The Hazel and Alice Sessions ~ Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands SMM 1013
Won't You Come and Sing for Me?
NOMINATED FOR A GRAMMY, 2016
When I was in my early 20s, I became obsessed with bluegrass music. I particulary loved the singing of Bill Monroe, Ralph and Carter Stanley, Lester Flatt, and other first-generation practioners of the bluegrass arts. As I delved deeper, I began to notice the paucity of recorded women rose models, especially ones who sang in the more hard-edged, gritty style of their male counterparts (as opposed to sounding high, warble-y and sweet). Then someone gave me a copy of the then-decade-old Who's That Knocking?, the first LP by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerard. Hazel and Alice became, for me, instant mentors, a deep well of inspiration and, I'm Happy to say, good friends.
In true bluegrass tradition, Hazel and Alice's repertoire drew from Carter Family songs ("Who's That Knocking?," "Darling Nellie,""Let That Liar Alone") and other early string band classics ("Train on the Island," "Walking in My Sleep"), mixed with their own original compositions. In 1989, I toured with Cris Williamson and Teresa Trull. They opened the show each night with a beautiful duet version of "Pretty Bird," which inspired the version included here. Linda Ronstadt and I recorded it as part of a Rounder Records benefit CD for Hazel over 10 years ago. As of this writing that record remains unreleased.
~ Laurie Lewis, from the liner notes
Cowboy Jim * James Alley Blues * Who's That Knocking? * Walking in My Sleep * Mama's Gonna Stay * Won't You Come and Sing for Me? * Darling Nellie * Farewell My Home * Let That Liar Alone * You'll Get No More of Me * Train on the Island * working Girl Blues * I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling * Pretty Bird
At the end of each year, writers and broadcasters get to indulge themselves and-one hopes-their readers and listeners with their judgements on the year past. I've spent considerable time reviewing the bluegrass albums I heard during the past year, and have come up with my definitive (at least for today) list of Favorite Bluegrass Albums of 2016. Of course, your mileage will vary: I once received a cranky email from the father of a fairly prominent bluegrasser whose album I didn't include on such a list several years ago. For those such inclined, I repeat-these are my favorite bluegrass albums of the year. Not the best, 'cause that is silly. And all I can base it on is those albums I've heard, and maybe I somehow missed your son's album...talk to his publicist.
1. Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands- "The Hazel & Alice Sessions" (Spruce and Maple) Laurie Lewis places Hazel Dickens with the bluegrass vocal big-three: Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and Lester Flatt. Alice Gerrard is a fearsome master of vocal folk, old-time, and bluegrass. "The Hazel and Alice Sessions" is not only a worthy tribute to a key bluegrass partnership, but an entertaining and formable collection of music. For me, undoubtedly the bluegrass album of the year. Nominated for a Grammy this time out, I could listen to this one every day.
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Hazel Dickens. Odd that, because one can’t really listen to Hazel Dickens without knowing you’ve heard Hazel. Her voice is one that isn’t confused with anyone else’s; there is power in her words and melodies—they communicate to the listener the experiences, convictions, and insights of a powerfully strong woman, one who excelled within an industry dominated by men.
Dickens left her home in West Virginia while still a teen, moving to work in the factories and stores of Baltimore. She used her early experiences to inform the realism readily apparent in her songs, be it the emotional turmoil of leaving home (“Mama’s Hands,”) the longing of home from away (“West Virginia, My Home,”) and a sense of place that few writers could capture (“Hills of Home.”) Within “West Virginia, My Home” Hazel captures in ten syllables, seven straight-forward words what others have struggled to communicate in entire essays: “I can sure remember where I come from.”
She was long involved in expressing the struggles and lives of miners in any number of ways, not the least of which are her songs including “Black Lung,” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” and “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” to name but three. She came to tell these songs in the most natural of ways, having had brothers and family working in the deep, dark mines of West Virginia.
Importantly, Dickens was part of the migration of mountain music to the eastern seaboard, one of thousands who moved from rural communities in search of work and bringing with them the music of their home counties. She championed the music, keeping it at the fore of not only her own life but communicating a relevancy with which the urban community could connect.
That she has written some of the finest bluegrass songs is without challenge. These songs have advanced the cause of women and the working poor in immeasurable ways, bringing strength and dignity to places and circumstances where such was often in short supply. Dickens never shied away from subject matter that some would avoid, be they the protagonists of “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” the conditions of the mines (“Mannington Mine Disaster,”) or detailing the impact of miner organization in “The Yablonski Murder.”
So powerful is the Hazel Dickens catalogue that none of these essential songs found their way onto this collection from Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands. And, while they are noticeably absent, they are not missed.
Hazel Dickens left a legacy in song.
Alice Gerrard is one of the living legends of bluegrass music; combined with her decades of recording and performing old-time and folk music, Gerrard has a stout resume that is as varied and dynamic as any you can mention. When Gerrard has completed a song, it has truly been sung. I am so glad that she remains a formidable and important element within folk music. While Gerrard has an extensive resume as a recording artist within several different configurations, as a guardian of old-time music, as founder and past editor-in-chief of The Old-Time Herald, and as a touring musician, she has recorded as a ‘solo’ artist only intermittently.
