At 80, Durham's Alice Gerrard heads to Los Angeles to (possibly) win her first Grammy | Music Feature | Indy Week
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At 80, Durham's Alice Gerrard heads to Los Angeles to (possibly) win her first Grammy 

At home in Durham: Alice Gerrard

Photo by Justin Cook

At home in Durham: Alice Gerrard

When the phone rang on the first Friday afternoon of December, the 80-year-old singer Alice Gerrard answered from her upstairs office. She once ran a journal devoted to old-time music from the spare room, but she was in the middle of a Photoshop lesson when Josh Rosenthal, the founder of the label Tompkins Square, called. Follow the Music, her first record with the imprint, had earned a Grammy nomination for "Best Folk Album."

About time, it seemed.

During the last six decades, Gerrard—a Washington state native who became an integral part of Washington, D.C.'s folk scene—has earned heaps of acclaim for her pioneering role in bluegrass and old-time music. She rose to national attention in the early '60s with her singing-and-songwriting partner Hazel Dickens. Widely regarded as the first female-fronted bluegrass outfit, they toured the United States extensively into the '70s.

Gerrard won a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2001, and she's collected plaudits from organizations such as the North Carolina Folklore Society and the Virginia Commission for the Arts. But this is her first Grammy nomination.

Best known for his work as Hiss Golden Messenger, Mike Taylor—like Gerrard, a transplant to Durham and the South—produced the LP. He tapped Megafaun brothers Brad and Phil Cook and several other young North Carolina musicians as key pieces of the backing band. Though it remains traditional at the core, Follow the Music pushes Gerrard just far enough from the familiar for her to seem revitalized. She shines on an upbeat, banjo-heavy "Boll Weevil" and stuns over the fiddle drone of "Bear Me Away."

A mother of four and a grandmother of nine, Gerrard is sharp-witted and kind. But her attitude toward the Grammy hoopla could be called cool at best: "Oh, I could care less," she mumbles.

Gerrard doesn't need another award or plaque, really. Half a century of musical ephemera and colorful doodles by the grandchildren already crowd the walls of her cozy two-story home in Durham's Lakewood neighborhood. Atop a living room bookshelf, ghostly markings mar Carter Stanley's face on an old Stanley Brothers concert bill. Many years ago, one of the kids decided the guitarist might look better with a pencil-drawn moustache and glasses. When Gerrard tried to erase the graffiti, she only made it permanent.

A month after the surprise call from Rosenthal, Gerrard sat downstairs at her cluttered kitchen table for two hours to talk about her history and why it doesn't require rewards.

INDY: What attracted you to old-time music and bluegrass?

ALICE GERRARD: My parents were classical musicians. My mother was a really good pianist, and she sang. She and her sisters had this little touring group called the Symphony Sisters Quartet. There was always music around. They had a lot of friends who were musicians, so when people would come over, they would sit around and play the piano and sing. I grew up thinking of music as something you could do at home that was fun. I didn't think of it in terms of being on a stage.

I hated piano lessons. It was partly rebellion—I didn't want to do classical music or have anything to do with it, particularly. When I went to college, I saw people sitting around playing guitars. They didn't have sheet music. They were just sitting around playing. This hooked into this whole thing about homemade music as being fun and accessible. I started teaching myself how to play the guitar and the banjo. I just was drawn to the lonesome sound of old-time banjo. Although there are a lot of happy sounds in bluegrass and old-time music, I was drawn to the more lonesome sounds.

My peers were going down a different musical path, down the path of real "source music." If Joan Baez was singing a song, where did she get it? Who was the person back there in the community?

Your work with Hazel Dickens is heralded as the first female-fronted bluegrass outfit. Even now, the notion of women fronting a band can seem novel. What was the response in the press or on the road?

We didn't do that stuff. You're talking about a musical world that was even smaller than it is now, and it's not big now. You're talking about marginal music. It wasn't pop music. It wasn't rock 'n' roll. There were no booking agents and managers. Speaking for myself—and I think Hazel would agree—we were unconscious of this. I didn't think of it in terms of something that I wasn't allowed to do. We were just doing what we did.

I didn't feel unsupported. I didn't feel like they had any judgment to make because I was female.

It [happened] more when you got into the more traditional settings. We went to parties all the time. There would be a mixture of people like me—college-educated, middle-class kids who were enthralled by the music and trying to absorb it—and country people who had moved up there from the South, from more traditional communities to get jobs. The guys would be in one room playing music. I'd feel pressured to sit with the wives or the girlfriends in the kitchen, off to the side.

But you did tour.

The single most important milestone in our musical development was going on these tours a woman named Anne Romaine put together. She was a woman from Gastonia, North Carolina, who was living in Atlanta. She was very active with a whole group of people in the Civil Rights movement. She and Bernice Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock decided to put together a tour, which would be interracial. They wanted it to be mainly traditional musicians—Mabel Hillary and Bessie Jones and Johnny Shines, Hazel and me, Ola Belle Reed, Roscoe Holcombe and Dock Boggs.

