Laurie Lewis has a long list of musicians she’s grateful for, and somewhere near the top are Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, bluegrass music’s foremost foremothers. The longtime Berkeleyan gives a sneak peak at her upcoming album The Hazel and Alice Sessions at Freight & Salvage on Saturday with her band The Right Hands featuring her partner in twang Tom Rozum (mandolin, mandola, and guitar), Patrick Sauber (banjo), Todd Phillips (bassist extraordinaire), and Tatiana Hargreaves (fiddle).
“Tatiana is just amazing,” says Lewis, 65, noting that she’s the younger sister of fiddle star Alex Hargreaves. “I’ve known her since she was seven. She’s a little tiny 20-year-old who’s studying at Hampshire College in Amherst. I call her Hoss.”
The kind of gutsy. muscular bluegrass that gets slung by women these days wasn’t nearly as common when Lewis started making her way on the scene in the early 1970s. She immersed herself in the music of Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, and Flatt and Scruggs, but it wasn’t until she encountered recordings by Dickens and Gerrard that she found female players and songwriters who were delivering bluegrass “in a way that was, I don’t want to say masculine, but truly in the style of my male mentors,” Lewis says.
“I had heard ballsy women singers on the local bluegrass scene, but I hadn’t heard other women doing that on recordings. It made a big impression. We are doing what we love and not taking guff from anybody.”
Lewis paid tribute to Dickens and Gerrard a quarter century ago when she and Kathy Kallick released their first duet album Together (Rounder), offering a version of the Delmore Brothers “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar” inspired by the women’s classic rendition on their 1965 Folkways debut album. Over the years Lewis spent some time around the West Virginia-raised Dickens, who died in 2011 at the age of 75.
“She was what you call a firecracker,” Lewis says. “All the time I knew her she had physical problems. She was this combination of fragility and toughness, just a piece gristle. In those years she was an uneven performer who was very dependent on feeling comfortable with the band. If she was nervous her pitch issues could get crazy, but when she was on she was amazingly powerful. The first time I was on stage with her was at folk festival in Canada doing some sort of round robin workshop. She started singing up at the mic and her voice was so powerful it threw me to the back of the stage.”
Gerrard is still going strong at 81, and Lewis has played an essential role in her blossoming late career, producing the 2013 album Bittersweet (Spruce and Maple Music) spotlighting her original songs. While Dickens wrote more overtly political material, Gerrard often brought a distinctively female (and feminist) point of view to her music.
“Her songs have such integrity,” Lewis says. “I was a little bit worried that she would have these definite ideas of the way things should go, but we were really on the same wavelength on the songs, which made for an album that’s unlike anything she had done previously. She’s a great role model in terms of the way she takes care of herself. She was 79 when we worked together, and she’s an energizer bunny, with endless enthusiasm for the music and the creative process.”
Despite her vaunted status on the folk music scene, Gerrard earned her first Grammy Award nomination for her most recent album, 2014’s hair-raisingly powerful Follow the Music on Tompkins Square, the San Francisco label founded and run by Josh Rosenthal. It seems fitting that she’s found resourceful champions in the Bay Area, given that Gerrard was raised in the East Bay (a fact often obscured in her biography “because in her early career it wouldn’t add any cred to her story,” Lewis says).
Lewis covers Gerrard’s haunting “Farewell My Home,” which fits into the long tradition of despairing songs about wanderers leaving the South, but the lyric actually refers to a house where Gerrard lived in the then-rural Fremont neighborhood of Irvington. Born in Seattle, she ended up in the Bay Area as a teenager after the death of her father and her mother’s remarriage to the artist Willard Rosenquist, a longtime UC Berkeley professor who taught in the Department of Decorative Arts. A self-described misfit, she graduated from Oakland Tech High School and felt out of place until she landed at Antioch College in Ohio and fell in with a crowd increasingly passionate about American roots music.
The Hazel and Alice Sessions focuses mostly on the duo’s lesser known songs. Rather than offering yet another version of “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia” or “The Sweetest Gift, A Mother’s Smile,” Lewis says the Right Hands “always gravitate to songs that have less of a public history. That makes it easier to get our own take on ‘em.”
The album closes with a Lewis’s breathtaking duet with Linda Ronstadt on “Pretty Bird,” a track was recorded as part of an all-star Rounder album intended to benefit Dickens. Artists like Emmylou Harris, Wynonna Judd, Elvis Costello, and David Bromberg all donated tracks, but then Dickens died before the album came out. No one wanted the label to just take the money, and the project is still in limbo. A new piece featuring Ronstadt, who is no longer performing, is something for which we can all feel profoundly grateful.