1994’s beautiful Pieces of My Heart and 2004’s equally resonant Calling Me Home: Songs of Love and Loss appeared on the Copper Creek label. As on those recordings, Gerrard’s voice on her contemporary releases (Bittersweet, Follow Me Home) is pure and powerful: Gerrard’s voice is multi-dimensional, and as Lee Smith wrote two decades ago, she can sing anything: “holler, shout, belt it out, swing a little, croon a little, and then flat-out break your heart.
My appreciation for Alice Gerrard is as firm as my admiration of Hazel Dickens. Together, they were incredible.
Well-documented elsewhere, Hazel and Alice met and began singing at Washington, DC/Baltimore house parties, moving onto coffeehouse performances within a burgeoning bluegrass environment. Their collaborative recording output—four albums as a duo as well as a fifth as the Strange Creek Singers with Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwarz—was limited, but highly significant and exceedingly impressive.
One of their greatest admirers is Laurie Lewis. Like many of us, upon first hearing Dickens and Gerrard, Lewis realized that the hard side of bluegrass need not be the domain of men. Laurie Lewis is no newcomer to bluegrass music, having played almost every festival there is and having recorded excellent albums over the years, The Golden West and Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals being just two. However, she has never narrowed her field and has recorded some of the finest folk-inspired music of the past three decades, among them her incredible collaborations with Tom Rozum The Oak and the Laurel and the under-heralded Guest House. Her wide-ranging tribute to Bill Monroe (Skippin’ and Flyin’) was one of 2011’s finest bluegrass albums, and possibly the strongest Monroe tribute released since the bluegrass master’s death.
Lewis has always been versatile, performing as a duo with Rozum or leading a full-fledged bluegrass band with equal effectiveness and charisma. As a musician, she is frequently called on to provide session fiddle and vocal performances and to augment an established group. In a one week period years back I saw her with Kathy Kallick- a frequent singing partner- in a Red Deer bluegrass setting and the next weekend filling in with Dave Alvin’s hard-hitting Guilty Women at Hardly Strictly.
She has at least one signature song, “Who Will Watch the Home Place?” Kate Long’s exceptional song awarded the IBMA’s Song of the Year award in 1994. She has also been awarded the same organization’s Female Vocalist of the Year award twice and has been nominated frequently.
Like Hazel & Alice, Laurie Lewis is bonafide.
I’m told that Laurie Lewis has, with others, led the charge to have Hazel and Alice inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, that induction hasn’t yet happened. One wonders, why?
I’ve been told there is a faction who believes Alison Krauss must be the first female artist/bandleader elected to the Hall. Fair perhaps, but dang short-sighted. Hazel and Alice definitely deserve a place among the heroes of the music, and one could make a convincing argument that Lewis herself also deserves consideration for inclusion in bluegrass music’s most hallowed hall.
These powerful bluegrass forces come together on Laurie Lewis & the Right Hand’s The Hazel and Alice Sessions, surely one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of this year.
No disappointment here.
With songs drawn from 1965’s Who’s That Knocking through to Gerrard’s 2002 masterpiece Calling Me Home, a full half of the songs are from the Pioneering Women of Bluegrass anthology (a collection of their 1965 and 1973 recordings,) with a spattering culled from two ‘70s Rounder albums and an additional Dickens’ release.
The album kicks off with the energy of “Cowboy Jim,” a song Dickens wrote for the first album based around a scattered lyric partially remembered by her father. The album continues on, exploring the many shades of love, devotion, loss, faith, and heartbreak one would expect from a classic bluegrass set. “James Alley Blues,” one of the few songs here not written by either Dickens or Gerrard, contains a couple brilliant lines of insight including, “Could have a much better time if men weren’t so hard to please;” joined by vocal guest Aoife O’Donovan, Lewis retains the acapella arrangement to most excellent effect.
Tom Rozum is not only one of bluegrass’ most secure mandolinists, but he is a fine vocalist. He is featured taking a couple leads, doing justice to “Who’s That Knocking?” This decision confirms the gender-neutrality of the finest music, songs that reveal themselves no matter who is taking the lead and conveying the story. He also fair nails “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling,” a tipping of the collective hat to Mr. Monroe.
Hazel Dickens is quoted once saying, “My relationship was always with the words and the story.” The songs Lewis has chosen give truth to the statement. Perhaps Dickens’ greatest achievement, is there a finer song capturing the truth that is the “Working Girl Blues?” Lewis’ rendition is stellar, mournful yet spirited with Lewis’ fiddle conveying equal parts pride and misery. That Gerrard offers up the harmony here makes the experience that much more fulfilling; not surprisingly, it is this song that best captures the spirit of the original recordings. The further treat here is a previously unheard third verse that Dickens once recited to Lewis.
Chad Manning contribute fiddle to a few tunes including “You’ll Get No More of Me,” one of those songs that Dickens might have been referencing in the previous quote; the liner notes don’t make it apparent, but this one must be sung by Patrick Sauber, the Right Hands’ banjo man. “Pretty Bird,” previously released on a Linda Ronstadt compilation a couple years back, comes from sessions for a Rounder Dickens’ tribute album that never emerged.
