Alice Gerrard

Follow the Music

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Follow the Music Review

by Thom Jurek

For fans of folk and roots country music, it is a genuine event whenever Alice Gerrard issues a recording, and has been since the middle of the '60s when she began playing bluegrass with Hazel Dickens -- a male-dominated genre until then. She has influenced three generations of musicians recording American rural and mountain song forms with others, has been a historian, a song collector, and a journalist. But she has recorded all too infrequently on her own. Follow the Music, her debut for Tompkins Square that appears two months after her 80th birthday, is only her fourth solo offering. It was produced by Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor. Gerrard plays guitar, banjo, and fiddle, accompanied by old-timey and bluegrass musicians and some of Taylor's bandmates. These 11 songs are comprised of originals and covers of country and traditional tunes. They are all delivered in a singing voice that, for all its plaintive restraint, carries within it an abundance of smoldering, earthy passion, pathos, darkness both emotional and spiritual, and world-weary wisdom. Her reading of Leona Williams' country waltz "You Take Me for Granted" -- a hit for Merle Haggard -- is devastating. In Gerrard's delivery the lyric is an indictment of neglect from a heart bursting with grief, yet it contains no self-pity. Its bewildering irony -- fully outlined -- is that the protagonist actually feels guilt and confusion about what her part in this must be. On the traditional, dirge-like "Bear Me Away," Gerrard collapses time and space -- accompanied only by droning strings, she relates the subject's nearly willing resignation about deliverance from her woeful, worldly struggle. The lengthy a cappella take on the horrific child/mountain ballad "The Vulture" is convincing and spooky. "Wedding Dress" contrasts sharply with Peggy Seeger's well-known version. Gerrard's is rooted more immediately in the tense dynamic of rural Southern experience. Tommy Jarrell's "Bo Weevil" is a minor-key, trance-like blues learned from its author. Mac McCarty's "Teardrops Falling in the Snow" is a "from the beyond" narrative whose lyric is even stranger because of the honky tonk stroll in its accompaniment. "Goodbyes" was written by grandson Adam Heller. His lyric evokes Hank Williams' tradition but sounds like it was written for Gerrard. Her own material impresses mightily. This version of "Love Was the Price" -- recorded twice before -- is completely revisioned as a slow blues with a resonator guitar providing a spidery backbone. The reverbed banjo and acoustic guitar in "Strange Land" find her as the eternal other making her lonely way through the world. "Foolish Lovers Waltz" reflects the pang of the heart's first flush of wild romance in a country reverie. The title track is the set's hinge piece, an anthem that testifies to the single -- constant -- source of solace over a lifetime. Follow the Music is a gift, a rough-hewn masterpiece as inspired as it is profound.

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