Folk icon Alice Gerrard plays Triad Stage

by Jordan Green

The respectable theater crowd has returned following the last bow from director Preston Lane’s Appalachian adaptation of the Beowulf tale Brother Wolf, and notice has been given that the bar is open and this time the patrons are welcome to bring alcohol into the auditorium.

Alice Gerrard, a trailblazing female artist whose four decades as a musician have spanned the awkwardly shifting genres of folk, bluegrass and old-time music, stands to the left of an old-style radio microphone on the rough-hewn wooden stage. She holds her guitar with the neck protruding at a slightly raised angle in a proper posture that predates rock and roll. She smiles in a way that suggests stoicism but also access to an emotional core of pain and joy. On the other side of the microphone, Elizabeth Bahnson stands still, attentive for her auditory cues.

‘“I wish we could say we were going to make the mood lighter,’” Gerrard says, after an introduction by Lane and Laurelyn Dossett, the musical director of Lane’s play. ‘“All the songs I like resonate within the darker side of myself.’”

They launch the show with a rare upbeat number called ‘“Payday at the Mill,’” slide into a nostalgic song about the northern California town where Gerrard grew up called ‘“Farewell My Home,’” followed by one from the Hazel & Alice repertoire, ‘“Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia.’”

‘“This next song was written by a guy named Bruce Phillips,’” Gerrard says. ‘“A lot of people know him as Utah Phillips. Hazel always loved this song because it’s about West Virginia, where’s she’s from. We wrote the last verse together.’”

The Hazel of whom she speaks is of course Hazel Dickens, her musical partner back in the ’60s and ’70s. With Gerrard singing this song now about nostalgia for the hills that are ‘“the nearest thing to heaven that I’ve known’” and grim resignation to moving ‘“away into some crowded city,’” Bahnson’s courtly voice fills in for Dickens. Gerrard plays guitar a little like Maybelle Carter, picking out a spare melody on the bass strings accompanied by a snap rhythm on the treble. Gerrard’s voice is warm and rounded, a contrast to Dickens’ hard-edged wail ‘— the inheritance of tough survival as one of 11 children born to a coal mining family.

Hazel & Alice put out a handful of now-classic albums and then went their separate ways after about a decade together ‘— although they’re still friends and perform together occasionally, Gerrard has said in an interview. Hazel & Alice’s stamp of emotional depth and forthright female perspective can be seen the in the later appearance of Emmylou Harris and the Judds. The political techno-punk group Le Tigre even namedrops Hazel Dickens as a feminist icon in their song ‘“Hot Topic.’”

But Alice Gerrard, an Antioch College dropout from California who relocated to Washington, DC to join the burgeoning folk scene there in the mid-’60s, did not opt for such a modern trajectory. Instead she moved to southwestern Virginia and immersed herself deeper in the traditions of the southern Appalachians.

‘“I spent a lot of time with older musicians back when I lived up around Galax, Virginia,’” she tells the audience at Triad Stage during her April 1 performance. ‘“I collected their stories. It was such a blessing. They’ve all passed on now, all those players from the classic fiddle and banjo tradition.’”

She nods back toward Riley Baugus, a stout and bearded banjo player who performed the musical accompaniment to Brother Wolf with Dossett.

‘“The younger people are carrying it along now, like Riley,’” Gerrard says. She talks about a musician who was born in the mountains in 1888 who ‘“lived through the automobile, television, radio, computers. He was glad these younger people were interested in his stories, but he said he really missed his friends who were his contemporaries.’”

Then she sings the title song of her 2002 Copper Creek Release, Calling Me Home. This time the acoustic guitar and fiddle remain silent, and Gerrard’s voice carries the song. Her voice is sharper than usual ‘— a plaintive, otherworldly sound that reaches into the depths somewhat like Ralph Stanley.

Gerrard has always bid for authenticity, taking a more rarefied and less profitable path.

‘“Friends of mine were very interested in traditional music and they were doing a lot of investigating and recopying old recordings and they introduced me to this music,’” she says of her days at Antioch. ‘“Instead of taking the Joan Baez and Judy Collins route, I took the Harry Smith route. Thank God.’”

She speaks of the Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by archivist Harry Smith and released by Folkways Records in 1952 ‘— and subsequently re-released by Smithsonian Folkways in 1997.

The distinction might seem quaint all these years later, but in the ’60s folk scene it was important.

‘“People like Judy Collins and Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio ‘—’ there were a whole slew of people playing guitars,’” she says with a slight edge of disdain in her voice. ‘“It was pretty far removed from the source people that were the originators. At the Newport Folk Festival they’d have Bob Dylan, but they’d also have these people like [Appalachian banjo player] Dock Boggs and [Chapel Hill-born guitar player] Elizabeth Cotten. A percentage of those crowds would dig a little deeper, and I was one of those.’”

In the course of her education Gerrard met Hazel Dickens in Baltimore.

‘“A lot of transplanted Southerners were around Baltimore, and of course there was a bar on every corner that had a bluegrass band, and there were a lot of country music parks,’” she says. ‘“Everybody would come through there: the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe’….’”

As Gerrard and Bahnson play, the sound of clanging glass is heard from the back of the auditorium.

‘“It sounds like a bar,’” Gerrard says. ‘“I play at this place in Chapel Hill’….’”

She and Bahnson glance at each other knowingly and one of them ‘— it’s hard to know who ‘— says under her breath, ‘“The Cave.’”

With a slightly exasperated tone, Gerrard says: ‘“I don’t know what it is. They throw the bottles in these huge’… you’re always hearing beer bottles’… crashing.’”

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