The Right Hands are Rozum (mandolin, mandola, and guitar) as well as Sauber (banjo and lead guitar on a single track) and Andrew Conklin (bass.) Fiddler Natiana Hargreaves is on five tracks, with Dobro from Mike Witcher on three, including “Working Girl Blues” and Gerrard’s “Mama’s Gonna Stay.”
The album’s vocal showpiece is “Let That Liar Alone,” a song featured on the 1975 Rounder album Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. With Rozum driving the bus, this four-part vocal gospel song will leave listeners mesmerized; Harley Eblem drops in some bass vocals that are impressive. Avoid the devil, folks.
Laurie Lewis places Hazel Dickens with the bluegrass vocal big-three: Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and Lester Flatt. Alice Gerrard is a fearsome master of vocal folk, old-time, and bluegrass. The Hazel and Alice Sessions is not only a worthy tribute to a key bluegrass partnership, but an entertaining and formable collection of music. It’s early of course, but doubtless a strong contender for bluegrass album of the year.
One of the go-to sources for bluegrass songs in recent decades has been Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. If you want great, heartfelt songs of determination, of earthy realism, of a quality that are solidly traditional but often thematically genre non-specific, you could not do better. Many have gone to their repertoire for just those reasons and that includes Laurie Lewis, a performer of similar musical qualities, who chooses to honor Hazel and Alice with a 14-song set.
The results are what you would expect from Lewis and her current lineup of the Right Hands (mandolinist Tom Rozum, banjoist Patrick Sauber, and bassist Andrew Conklin). In fact, it might be argued that these songs draw something extra from her performance (and vice versa).
Hazel’s writing dominates here. She wrote five. The standouts include the slow, emotional song of memory and dying, “Won’t You Come And Sing For Me?,” her near standard status “You’ll Get No More From Me,” and the bluesy “Working Girl Blues.” Alice’s writing contributes only two songs, but they include the album’s most mesmerizing track, “Momma’s Gonna Stay.” A word-painting extra ordinaire, we follow a mother coming down stairs for coffee and contemplation before her family gets up and the usual chaos follows. To leave or stay is her daily dilemma and Lewis puts this across perfectly.
Interspersed are covers of Bill Monroe’s “I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling” sung by Rozum (I think) and the traditional numbers “Train On The Island,” “Darling Nellie,” and “Walking In My Sleep,” the latter recalling the Uncle Earl version vocally, but here is given more bluegrass strength. Standout is only a reference. This is all good.
One of bluegrass music’s stalwarts is singer, songwriter and fiddle player Laurie Lewis, a main-stay among Bay Area musicians since the mid-1970s.
A lover of the hard-edged style of bluegrass music, she re-enforces that link with her up-coming album, The Hazel and Alice Sessions (Spruce and Maple Music, SMM 1013), due to be released on January 21, 2016.
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard were each part of a pioneering bluegrass duo, two of the first prominent professional female artists in bluegrass, who paved the way for so many more.
In addition to the Right Hands (Tom Rozum – mandolin; Andrew Conklin – upright bass; Patrick Sauber [son of fiddle and banjo player Tom Sauber] – banjo and lead guitar; and Chad Manning – fiddle) the CD features young fiddle prodigy, Tatiana Hargreaves; songstresses Aoife O’Donovan, Alice Gerrard and Linda Ronstadt, as well as Mike Witcher – Dobro and Harley Eblen – bass vocals.
Laurie spoke to us about the album.
When and in what circumstances did you first hear Hazel and Alice?
“Somewhere in about 1974, someone gave me a cassette tape of Hazel and Alice’s first Folkways record.”
What aspects of their music impressed you? And how did they influence you?
“It was instant love, I think, not just for the spirit of the music but for the repertoire choices. Here were women singing out, in voices that went way beyond terms like ‘pretty’ or ‘lovely’ to gutsy, raw, true, unvarnished, powerful. And writing about personal issues. They recorded the first women-led ‘real’ bluegrass that I had heard up to that point. I actually hadn’t realized, until I heard their record, how rare that was at that time.”
You have chosen 13 songs to record; what was the thinking behind the choices?
“We tried to steer away from their songs that felt over-recorded and find the more hidden gems in the repertoire. This left us lots of material to draw from for Volume 2, later down the line.”
The new album features songs written by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, plus traditional songs from their repertoire. The full track listing is as follows …
Cowboy Jim; James Alley Blues; Who’s That Knocking?; Walking in my Sleep; Mama’s Gonna Stay; Won’t You Come and Sing for Me?; Darling Nellie; Farewell My Home; Let That Liar Alone; You’ll Get No More of Me; Train on the Island; Working Girl Blues (complete with a third verse recorded for the first time her); and I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling.
You have three guests, Aoife O’Donovan, Alice Gerrard and Linda Ronstadt; on what tracks are they featured, please?
“Aoife sang a duet with me on Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown’s song, James Alley Blues. Linda sang with me on Hazel’s Pretty Bird and Alice sang lead on the chorus of Working Girl Blues.”
Do you plan to visit their old stomping ground to promote the CD?
“Let’s see: that would be the DC area, I guess. We don’t get out to the east coast much these days, but Tom and I will be up in Hazel’s old stomping grounds on January 16 for a concert for the Boston Bluegrass Union, with Darol Anger, Greg Liszt and Andrew Conklin. We will be playing lots of songs from the new album up there, and I expect the members of the Filbert Society (Hazel nuts) in the audience will be quite happy!”
