by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
It was round-about 50 years ago that Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard started making the music that would blaze a trail for women in bluegrass. Taking cues from Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, Hazel and Alice broke the genre’s glass ceiling for all who would come after them…Laurie Lewis, included. The singer/songwriter/producer dug deep for ‘The Hazel and Alice Sessions,’ and came up with a bunch of lesser-known gems. To really do it up, Lewis brought along her band, the Right Hands, as well as guest artists Linda Ronstadt, Aoife O’Donovan, Tatiana Hargreaves, and Alice Gerrard herself.
Kelly McCartney: Other than being the first women of bluegrass, what was it about Hazel and Alice that made them so special and influential — for yourself and the broader music world?
Laurie Lewis: It may be that Hazel and Alice just met and started singing together at the right time to be considered the first women of bluegrass. I am sure that there were other women singing bluegrass before them, but I don’t think they had been recorded, except for the ‘Rose Maddox Sings Bluegrass album,’ which came out in the early 1960s.
But what made that duo special, to me, was their adherence to the basic tenets of Bill Monroe’s music: write personal songs, take songs from earlier country music artists, and transform them with bluegrass treatment, and just plain sing your heart out. Their songs were welcome additions to the bluegrass songbook, and their delivery made me believe in what they were singing about. I think that Hazel’s and Alice’s example inspired many women to try their hands in this male-dominated field.
What made this the right time to honor them in this way?
I would love to have thought about this album and recorded it while Hazel was still alive, but to tell you the truth, though I had previously recorded several of her songs, it didn’t occur to me to do a full tribute to her and Alice until Tom Rozum suggested it last year. As soon as he proposed it, it just seemed like the right thing to do. I am a huge fan of Alice Gerrard’s singing and writing, and had produced a recording for her a few years back (‘Bittersweet’). Alice is still going strong at age 82, and shows no signs of slowing down, but we wanted to make sure that we didn’t wait too long.
Nowadays, some of the arguably most exciting music in the bluegrass field is the work of young women, and for this happy reason, too, I wanted to acknowledge our foremothers.
How did you decide which songs to include on the project? Can we view this as a sort of Hazel and Alice primer?
We basically did songs we particularly liked, and also tried to steer away from the songs of their repertoire which have been covered often. That’s why you won’t hear “West Virginia, My Home” or “The Sweetest Gift” or “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia.” The repertoires of Hazel and Alice together and separately is so vast, that we could easily do a ‘Sessions Volume 2.’
Talk about the guest artists… nabbing Linda Ronstadt was certainly a coup.
I met Linda when she, Maria Muldaur, and I were hired as the Bluebirds to put together a set for Wintergrass, a festival in Tacoma, Washington (now moved to Bellevue). I had no idea that Linda was familiar with my music, but she comes from a very musical family, and her brothers and cousins all sing some of my songs. She told me that, at family gatherings, they would often sing “Texas Bluebonnets” and my version of Kate Long’s song, “Who Will Watch the Home Place.” We really enjoyed singing together (I mean, I was in heaven!), and Linda then sang harmony on two songs on our band album, ‘The Golden West.’ Then, she offered to sing two more songs with me on my Bill Monroe tribute, ‘Skippin’ and Flyin’.’ Linda was so generous with her music.
Linda and I had worked out “Pretty Bird” for the Bluebirds performance, and we were asked to contribute it to a Hazel Dickens benefit CD that was in the works on Rounder Records. This was about 12 years ago. The project got held up for various reasons, and then Hazel died. So far, Rounder hasn’t released it, but they gave us permission to release our cut on this album. I’m very happy to say that Linda also chose it to include on her ‘Duets’ album, which came out in 2014.
What did it mean to you to have Alice’s blessing and presence on the album?
Of course, it was very important to us that Alice like both the idea and the fact of the album. When I asked her if she might sing on “Working Girl Blues,” her response was an immediate “yes.” Alice was working at a music camp nearby in northern California, and we hurriedly recorded the basic tracks so that she could sing on it before she flew back home to North Carolina. It made me very, very happy to be able to include her voice on the CD.