Alice Gerrard may be best known for her work with the late Hazel Dickens as the pioneering duo, Hazel and Alice, who opened doors for women in bluegrass.
But through the years, Gerrard’s odyssey has taken her through a variety of musical endeavors, from performing and recording bluegrass and old-time stringband music, to establishing the Old-Time Herald, the music magazine she edited from her home in Durham.
At the ArtsCenter on Sunday, the spotlight will shine on Gerrard’s talents as songwriter, as she celebrates release of her latest CD, “Bittersweet.” Produced by IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year Laurie Lewis, the album showcases 13 of Gerrard’s compositions. Gerrard will be accompanied by Elizabeth Bahnson, Carl Jones, Scott Manring, Laurelyn Dossett, and other Tar Heel musicians.
Gerrard’s songs are framed in old-time and classic country atmospheres reminiscent of honky-tonk’s golden age.
“If there’s one overall perspective in my songwriting, I kind of prefer the sad, mournful songs,” Gerrard says. “I’m inspired by many different things – my own life, plus things I see on the outside.”
Gerrard’s songs are country music at its lyrical best: mournful, but not maudlin, intimate, yet not esoteric. The ballad “Sweet South Anna River” was inspired by her mother and by a conversation with the late Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, the Carrboro native and friend who composed the guitar classic, “Freight Train.”
“Every time I go up I-95, I cross over the South Anna River,” Gerrard says. “I’ve always loved that name. My mother’s name was Anna. It’s a really pretty name. And I put it together with something Libba Cotten told me years ago. She didn’t want to be buried in the ground. She had an image of herself that she’d be laid on a river. She would float down river and all her friends would be standing on the bank waiving at her as she went by.”
Gerrard transposed the memories to song: “On the sweet South Anna River/Where soft breezes fill the air/Just lay me down/in a silv’ry gown/wildflowers in my hair.”
In “Tell Me Their Story,” Gerrard reflects on rural abandoned homes and wonders about the people who had lived in them and why they left. The song was prompted by a photograph she had taken of Emmett Lundy’s house in Galax, Va., where Alice lived for several years in the 1980s. Lundy was a renowned fiddler, whose legend and recordings continue to inspire old-time musicians in Galax and beyond.
“(His house) was abandoned and overgrown, and I was up close and personal, next to it,” she says. “Out in the country I often see abandoned houses and I wonder why (the owners) left and what their lives were like. I’m familiar with Emmett Lundy’s music, so I guess that made it more personal to me.”
Born in Oregon and raised in California, Gerrard attended Ohio’s Antioch College at the beginning of the 1950s folk revival. There, she met fellow student and musician Jeremy Foster. They married and moved to the Washington, D.C. area, and became active in the region’ bluegrass community.
In 1964, Jeremy was killed in an automobile accident, and Alice was left to care for and raise their four children. By then, Alice and Hazel had begun their historic collaboration as the first female duet in bluegrass. Their four albums have been cited as inspirations by such notables as The Judds, who learned to harmonize by listening to them, and Bob Dylan, who learned repertoire.
Their albums’ original songs included Gerrard’s “Mama’s Gonna Stay” and “Payday at the Mill,” which is one of three previously recorded songs refashioned for “Bittersweet.”
Over the years, Gerrard has performed and recorded bluegrass, old-time, and acoustic country music in different configurations. Her collaborators have included the late Mike Seeger, whom she married in 1970, the Strange Creek Singers, the Harmony Sisters, and old-time musicians Tom Sauber and Brad Leftwich. Gerrard has also recorded solo albums, including her acclaimed 2004 CD, “Calling Me Home: Songs of Love and Loss.”
Although she claims not be a bountiful songwriter, Gerrard’s compositions often appear on her recordings. Her ideas come from many sources, and may take years to develop into a finished song.
“Like many songwriters, I keep scraps of paper in a folder,” she says. “If I’m driving in a car and think of something, I’ll scribble it on a Post-It note. I’m not a prolific writer, but periodically I sit down with that folder and fashion a song.”
Besides her “Bittersweet” concert, Gerrard has two more albums in the works. She also teaches at several music camps, and is planning a tour of England in the fall with her old-time music duet partner, Beverly Smith.
When not touring or teaching, Gerrard devotes her time to caring for her rescued dog and visiting her children and grandchildren. Looking ahead, she hopes to decelerate her hectic pace and devote more time to her family, friends, and animals.
“There’s a piece of me that craves more time,” she says. “If I had my druthers, I’d rescue dogs and maybe a few cats – I’m kind of loving the dog thing. Or, I could go see the kids. So I have less time than I think I do. I’m always real happy when I have a couple of weeks when I don’t have to pack my suitcase and go somewhere.”