There is to be an official CD release concert, on February 20, 2016, at the St. David of Wales Church, 2800 SE Harrison St. Portland, Oregon 97214.
The influence of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard continues to reverberate in bluegrass and Americana music. The two became pioneer women in the male-dominated world of bluegrass music in the 1960s, leaving their mark on generations of musicians and singers like Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and The Judds. A few years later California fiddler and singer Laurie Lewis looked to them for inspiration that has been key to her own 40-year-plus career. She’s honoring that legacy with this album-length tribute to Hazel and Alice.
And she’s handing down that legacy to yet another generation, as she incorporates young Oregon fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves into her band for several numbers on this delightful album, including the rollicking opener “Cowboy Jim” by Hazel Dickens, the traditional bluegrass breakdown “Walking In My Sleep,” the Carter Family favorite “Who’s That Knocking” and the smoking “Train On The Island,” another upbeat trad number.
Lewis’s guests cross many generations, including two of the finest singers of Americana of the past 50 years. Aoife O’Donovan joins Lewis for the knockout a capella song “James Alley Blues,” on which the two swap lead and harmony parts with deceptive ease. And this date wraps up with another a capella duet, this time featuring Lewis and Linda Ronstadt on “Pretty Bird.” This version of Dickinson’s composition was inspired by an arrangement by Cris Williamson and Teresa Trull way back in the ’80s, Lewis says in the liner notes. “Linda Ronstadt and I recorded it as part of a Rounder Records benefit CD for Hazel over 10 years ago. As of this writing, that record remains unreleased.” It’s such a treat to hear Ronstadt in full voice before that voice was stilled by Parkinson’s, and this track would be reason enough to buy the album.
But The Hazel and Alice Sessions has other delights as well. Not least of them is the steadiness of her band The Right Hands, particularly Tom Rozum’s rock-solid mandolin, backing vocals and even lead vocals on “Darling Nellie,” Patrick Sauber’s banjo, and Andrew Conklin’s double bass. Lewis herself plays some mean fiddle and Alice Gerrard joins for harmony vocals on Hazel’s jaunty, bluesy “Working Girl Blues.” Another highlight is the great Emry Arthur gospel song “Let That Liar Alone,” with multi-part harmonies including Harley Eblen on bass voice. And don’t miss Lewis’s beautiful lead vocal on Hazel’s deathbed ballad “Won’t You Come And Sing For Me” which also has lovely harmonies and Mike Witcher’s poignant Dobro.
Carrying forward the legacy of pioneers like Hazel and Alice, putting your own stamp on it as Laurie Lewis does here, and passing it along to another generation are all worthy of notice. The best part is, this is great music, too.
Pop Matters ~ Sarah Zupko
Bluegrass fiddler and roots music extraordinaire Laurie Lewis returns with a new album tribute to two seminal female figures in bluegrass, Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens. Both of these artists were huge influences on Lewis’ artistic development as she “had heard ballsy women singers on the local bluegrass scene, but I hadn’t heard other women doing that on recordings.”
Lewis also brought along a few notable friends to complete this amazing tribute to Gerrard and Dickens, including the stellar new talent Aoife O’Donovan and Linda Ronstadt.
Lewis tells PopMatters that “since I first started listening to Hazel and Alice, in the mid-1970s, their infectious tunes have been bouncing around inside my brain. They were great writers, who wrote not only the standard lovelorn variety of heart song but also took on female-specific points of view and social justice issues, all with deep roots in traditional music. And they chose such wonderful material from outside sources, like Bill Monroe and the Carter Family. I think it was Tom Rozum’s suggestion that we record a tribute to Hazel and Alice, and the idea just seemed completely natural and obvious from the moment it popped out of his mouth. We all (the Right Hands and I) embraced it immediately, and went to work listening and picking a combination of our favorite songs and under-covered gems from their repertoire. Then came the fun part: sitting down and actually having our way with the material. The project has been a pleasure from beginning to end. I can’t imagine why nobody has done this before!”
In the mid-1960s, two women from very different origins (Alice Gerrard from the West Coast, Hazel Dickens from West Virginia) blew apart the male-dominated bluegrass world. With singing that was closer to the hard-edged style of early Monroe and Stanley Brothers bluegrass, Hazel and Alice challenged the expectations of women in bluegrass, and blazed a trail still followed not only by the many great women of bluegrass who came after, but by stars of Americana and country like Emmylou Harris and The Judds. Ten years later, in the mid-1970s in California, fiddler, singer, songwriter, and bandleader Laurie Lewis was looking for inspiration. As Lewis told the Berkeleyside, “I had heard ballsy women singers on the local bluegrass scene, but I hadn’t heard other women doing that on recordings.” Chancing on a copy of Hazel and Alice’s first LP, Lewis knew she’d found her muses.
Now, over forty years later and with a career as a pioneering trailblazer in bluegrass and roots music herself, Laurie Lewis returns to her roots with an album-length tribute to Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard that joyfully re-introduces us to two of the genre’s most important artists. The Hazel and Alice Sessions brings together Laurie Lewis and her band The Right Hands for a fresh look at Hazel and Alice’s classic and lesser-known songs. Laurie has chosen some of the sweetest, the toughest, the most spirited of Hazel and Alice’s songs for album, and, not one for imitation, has reworked the songs as well.
