrard originals that drift toward folk-rock. While many modern bluegrass records employ squeaky-clean production, polished instrumentation and historic obsequiousness, Follow the Music wields a deliberate edge, a progression of the past that proclaims Gerrard's continued relevance as a singer.
Some of Gerrard's modern power comes from Follow the Music's production team. Produced by Michael Taylor and hitched to his rising star as Hiss Golden Messenger, Follow the Music features contributions from many of the people that accompanied his recent Lateness of Dancers—Brad and Phil Cook, fiddler Bobby Britt, drummer Terry Lonergan. Hiss Golden Messenger devotees will hear Taylor's musical fingerprints across the record, but they are mostly unobtrusive, providing an update and not a makeover.
"Bear Me Away," for instance, opens the album on an ominous, appropriate note, with a multi-tracked fiddle drone supporting Gerrard as she sings about returning to her family's home. She prepares listeners to journey through the melancholy, moody and breathtaking recesses of Follow the Music.
"Strange Land" continues with similar darkness, backed by haunting banjo that is distant and hollow, moving along like an exhausted traveler weary of a burden. There's an aura of the sinister and mysterious across the album, but it works as a vehicle for serious thought on a lot of life lived rather than maudlin melodrama. The folk-rock gait of the title track is more upbeat than its neighbors, but Gerrard reflects on her time spent rambling around the world and, ultimately, following the muse back home.
The instrumentation—drums and violas, resonator guitars and saloon piano—add intrigue and edge. Still, it's Gerrard's voice that ultimately drives these songs into a deep, personal place, allowing their sentiments to linger long after the record's done. There are no ostentatious solos, and Gerrard's singing keeps high in the mix. This vocal focus peaks with album highlight "The Vulture," a traditional ballad Gerrard picked up from old-time Tennessee musician Dee Hicks. She sings an eight-minute yarn about a woman whose baby was snatched away by a vulture. Upending all disbelief, she delivers the lines—"My infant reached his little hands, imploring unto me, while struggling in those raptor claws so vainly to get free"—with earned agony.
"The Vulture" is the chilling prelude to "Goodbye," the sobering, aching farewell. "Don't you never want to say goodbye again?" Gerrard sings on a song written by her grandson, her wizened tone hitting several nerves at once. "Because I know how it feels to lose, and I know what it feels like to say goodbye."Label: Tompkins Square Records