It would travel around the South. We started doing these in the early '70s. They were always operating on a shoestring, but there would be one tour in the mountain South, one tour in the Deep South.

Anne had this network of people through the Civil Rights movement. Some of them worked at colleges and were active in communities, and they would find little gigs. It was a very novel idea to have Southern musicians touring in the South, to have them actually go around to little communities.

How did your working relationship with Mike Taylor begin?

Three years ago, Tom Rankin and Charlie Thompson asked me if I would teach a class over at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. It was the Lehman-Brady Fellowship, to bring people who weren't necessarily academics but who might bring a different perspective and teach what they knew for a semester. So I taught a class, "Documenting Tradition." Mike Taylor became my graduate student assistant. He helped me navigate these waters of how you prepare. He'd come over every few days. We'd sit down. He'd say, "You've got to get your reading list together. You've got to get your syllabus."

I really didn't pay that much attention to his music. My music world was bluegrass and old-time. The circles didn't overlap in my life. I knew he played, and he participated a few times. He'd play guitar, but I didn't really pay that much attention.

Mike approached me about doing a recording: "I would really like to produce a recording of you. I have a vision about what this should be." And I said, "Well, but I've got this other recording thing. It's got to come out." I was making this other recording for Laurie Lewis, a bluegrass musician. He finally persuaded me that we should do this. He was so strong about this vision, about it being a dark recording. He said, "I know the perfect guys to play with you," none of whom I knew or knew of. I finally just said, "OK. You go ahead. I put myself in your hands."

We didn't always agree, but he never strong-armed me into anything I really didn't want to do. I listened to him. He listened to me.

One point of contention between you and Mike was minor chords and how to handle them.

I'm coming at it from the fiddle-tune standpoint. A lot of fiddle tunes come from a time when there were no guitars. Up in the mountains, guitars didn't really come until the beginning of the 20th century. Before that, there were fiddles and banjos, which are not chord instruments. There were all these tunes we refer to as modal. They have a kind of minor sound, but they didn't have a chord structure to underlay the minor quality. You had to guess.

When guitars finally came in, people were pulling their own musical aesthetic into play. A lot of times, what they were doing was putting major chords against what you would consider a minor note, rather than a minor chord against a minor note. To me, this gave the tune much more tension and a chill-bumpy, back-of-the-neck, hair-raising quality.

Your grandson wrote one of the most poignant songs on Follow The Music, "Goodbye." I've heard you say that was about him leaving summer camp.

That was just my projection. I teach often in the summer at music camps. There's one down in Swannanoa and in Ashoka, New York. He started going with me when he was 7, 8 years old. He was playing the fiddle, and I was trying to convert him over into old-time fiddle.

At both camps, there are usually a gang of kids that come with their parents. These same kids, they'd meet up every summer. They were really close. He wrote that song the last summer he went, and it was the year that everybody was then going to disperse and go off to college in different places. Lives were going to change.

What about that song spoke to you that made you want to record it yourself?

The melody was really beautiful. There's a sad aspect to it that spoke to me. I like songs that are a little on the dark side. I really do. I'm drawn to that material. He's written a bunch of other songs that I really like. They tend to be introspective. His version of it—I've got to get him to record it and put it up on YouTube—has a totally different guitar take. I couldn't play it like he did.

What do you hope will happen at the Grammys?

I don't expect to win. I really don't. I wasn't going to go: "Oh, this is a big pain. I've got to pack up a big suitcase, fly out to LA, spend a lot of money." I'm not much for that kind of stuff. I'd rather stay home, really.

I put on Facebook that I was debating about whether to go or not, and all these people kept saying, "You've got to go! It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing!" So I finally said OK.

My daughter came down, and we went shopping for accessories. She bought a pair of leather pants she thought I should wear, and a friend of mine in Greensboro loaned me a shiny gold shirt and gold-and-silver boots. It looked really good. I'm not excited to pack my suitcase and go to the airport at five in the morning, but it'll be fun to be there.

You told The Washington Post that you have always found it difficult to accept accolades. Why?

It could just be the old "Don't brag on yourself" mentality that you grew up with—or you used to more than you do now. It wasn't that way when Hazel and I grew up. I don't really need a dryer; I can hang my clothes on the line, and I do. I don't really need another plaque to go on the wall.

I accept the praise. I don't feel 100 percent comfortable with it all the time, but I can live with it. It's meaningful in the sense that it makes me feel good that my peers think that the work I've done is meaningful. Hazel grew to be much more accepting of the honors that she was given. I accept them, too, but I don't need them to live my life.

This article appeared in print with the headline, "Followed the music."

  • See why she's less excited than anyone else about it


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