Recorded at Lewis’ own studios in Berkeley, California, The Hazel and Alice Sessions became an opportunity to bring in some of Lewis’ best musical friends for collaborations, like Americana rising star Aoife O’Donovan, or the great Linda Ronstadt, who joins Lewis for an a cappella duet to close out the album. Over 25 years of singing together, Laurie and her musical partner Tom Rozum have perfected the art of duet singing. Tom is also a versatile mandolin player: a master of the Monroe-style downstroke who plays equally tasteful back-up to the sweetest ballad. Laurie and Tom are joined by fellow Right Hands band members: masterful Bay Area bluegrass banjoist Patrick Sauber (whose father is a long-time musical companion of Gerrard), and eclectic bassist Andrew Conklin. Other guests include young old-time fiddle prodigy Tatiana Hargreaves, longtime Right Hands alumnus Chad Manning and in-demand dobroist Mike Witcher, Alice Gerrard herself guests on “Working Girl Blues,” bringing the project full circle.
Having collaborated with Dickens and Gerrard over the years, and having produced Gerrard’s 2013 album, Bittersweet (her first album of original songs), few people know the music of Hazel and Alice as well as Laurie Lewis. Still, it was a tough challenge to approach these songs. Nobody can replicate Hazel and Alice’s vocal blend: their voices were riveting -- like the sound of the wind in the mountains. But Laurie Lewis knows a thing or two about making riveting bluegrass music, and today she’s just as much a trailblazer as Hazel and Alice were in their time.
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard became muses for a young Laurie Lewis as she sought women’s voices in the Bluegrass music scene. Laurie honors the women that helped her carve her own niche in Bluegrass with The Hazel and Alice Sessions from Laurie Lewis and the Rights Hand. Hazel and Alice opened doors for women in Bluegrass during their 1960’s career, competing musically with harder-edged songs of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Laurie Lewis recalled that she ‘had heard ballsy women singers on the local bluegrass scene, but I hadn’t heard other women doing that on a recording’.
Joining Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands are Aoife O’Donovan (“James Alley Blues”), and Linda Ronstadt (“Pretty Bird”). The Hazel and Alice Sessions kicks off with Bluegrass fire as the album heads out on the trail with “Cowboy Jim”, steps high to answer the call in “Who’s That Knocking”, picks up the pace for “Walking in My Sleep”, and slows down to a fast walk for a fast talker in “Let That Liar Alone”. Laurie Lewis puts on ragged shoes and a Monday frown for “Working Girl Blues” as The Right Hands beckon with mandolin strums asking “Won't You Come and Sing for Me” and race a passing freight with the runaway rhythms in “Train on the Island”.
CDHotlist ~ Rick’s Pick
No one has done more to preserve the legacy of bluegrass pioneers Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard than Laurie Lewis. Dickens and Gerrard were among the first women to sing bluegrass in much the same way that men like Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley did: hard-edged and gritty, serious rather than cute, and often with a slyly feminist subtext. On this album Lewis and her band deliver an excellent set of songs written by or associated with Gerrard and Dickens, including classic numbers like “Walking in My Sleep” and “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling.” It’s the Gerrard and Dickens originals that really stand out here, though, particularly the deeply affecting “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me?”. And if that second voice on “Pretty Bird” sounds like Linda Ronstadt, it’s because that’s who it is. Excellent.
"As unlikely as this partnership between an upper-middle-class girl from the West Coast and a working-class girl from Appalachia might seem," Mike Seeger biographer Bill C. Malone has written, "Alice and Hazel found immediate vocal compatibility, impressing their listeners with their soulful harmonies and passionate phrasing." The meeting of the young Alice Gerrard (born and raised in California) and Hazel Dickens (West Virginia) happened at a party in Seeger's Baltimore apartment in the early 1960s. It would lead soon to a musical association (not to mention the subsequent, ill-fated marriage of Gerrard and Seeger) and, between 1965 and 1975, four duo albums that stand tall in the history of bluegrass, a genre in which heretofore women had little visibility.
There will be no more from them, unfortunately. Dickens died in 2011. Happily, Gerrard remains an active presence on the oldtime circuit, performing both solo and as a member of the Piedmont Melody Makers. In the absence of Hazel & Alice's partnership, however, we may take joy in Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands' The Hazel & Alice Sessions. Long fixtures on the West Coast bluegrass/folk scene, Lewis and Kathy Kallick, her occasional musical partner (I reviewed Kallick's latest here this past 9 January), are the closest equivalents living and recording today. Their most recent duo CD, honoring the late California bluegrass masters Vern & Ray (reviewed by me on 27 September 2014), is something of a masterpiece.
