To hear Alice Gerrard tell it, when she and her musical partner Hazel Dickens began singing together in the 1960s, they never imagined the revolutionary Hall-of-Fame career they were setting in motion.
“I don’t recall ever having a conversation about making a career out of this,” says Gerrard, who recorded four albums with Dickens between 1965 and 1975. “Hazel was working, I was having kids and raising a family. I think we assumed we were always going to be doing it because we loved to do it.”
Grounded in the coal country traditions of Dickens’ West Virginia, and the vibrant musical community of Washington, D.C., Hazel and Alice — as they were known — were pioneering women in the male-dominated field of bluegrass and old-time music. Together, their music presented a template for other women to play and sing with the authority and emotion of such male pioneers as Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin and the Stanley Brothers.
Their legacy is still alive and well and continues to inspire both current and aspiring musicians. They’ll be honored Saturday, Sept. 28, with a special tribute performance at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Wide Open Bluegrass concert at Red Hat Amphitheater.
The tribute begins at 5 p.m., kicking off the concert at Red Hat. It will featuring artists influenced by Alice and Hazel, who, in turn, have influenced others along the way: Laurie Lewis, Tatiana Hargreaves and Allison de Groot, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, Eliza Meyer and Justin Hiltner.
Gerrard, herself, will join the performance. Dickens died in 2011, and she and Gerrard were inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame in 2017.
The News & Observer spoke with Gerrard as well as artists featured on the Hazel and Alice tribute concert about their music, their influences, and their association with the pioneering musician.
Alice Gerrard’s influences
Gerrard makes a point in liner notes to her albums and in concerts to credit those who have helped fashion her own career, dating to the 1950s.
“I had several influences,” recalls Gerrard, 85, who lives in Durham with her dog, Polly. “The first one, even before Hazel, was Jeremy Foster, the man I later married. He loaned me a copy of Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music.’ I was listening to Wilma Lee Cooper and Molly O’Day; we were going to the (music) parks listening to Ola Belle Reed, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe.
“All our friends were playing music. We were learning, trying to get Earl Scruggs’ banjo licks and listening to how people were singing, the sounds of old-time music and bluegrass. That’s what we did, just for fun.”
Gerrard was born in Seattle and attended Antioch College in Ohio, where she met Foster. Upon moving to Washington, D.C., the couple became part of the traditional music scene. Gerrard credits many of the artists she met there with fueling her passion for traditional old-time and bluegrass music. Among them, her husband, Jeremy.
Trekking to intimate music parks outside Washington, they recorded performances to listen to at home, absorbing songs and styles.
Jeremy was killed in a car accident, leaving Alice a single mother with their four children. Still, she found time for the music. She later married Mike Seeger, a high school classmate of Jeremy’s, and the two forged a powerful musical force recording and performing throughout the US.
In the 1980s, Alice moved to Galax, Va., a center of old-time and bluegrass excellence. She received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to study fiddle under National Heritage Fellow, Tommy Jarrell. Visiting elder musicians to learn the music and culture, she found them welcoming and generous with their time and wisdom.
“I never thought about it that way, but they were so generous,” she says. “It’s kind of a two-way street. A lot of the people in those communities appreciated that somebody liked what they did and thought it was valuable and wanted to learn it. That was fun for them.”
In 1987, Gerrard founded The Old Time Herald, a magazine devoted to music, musicians, and history. The magazine has served as an additional conduit for Gerrard to share the music with others, including those honoring her on Saturday.
Lewis, a resident of Berkeley, Calif., is a Grammy-winning fiddler, songwriter, performer and producer. Twice voted IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year, she nods to Alice and Hazel as inspiration for her career. In 2013, Lewis produced Gerrard’s “Bittersweet,” an album featuring the Grammy nominee’s original songs.
“I heard Hazel and Alice in the early 1970s,” Lewis tells The N&O. “I’d been playing bluegrass and listening to it, trying to play it. Then I heard Hazel and Alice. It pointed out to me now rare that was. I had been hurting for women to listen to.
“Around that time, Emmylou Harris put out a bluegrass album (‘Roses in the Snow’). Although I felt it was beautiful music, it didn’t have that edge, that thing, that attracted me that the men singers had. So when I heard Hazel and Alice it was like, ‘Holy cow! There it is!’”
Lewis says Gerrard’s legacy remains strong, thanks to her still-active music career.
“There are many ways I think Alice will be remembered,” Lewis said. “She’s a great role model as somebody who has managed to make a life following her muse just so perfectly. She’s got a really true aim in terms of what she loves and where she’s going with it. And she continues to go with it into her 80s. She’s still learning and doing new things.”
