Alice Gerrard,
(Spruce & Maple, 2013)

A respected, even beloved, figure on the old-time music scene, Alice Gerrard can look back at an extraordinary career. Her resume boasts the pioneering bluegrass albums she cut with the late Hazel Dickens, at a time when women were all but invisible inside the genre. That would have been remarkable enough, but what's at least as, maybe more, important is that music preserved on those Rounder and Smithsonian Folkways records is very, very good. She founded The Old Time Herald. She has cut albums with the late Mike Seeger (to whom she was married for a time) and in a trio with Brad Leftwich and Tom Sauber. And that's just some of it.

On Bittersweet Gerrard is produced by the noted West Coast bluegrass musician Laurie Lewis. Gerrard and Lewis have assembled an all-star back-up group including some leading pickers of acoustic roots music (Bryan Sutton, Rob Ickes, Stuart Duncan and the like). This is her first collection consisting of all-original songs, which are sung in a sometimes fragile voice having more to do with the inevitable effects of age than to a timid personality. The songs call up memories of love, disappointment, long-ago moments in varying emotional shades, the passing of family and friends -- the sorts of things that haunt one's thoughts if one has been around long enough to have more miles behind oneself than ahead.

"Low key" pretty much defines the proceedings. The songs and the performances don't seem intended to knock the listener over, and they won't. Songwriting, it must be said, is not Gerrard's most obvious strength. Though competent enough, it doesn't sustain 13 cuts' worth, in my opinion, though I claim no larger authority than that; you may disagree, and I will still respect you.

There are some high points, however, including the nostalgic "Sweet South Anna River," which reminds me a little of the kind of material the McGarrigles were writing and singing when they were recalling the parlor songs they grew up hearing. The foreboding "Borderland," on the other side, is resonant of "Oh Death," not just in the lyrics but in Bryan Sutton's banjo sound, nodding consciously to Dock Boggs'.

But overall, the debt to traditional music is surprisingly thin. Some of Bittersweet is straightforward singer-songwriter fare, and some has the resonance of Molly O'Day and other mid-century women who sang acoustic country music. Though not all of the songs stick in memory, the emotional honesty and intimate voice behind them reach out and touch the listener. This may not be Gerrard's most unforgettable recording, but her company remains as engaging as ever.

music review by
Jerome Clark

27 July 2013

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new