Sessions unites Lewis with the three Right Hands (Tom Rozum, Patrick Sauber and Andrew Conklin) and guest artists who include, most prominently, Alice Gerrard herself, Linda Ronstadt and Aoife O'Donovan for a selection of material from the Hazel & Alice songbook. Dickens and Gerrard took a deeply traditional approach, in contrast to the often insipid work of contemporary bluegrass popsters who threaten to dilute the hard stuff into something with all the character of flat soda. (I mention no names, but if you know your bluegrass, you'll fill in the blanks.) Lewis and her gang honor the mountain roots Hazel & Alice brought to their sound, which arose from Appalachian songs, parlor ballads (usually via the Carter Family), the occasional Bill Monroe cover and their own inspired originals.
You have to be awfully good, not just presumptuous, to honor giants. That's never a problem on this spirited, finely executed disc. Lead vocals are mostly, though not entirely, by Lewis. The arrangements are crisp and grandly uncluttered. And the songs ... well, it goes without saying there's not a second-rater among the 14. It's not often that you hear an album, however engaging, that has you thinking you're hearing your favorite cut until the next one comes along to replace it. Ordinarily, a single listening will identify the song I most want to hear again, but not here. Still ... Dickens' "Won't You Come & Sing for Me?"
While based in familiar settings (learned from a family versed in homegrown Appalachiana), Dickens' writing is surely the most political of any bluegrass composer's. Her passionate commitment to union rights and feminism is exemplified here on the classics "Working Girl Blues" and "You'll Get No More of Me." Other songs evoke her profound attachment to her rural childhood, though Gerrard's "Farewell My Home" is stirring stuff in that regard, too. Let's just sayThe Hazel & Alice Sessions will meet all of your bluegrass and oldtime requirements.
No Depression Interview ~ Feb 23, 2016
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard came from different worlds. One from the open-minded neverland of San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest, the other from the green rolling hills of West Virginia. They met through a mutual friend–Mike Seeger, master of old-time folk music and brother of Pete–and started recording their particular brand of intrinsically feminist bluegrass music in 1965, the same year Bob Dylan went electric at Newport. But while Dylan's bold move shook the folk world in a way that has been discussed ad nauseum ever since, the influence Hazel and Alice have had on fellow musicians has been just as profound and incalculable.
Though they only recorded two albums together, Dickens spun off the success of the duo into a career singing politically charged folk songs, while Gerrard conteinues to maintain a tight allegiance to the power and importance of old-time music. While Dickens passed away in 2011, Gerrard has continued to make new albums, including 2013's Bittersweet and the following year's Follow the Music. As it happens, the former was produced by Bay Area singer-songwriter and bluegrass path-forger Laurie Lewis, who has just released a 14-song tribute to Hazel and Alice titled, aptly, The Hazel and Alice Sessions.
For years, Lewis has been a beacon of the Bay Area bluegrass scene – she won a Grammy Award for her tribute to Bill Monroe and has twice been named Female Vocalist of the Year by the IBMA. She is an accomplished artist in her own right, to be sure, and she also possesses a producer's ear and a teacher's deep knowledge of the music. All these things came to the fore when I talked with her recently about what she learned from Hazel and Alice. In fact, that's exactly where our conversation began:
Kim Ruehl: What did you learn from making music with both Hazel and Alice?
Laurie Lewis: With Alice, I think it’s very different. I [didn't make] that much music with Hazel. I’ve been more involved with Alice’s later things. I produced one of her albums, and all through that I was really impressed with how she was willing to entertain ideas from a producer, which is something I’ve always had a little trouble with. ... She was much more open-minded than I am when it comes to my songs. I really appreciated that.
I also just love the fact that her songs are, at the same time, very personal and universal. I guess because they are personal, they’re universal, because we're all human animals dealing with the same things.
Well, and Hazel did this too – she does such a great job at the essence of folk music, which is to tell your story in a way that acknowledges it’s everybody’s story.
Yeah, you put it better than I did. ... As for Hazel, What I really admired about her is her outspokenness – her plain-speaking straight-forwardness, both in her music and in her being.
There's a famous quote – you know she became friends with Warren Hellman, the billionaire banker who bankrolled the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival out here. He really started that festival because he just loved Hazel Dickens and wanted her to come out here to the festival. He told me they were visiting one day, and he was telling her about the estate where he grew up, [how] there were peacocks [wandering] the grounds and it was really beautiful. She looked at him and she said, “That makes me want to throw up.” [laughs]
For me, what has been inspiring about both of those women, who were very different and made such great music together, is that they were coming from this culture where women were not encouraged to be so outspoken and opinionated. When you’re singing their songs as a Bay Area native, where the culture is a little more open, how do you reckon with that?
For the record, I should say that Alice is from the Bay Area, mostly. Her youth was spent in Berkeley ... and then Seattle. She comes from a more liberated area for women, in general.
She totally embraced old-time music and bluegrass. [She] really went to folk music when she went to Antioch College, I think, and then shortly thereafter met Hazel. And you know, I've never talked to Alice about this, but I would suspect that Hazel found in Alice somebody who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. ... Hazel came from such a different background, in West Virginia. I think she probably was encouraged by meeting Alice, and that probably helped her be able to express herself better, and she just ran with it.
I talked to Alice around the time that Bittersweet came out and I think I remember that she had the opposite sense, that Hazel helped her open up.
That’s really interesting. The best relationships do that for each other, I think.
How did you narrow down the songs to put on this record?
Well, [laughs] we ran out of room. We could’ve kept going. It was so much fun.
