Album Review

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard - Self-Titled

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard - self-titled

Since the folk revival of the 1950s, no two women have exerted as much influence within bluegrass and old-timey circles as Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. As pickers, producers, singers, arrangers, and leaders of their own string band, the duo -- who performed and recorded together from 1962 to 1975 -- inspired a whole generation of bluegrass musicians, many of them women. Hazel & Alice's reach extends to mainstream country music as well. Their arrangement of the Carter Family's "Hello Stranger" was the blueprint for Emmylou Harris' version of the song; their rendition of "The Sweetest Gift (A Mother's Smile)" induced Naomi Judd to start harmonizing with Wynonna. The sound that captivated all of these artists was a deep-in-the-hollow blend of Dickens' whining tenor and Gerrard's loamy alto -- a style of harmony singing, notes folklorist Jon Pankake, that "builds on the alto-below-lead of the Carter Family and the tenor-above-lead of Bill Monroe." It's a style evident throughout this reissue of the duo's fourth and final LP, but especially in the way their soaring voices intertwine with the twin fiddles on their cover of the Louvin Brothers' "When I Loved You". Or, better still, in the soulfulness they bring to their a cappella reading of Rabbit Brown's "James Alley Blues", the song that formed the backbone of Bob Dylan's "Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)". With this album -- as well as its predecessor, the incomparable Hazel & Alice (Rounder 1973/1995) -- the duo also finds its songwriting voice, one that serves their larger sense of social harmony. Whether the issues are economic ("Working Girl Blues"), racial ("Beaufort County Jail"), or gender-related ("Mary Johnson"), their cry for justice is as vehement as it is visionary. Perhaps most devastating is Gerrard's "Mama's Gonna Stay", a reverie akin to Lucinda Williams' "Side Of The Road" in which a harried housewife steals a moment of pre-dawn solace in lieu of leaving her sleeping husband and kids. The duo's feminist take on misogynistic material associated with Jimmie Rodgers ("Mean Papa Blues") and Jim Jackson ("Nice Like That") is just as compelling. All of which is to say that fans of Iris DeMent, Gillian Welch or Freakwater unacquainted with Hazel & Alice are likely to faint when they hear this or any of the duo's other records.