Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands,
The Hazel & Alice Sessions
(Spruce & Maple Music, 2016)

"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 say The Hazel & Alice Sessions will meet all of your bluegrass and oldtime requirements.

music review by
Jerome Clark

27 February 2016

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