We actually have maybe three songs we started that we decided not to put on the album … it was just too long. There were a lot of songs. We narrowed it down because we didn’t want songs that were well-recorded already, from Hazel and Alice records, like "West Virginia, My Home" and "The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia." Things like that, that have been covered by other artists a lot. We decided not to do those and stay more in the deep-catalog stuff. There’s such a wealth of material there. We just pulled out everything we liked, skimmed off the top, and came to  songs.
How important was it for you to stay true to their version, versus adding your own thing to keep the songs moving?
I think it varied from song to song. Something like "Let That Liar Alone," we changed quite a bit from the way they did it. They were [coming] more from the Carter Family school on that one. I listened to it and I was like, you know with our strengths in the band, we could do a real [Flatt and Scruggs]-style guitar thing. I felt perfectly good about messing with that one.
Then on things like "James Alley Blues" [which features Aoife O'Donovan], which is something Hazel and Alice really took from Richard "Rabbit" Brown and made it into their own song, we decided to keep that one pretty much how they did it.
So it varies from song to song. I don’t think we ever worried about getting too far away from the original. That wasn’t a concern.
Well, and you have a good track record of making traditional music that sounds both current and traditional at the same time.
Yeah, it’s almost impossible, anyway – for me – to take a song from anybody [else] and do it exactly the way they did it. I’m not that kind of musician. I would fall flat doing that. One of my strengths is the ability to interpret, so I just let that come to the fore, rather than trying to imitate.
In the liner notes, you talk about how important it was for you to discover these women in bluegrass music, because your scope up until that point had been all these men. Certainly when I, as a reporter, first started to dig into bluegrass music, I found it was very male-dominated – with the exception of Hazel and Alice, and you, and a handful of others. Do you feel like that’s changed at all? Certainly there are a lot of very important women in bluegrass, but the perception is still, somehow, that it’s a men’s field.
Well, in the traditional bluegrass world, it is still a man’s world, I’d say. It’s still definitely got [probably something like] three times as many men playing bluegrass as women. In the big tent of bluegrass, there’s certainly a lot of women included, who have been schooled in traditional bluegrass and then taken off from there. And I think there's really a lot of women today who are doing great stuff within the broader bluegrass field.
What excited me about Hazel and Alice when I first heard them is that they were really true to the style, I thought. They weren’t trying to pretty it up or something.
Yeah, and as you said that about the broader bluegrass world, the women in this kind of music who spring immediately to mind tend to be more innovative than straight traditional bluegrass, like Abigail Washburn and Sierra Hull and Sarah Jarosz, and that crowd. What do you think that’s about? That women are more prone to innovation?
Well, I think there’s a lot of reasons but probably one [reason] is that the traditional repertoire tends to be more male-oriented, so they’re looking elsewhere for material to bring into the music. The other thing is that if you’re ... not made to feel welcome, let’s say [you're] a traditional bluegrass banjo player and you want to play that music, it makes sense that you would just start changing it, to make it [into] something that could be accepted, rather than trying to compete on the same field.
I also want to say this, in terms of traditional bluegrass. There’s no preconception that, if you’re a woman, you’re supposed to play this way – like for the guys, if you’re a mandolin player, you should play like Bill Monroe. There’s no preconception like that. The guys don’t even think a woman can play a mandolin like Bill Monroe. [So] you would just naturally go for something else. The field is wide-open. You become Sierra Hull or something.
Or [for banjo] Allison Brown.
Berkeley Side ~ Andrew Gilbert
Laurie Lewis has a long list of musicians she’s grateful for, and somewhere near the top are Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, bluegrass music’s foremost foremothers. The longtime Berkeleyan gives a sneak peak at her upcoming album The Hazel and Alice Sessions at Freight & Salvage on Saturday with her band The Right Hands featuring her partner in twang Tom Rozum (mandolin, mandola, and guitar), Patrick Sauber (banjo), Todd Phillips (bassist extraordinaire), and Tatiana Hargreaves (fiddle).
“Tatiana is just amazing,” says Lewis, 65, noting that she’s the younger sister of fiddle star Alex Hargreaves. “I’ve known her since she was seven. She’s a little tiny 20-year-old who’s studying at Hampshire College in Amherst. I call her Hoss.”
The kind of gutsy. muscular bluegrass that gets slung by women these days wasn’t nearly as common when Lewis started making her way on the scene in the early 1970s. She immersed herself in the music of Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, and Flatt and Scruggs, but it wasn’t until she encountered recordings by Dickens and Gerrard that she found female players and songwriters who were delivering bluegrass “in a way that was, I don’t want to say masculine, but truly in the style of my male mentors,” Lewis says.
“I had heard ballsy women singers on the local bluegrass scene, but I hadn’t heard other women doing that on recordings. It made a big impression. We are doing what we love and not taking guff from anybody.”
Lewis paid tribute to Dickens and Gerrard a quarter century ago when she and Kathy Kallick released their first duet album Together (Rounder), offering a version of the Delmore Brothers “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar” inspired by the women’s classic rendition on their 1965 Folkways debut album. Over the years Lewis spent some time around the West Virginia-raised Dickens, who died in 2011 at the age of 75.
