Sunday’s Grammy Awards will have lots of glitz and youth, with major-category nominees including 21-year-old Meghan Trainor (up for record and song of the year) and pop-vocal-album nominee Miley Cyrus, 22.
But one of this year’s most notable nominees is Alice Gerrard of Durham, who is up for best folk album – at age 80. In what should be an inspiration to late bloomers everywhere, this is her first nomination. It’s recognition that’s been a long time coming, given Gerrard’s half-century-plus in the music business as folk/bluegrass pioneer and inspiration to generations of singers including Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss.
The chain of events leading to her nomination began with a simple phone call. A few years ago, Mike Taylor of the local country-rock band Hiss Golden Messenger was on the porch of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, talking on his phone when Gerrard walked by. They exchanged greetings and Taylor went back to his phone call with Josh Rosenthal, owner of San Francisco-based folk label Tompkins Square Records.
“Hey,” Taylor said to Rosenthal, “Alice Gerrard just walked by. You know, Hazel & Alice?”
Rosenthal did know of Hazel Dickens and Gerrard, the pioneering old-time duo that had been one of the ’60s folk revival’s leading lights. He’d even been trying to sign Dickens to a record deal at the time of her death in 2011 at age 85.
“Really?” Rosenthal said. “That’s strange. Well, tell Alice I want to make a record with her.”
That was all it took to get started. Taylor produced Gerrard’s stunning 2014 album “Follow the Music,” with instrumental backup from local musicians in his circle including Megafaun’s Brad and Phil Cook. Its 11 songs don’t sound recorded so much as carved in ancient Appalachian granite.
Tompkins released “Follow the Music” last fall. To date, the album has yet to come anywhere near the Billboard charts or even crack 1,000 in sales, according to Neilsen SoundScan. But the music was extraordinary enough to catch the attention of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, which made “Follow the Music” one of five Grammy finalists for the year’s best folk album.
Gerrard will be at Sunday’s televised Grammy ceremonies at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. But if you’re scanning the shots of nominees and looking for the 80-year-old in the room, you’ll probably miss her. She’s about the most well-preserved octogenarian you’ll ever see, proof that doing what you love keeps you young.
“It’s a fun party trick to introduce Alice to people and then ask after she leaves, ‘How old do you think she is?’ ” said Taylor. “No one ever guesses anywhere near 80. She’s my number-one example of how art can keep you young, although I suspect that’s only part of her longevity.”
Attracted to the dark side
Gerrard has been a force in old-time music for most of her adult life, both as a performer and the founder/longtime editor of The Old-Time Herald (the rare niche magazine that still exists as an actual print publication, although Gerrard stepped aside in 2003 to let others run it). Gerrard’s first husband died in a 1964 car accident, leaving her to raise their four children as a single parent. She was later married to the folksinger Mike Seeger, half-brother of grand old man of American folk music Pete Seeger.
Hazel & Alice would be where Gerrard made her biggest mark, releasing four albums that are frequently cited as proto-feminist bluegrass classics. The duo spent a decade as a popular act on the folk circuit before going their separate ways in the mid-1970s. Since then, she’s worked with an array of groups and projects – Strange Creek Singers, Harmony Sisters, a trio with Brad Leftwich and Tom Sauber – while doing a fair amount of teaching.
That’s how Gerrard got to know Taylor, a UNC folklore student who was her graduate assistant for a class she taught at the Center for Documentary Studies. Once they started making music together, the combination of Gerrard’s old-time folk and Taylor’s sanctified country-rock was a fortuitous meeting of sensibilities.
Gerrard’s voice is remarkably well-preserved, yet she also sounds like someone who has lived enough to connect with and convey the gothic tragedy at the heart of these songs. Setting the tone is the very spooky opening song “Bear Me Away,” which begins at a low hum. Then Gerrard’s voice appears about 40 seconds in, rising up as if directly from the earth.
Long long ago, in the days of my childhood
Gone were the memories when I stood at mother’s knee
“From the get-go, Mike said, ‘There’s this darkness about you and that’s what I want this record to be,’ ” said Gerrard while seated at her kitchen table on a recent weekday morning. “I like that, too. I’m very attracted to the dark side of traditional and country music. I’ve tried to write funny songs but that just doesn’t work for me. So it’s the dark side for me. Mike would come over and set up his computer and I’d stand over there and sing, right there between the sink and the cutting board. That’s how we got the repertoire set.”
One sticking point was “The Vulture,” a devastatingly bleak traditional-ballad lament from the viewpoint of a mother whose baby was spirited away and devoured by a monstrous bird of prey. At eight-plus minutes, “The Vulture” was difficult to sequence the rest of the album around.
But Gerrard was adamant about including it. “The Vulture” wound up as the album’s penultimate track preceding another song that is somehow almost sadder, “Goodbyes,” written by Gerrard’s grandson Adam Heller.
Don’t, doncha hate goodbyes?
Don’t, doncha never wanna say goodbye again?
’Cause I know how it feels to lose
“He wrote that when he was only 17,” Gerrard said. “He’d come with me to Swannanoa every year when I taught summer camp and he had a circle of friends there. The last time he went was the summer before everybody went off to college. He could see it coming, halcyon days of teenage friendship coming to an end as everyone went their separate ways. Sure enough, that’s what happened.”
Red carpet treatment
Heller will be with her at the Grammy’s. So will one of her daughters, who bought Gerrard a pair of black leather pants for the occasion (shades of Jim Morrison). It will be a depature for Gerrard who prefers sweat pants and T-shirts. Her initial reaction to the news of the nomination was to think, “What a drag, I’ll have to get all dressed up.”
Gerrard can’t help but laugh at the thought of walking the Grammy red carpet, surrounded by pop stars. The very idea is something that never even occurred to her as a possibility back in the days of Hazel & Alice.
“Not in a million years,” Gerrard said. “We were aware that there were people out there who got Grammy Awards, but that was always someone else and it was nothing we paid any attention to. It’s exciting just to be nominated. I’ll go out to the party and the awards ceremony and all the other things that go on. It will be fun. And if I get a Grammy, I’ll stick it somewhere everybody can see. A Facebook selfie, I guess.”
Either way, soon she’ll be back playing the folk circuit, same as always. Gerrard’s next local show is March 5 at Carrboro ArtsCenter with Piedmont Melody Makers.
“I go hear a lot of older people because of, you know, who they were,” said Laurelyn Dossett, a Greensboro musician who is one of Gerrard’s regular playing partners. “People should go hear Alice because of who she is now. Her voice sounds better than ever, a combination of depth and texture, and she has such spirit. She’s an inspiration.”