Tatiana Silver Hargreaves
At 24 years old, Hargreaves is a brilliant fiddle player, adept at bluegrass, old-time, country and folk styles. From Corvallis, Ore., she began playing fiddle at age 3. Later, she studied fiddle and singing under Lewis.
In 2016, she played fiddle on “The Hazel and Alice Sessions,” an album produced by Lewis and devoted to the songs of Dickens and Gerrard. Upon graduation from Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 2017, she moved to Durham to be near Gerrard.
Besides playing fiddle and singing with Gerrard, Hargreaves helps digitize Gerrard’s extensive collection of photographs.
“My parents took me and my brother to Berkeley, Calif., to study singing under Laurie,” Hargreaves said. “She gave me a compilation CD of her favorite singers. That’s when I first heard Hazel and Alice. I was about 10.
“When I was 12, I went to music camp in Ashokan, NY. Alice was teaching there, and that’s when I first met her. I got up the courage to ask her to sing ‘Working Girl Blues’ with me. I had just learned it from that compilation album.”
Working with Gerrard, Hargreaves said she has learned about musicians’ stylistic differences. But more than just musically, Hargreaves has a newfound appreciation for the women in bluegrass — the musicians, but also the wives and sisters of male players.
“Some of her photographs are of women in the kitchen or women on the porch,” Hargreaves said. “It’s been really cool and eye-opening talking to Alice about that and how she was often in the middle as one of the boys because she played music, but also her connection to those women. As a photographer, she could be in-between those spaces.”
Together with her long-time partner, Marcy Marxer, Fink is a two-time Grammy-winning producer, performer, songwriter and recording artist. She also is a longtime friend of Gerrard. She organized the IBMA tribute to Alice and Hazel at Red Hat Amphitheater and produced fellow performer Eliza Meyer’s forthcoming CD.
“Alice has forged multiple paths that have influenced other people while her own musical growth continued,” Fink said. “Some of those paths had to do with the long and deep collaboration with Hazel Dickens. That also inspired Alice as a songwriter, an instigator, an advocate for a lot of very important issues. I think it brought her a lot of musical knowledge and a deep perspective on Appalachia.”
People are drawn to Gerrard because of her “bold independence and huge respect for tradition and its preservation,” Fink said.
“At the same time, they recognize that this music is alive,” she said. “Alice is in the tradition yet keeping it alive and relevant. People like Tatiana and Eliza and hundreds of others find that combination of respect for tradition but relevance to today critical to what they’re doing.”
Meyer, a student at Raleigh’s Broughton High School, plays guitar, fiddle and banjo. She also is a student of Gerrard’s and is about to release her first album, “Hello Stranger.”
The title track is a song she learned from the Hazel and Alice recordings. The album features Gerrard on two tracks.
“My parents were into traditional music, and I heard it growing up,” Meyer said. “That took me right to Alice because of her Hazel and Alice recordings.”
Meyer was lucky to have Gerrard has a teacher. She not only can impart instruction on music technique, but also serves as an example of someone who has made a career in music.
“You can be a good musician, but to be a great musician you have to be able to teach others,” Meyer said. “I think one of her most magnanimous qualities is that every time she sings a song, she gives context to the music.”
At just 16, Meyer is appreciative of Gerrard’s influence on her and her music, recognizing how much she already has learned from her.
“I wouldn’t have the skills or the wide knowledge of the music if I hadn’t spent time with her,” she said. “She’s on my upcoming album. It’s icing on the cake for me. It feels like full circle to have my hero be my musical partner on a project. It’s just like nirvana.”
Wide Open Bluegrass Lineup
Shows are Friday and Saturday at Red Hat Amphitheater, with the Wide Open Bluegrass Streetfest on Fayetteville Street and around downtown Raleigh.
Here is the Red Hat Amphitheater lineup:
Friday, September 27
5 p.m. — Sister Sadie
6:05 p.m. — Balsam Range
7:15 p.m. — Molly Tuttle
8:25 p.m. — I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarsoz, Aoife O’Donovan)
9:45 p.m. — The Ringers featuring Jerry Douglas, Ronnie McCoury, Todd Phillips, Christian Sedelmyer and Dan Tyminski
Saturday, September 28
5 p.m. — “You Gave Me a Song: Celebrating the Music of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard” featuring Alice Gerrard, Laurie Lewis, Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Justin Hiltner, Jon Weisberger and Eliza Meyer
6:10 p.m. — Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
7:15 p.m. — Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
8:30 p.m. — Del McCoury Band, with Dierks Bentley, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jon Fishman (of Phish) and Sierra Hull