“She was what you call a firecracker,” Lewis says. “All the time I knew her she had physical problems. She was this combination of fragility and toughness, just a piece gristle. In those years she was an uneven performer who was very dependent on feeling comfortable with the band. If she was nervous her pitch issues could get crazy, but when she was on she was amazingly powerful. The first time I was on stage with her was at folk festival in Canada doing some sort of round robin workshop. She started singing up at the mic and her voice was so powerful it threw me to the back of the stage.”
Gerrard is still going strong at 81, and Lewis has played an essential role in her blossoming late career, producing the 2013 album Bittersweet (Spruce and Maple Music) spotlighting her original songs. While Dickens wrote more overtly political material, Gerrard often brought a distinctively female (and feminist) point of view to her music.
“Her songs have such integrity,” Lewis says. “I was a little bit worried that she would have these definite ideas of the way things should go, but we were really on the same wavelength on the songs, which made for an album that’s unlike anything she had done previously. She’s a great role model in terms of the way she takes care of herself. She was 79 when we worked together, and she’s an energizer bunny, with endless enthusiasm for the music and the creative process.”
Despite her vaunted status on the folk music scene, Gerrard earned her first Grammy Award nomination for her most recent album, 2014’s hair-raisingly powerful Follow the Music on Tompkins Square, the San Francisco label founded and run by Josh Rosenthal. It seems fitting that she’s found resourceful champions in the Bay Area, given that Gerrard was raised in the East Bay (a fact often obscured in her biography “because in her early career it wouldn’t add any cred to her story,” Lewis says).
Lewis covers Gerrard’s haunting “Farewell My Home,” which fits into the long tradition of despairing songs about wanderers leaving the South, but the lyric actually refers to a house where Gerrard lived in the then-rural Fremont neighborhood of Irvington. Born in Seattle, she ended up in the Bay Area as a teenager after the death of her father and her mother’s remarriage to the artist Willard Rosenquist, a longtime UC Berkeley professor who taught in the Department of Decorative Arts. A self-described misfit, she graduated from Oakland Tech High School and felt out of place until she landed at Antioch College in Ohio and fell in with a crowd increasingly passionate about American roots music.
The Hazel and Alice Sessions focuses mostly on the duo’s lesser known songs. Rather than offering yet another version of “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia” or “The Sweetest Gift, A Mother’s Smile,” Lewis says the Right Hands “always gravitate to songs that have less of a public history. That makes it easier to get our own take on ‘em.”
The album closes with a Lewis’s breathtaking duet with Linda Ronstadt on “Pretty Bird,” a track was recorded as part of an all-star Rounder album intended to benefit Dickens. Artists like Emmylou Harris, Wynonna Judd, Elvis Costello, and David Bromberg all donated tracks, but then Dickens died before the album came out. No one wanted the label to just take the money, and the project is still in limbo. A new piece featuring Ronstadt, who is no longer performing, is something for which we can all feel profoundly grateful.
Live Review at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse ~ Deborah Crooks
When bluegrass legend Laurie Lewis stepped to the mic to address her hometown audience before launching into her annual Thanksgiving weekend show, her voice was lower than expected. Lewis and The Rights Hands — her crackerjack band of bluegrass masters including mandolinist/guitarist/vocalist Tom Rozum, Grammy-winning bassist Todd Phillips, banjo player Patrick Sauber and fiddle player Tatiana Hargreaves — had just come home from their first tour of Australia. “We had a great time,” Lewis informed her Berkeley fans. Unfortunately, they brought home a souvenir in the form of a nasty bug that all but took away the celebrated bandleader's voice.
In the world of bluegrass, Lewis is equal parts legend and ambassador, and her class act wasn’t going to be dimmed too much by a compromised voice. Her ability to curate a showcase set of bluegrass gems, nimble playing and pure joy in making music, only came to the fore that much more. Lewis is both a master and preserver of the bluegrass form, and her latest project, The Hazel & Alice Sessions(soon to be released), pays loving tribute to the songs of her musical forbears and fellow trailblazers, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. Lewis shared stages with both women during their careers (and produced Gerrard’s 2013 effort Bittersweet) and Hazel & Alicedemonstrates once again Lewis’s reverence and commitment to the bluegrass tradition in which she’s a large part. Also much in evidence during the show was her generous spirit and enthusiasm for the promise of the next generation of bluegrass musicians. When she couldn’t reach a note on a three-part harmony, she nodded to her protégé Hargreaves — Lewis first met the twenty-something-year-old player when she was 7 years old, and now calls her “Hoss” in deference to her heavyweight musicianship — who seamlessly stepped in to take the part. Lewis called up another of her mentees, Rachel Tietjen of The T Sisters, to sing with her on the Dickens’ song “Pretty Bird” (Linda Ronstadt does the part on the recorded version featured on the upcoming Hazel & Alice, a track Lewis and Ronstadt originally recorded for a since-shelved Rounder album of Dickens tunes). She also gave ample centerstage time to her longtime bandmates, graciously ceding the lead to Rozum on his waltz “The Snowy Road,” and the Bobby Nolan classic “Cool Water,” which, again, beautifully showcased the Right Hands’ stellar interplay. Even if she’s under the weather, Lewis and her band are, simply put, superlative.