In the mid-1960s, the world of bluegrass was dominated by men, and women singers of the genre had no expectation of being heard on recordings. The trail was blazed by two women from very different origins – Hazel Dickens from West Virginia and Alice Gerrard from the West Coast – who performed together, singing in a brave, confident, hard-edged, gritty style that was unheard-of outside, say, the early work of Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers, and certainly not regarded the province of women singers at that time. Hazel & Alice’s first LP (1965‘s Who’s That Knocking? – still unaccountably unissued on CD) was discovered belatedly, in the mid-70s, by bluegrass band-leader Laurie Lewis, who was sufficiently inspired to adopt the duo as her muses and “instant mentors”. Since when, of course, Laurie has become as a bluegrass pioneer in her own right, and has herself inspired the next generations of bluegrass women. Laurie also became good friends with Hazel and Alice as she immersed herself in their music, being entirely in tune with their sensibility and spirit. She collaborated with them on a number of occasions, and produced Alice’s 2013 solo album Bittersweet (her first to be composed exclusively of her own original songs).
Hazel and Alice’s repertoire closely followed bluegrass tradition in drawing from Carter Family songs and other early string band classics, which were mixed in with their own original compositions. Laurie’s own repertoire, indeed, closely follows that model too, and this album, her tribute to Hazel and Alice, is both heartfelt and joyful. Laurie and her totally simpatico band (Tom Rozum, Patrick Sauber and Andrew Conklin) are joined on a majority of the disc’s tracks by a choice of fiddlers (either young prodigy Tatiana Hargreaves or long-time comrade Chad Manning), or Mike Witcher (dobro), while Harley Eblen contributes bass vocals on a couple of songs. Wisely, there’s no attempt to consciously emulate the special Hazel and Alice vocal blend, which after all is utterly unmistakable, stark and rivetingly immediate; but Laurie has chosen the material well and her personal reworkings (and the performance style she and her band adopt) convince absolutely with their authenticity.
The Carters are represented by three tracks (and tho’ I don’t recall Hazel & Alice tackling Emry Arthur’s gospeller Let That Liar Alone, Laurie’s rendition is brilliant). Bill Monroe’s I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling (also done by the Carters) also makes an appearance here, along with sure-fire repertoire standards Train On The Island and Walkin’ In My Sleep; and Laurie’s joined by Aoife O’Donovan for a stunning a cappella treatment of James Alley Blues. But, the latter collaboration aside, it’s with the pick of originals that this collection – and Laurie – will inevitably score the highest for devotees. Alice’s fond, nostalgia-steeped song Farewell My Home, which she set to Tony Ellis’s beautiful melody of the same title, had originally appeared not on a Hazel & Alice record but on Alice’s own 2004 solo album Calling Me Home, and here provides a disc highlight. Elsewhere, the healthy tally of Hazel’s compositions includes not only You’ll Get No More Of Me, Won’t You Come And Sing For Me? and (reputedly her first composition) Cowboy Jim, but also Working Girl Blues; the latter’s particularly special, for here Laurie’s joined by Alice herself, bringing the project full circle. Arguably even more treasurable, though, is the disc’s parting shot, Pretty Bird, which, if I read the liner note aright, has been sourced from a still-unreleased Rounder Records benefit CD for Hazel that was recorded over a decade ago, and on which Laurie sings a cappella with Linda Ronstadt – wow!
Postscript: just a few weeks ago, I learnt that Laurie has picked up a Grammy nomination for this album – wow again! Massive congrats are due…
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