At the end of each year, writers and broadcasters get to indulge themselves and-one hopes-their readers and listeners with their judgements on the year past. I’ve spent considerable time reviewing the bluegrass albums I heard during the past year, and have come up with my definitive (at least for today) list of Favorite Bluegrass Albums of 2016. Of course, your mileage will vary: I once received a cranky email from the father of a fairly prominent bluegrasser whose album I didn’t include on such a list several years ago. For those such inclined, I repeat-these are my favorite bluegrass albums of the year. Not the best, ’cause that is silly. And all I can base it on is those albums I’ve heard, and maybe I somehow missed your son’s album…talk to his publicist.
1. Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands- “The Hazel & Alice Sessions” (Spruce and Maple) Laurie Lewis places Hazel Dickens with the bluegrass vocal big-three: Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and Lester Flatt. Alice Gerrard is a fearsome master of vocal folk, old-time, and bluegrass. “The Hazel and Alice Sessions” is not only a worthy tribute to a key bluegrass partnership, but an entertaining and formable collection of music. For me, undoubtedly the bluegrass album of the year. Nominated for a Grammy this time out, I could listen to this one every day.
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Hazel Dickens. Odd that, because one can’t really listen to Hazel Dickens without knowing you’ve heard Hazel. Her voice is one that isn’t confused with anyone else’s; there is power in her words and melodies—they communicate to the listener the experiences, convictions, and insights of a powerfully strong woman, one who excelled within an industry dominated by men.
Dickens left her home in West Virginia while still a teen, moving to work in the factories and stores of Baltimore. She used her early experiences to inform the realism readily apparent in her songs, be it the emotional turmoil of leaving home (“Mama’s Hands,”) the longing of home from away (“West Virginia, My Home,”) and a sense of place that few writers could capture (“Hills of Home.”) Within “West Virginia, My Home” Hazel captures in ten syllables, seven straight-forward words what others have struggled to communicate in entire essays: “I can sure remember where I come from.”
She was long involved in expressing the struggles and lives of miners in any number of ways, not the least of which are her songs including “Black Lung,” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” and “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” to name but three. She came to tell these songs in the most natural of ways, having had brothers and family working in the deep, dark mines of West Virginia.
Importantly, Dickens was part of the migration of mountain music to the eastern seaboard, one of thousands who moved from rural communities in search of work and bringing with them the music of their home counties. She championed the music, keeping it at the fore of not only her own life but communicating a relevancy with which the urban community could connect.
That she has written some of the finest bluegrass songs is without challenge. These songs have advanced the cause of women and the working poor in immeasurable ways, bringing strength and dignity to places and circumstances where such was often in short supply. Dickens never shied away from subject matter that some would avoid, be they the protagonists of “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” the conditions of the mines (“Mannington Mine Disaster,”) or detailing the impact of miner organization in “The Yablonski Murder.”
So powerful is the Hazel Dickens catalogue that none of these essential songs found their way onto this collection from Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands. And, while they are noticeably absent, they are not missed.
Hazel Dickens left a legacy in song.
Alice Gerrard is one of the living legends of bluegrass music; combined with her decades of recording and performing old-time and folk music, Gerrard has a stout resume that is as varied and dynamic as any you can mention. When Gerrard has completed a song, it has truly been sung. I am so glad that she remains a formidable and important element within folk music. While Gerrard has an extensive resume as a recording artist within several different configurations, as a guardian of old-time music, as founder and past editor-in-chief of The Old-Time Herald, and as a touring musician, she has recorded as a ‘solo’ artist only intermittently.
1994’s beautiful Pieces of My Heart and 2004’s equally resonant Calling Me Home: Songs of Love and Loss appeared on the Copper Creek label. As on those recordings, Gerrard’s voice on her contemporary releases (Bittersweet, Follow Me Home) is pure and powerful: Gerrard’s voice is multi-dimensional, and as Lee Smith wrote two decades ago, she can sing anything: “holler, shout, belt it out, swing a little, croon a little, and then flat-out break your heart.
My appreciation for Alice Gerrard is as firm as my admiration of Hazel Dickens. Together, they were incredible.
Well-documented elsewhere, Hazel and Alice met and began singing at Washington, DC/Baltimore house parties, moving onto coffeehouse performances within a burgeoning bluegrass environment. Their collaborative recording output—four albums as a duo as well as a fifth as the Strange Creek Singers with Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwarz—was limited, but highly significant and exceedingly impressive.
One of their greatest admirers is Laurie Lewis. Like many of us, upon first hearing Dickens and Gerrard, Lewis realized that the hard side of bluegrass need not be the domain of men. Laurie Lewis is no newcomer to bluegrass music, having played almost every festival there is and having recorded excellent albums over the years, The Golden West and Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals being just two. However, she has never narrowed her field and has recorded some of the finest folk-inspired music of the past three decades, among them her incredible collaborations with Tom Rozum The Oak and the Laurel and the under-heralded Guest House. Her wide-ranging tribute to Bill Monroe (Skippin’ and Flyin’) was one of 2011’s finest bluegrass albums, and possibly the strongest Monroe tribute released since the bluegrass master’s death.
Lewis has always been versatile, performing as a duo with Rozum or leading a full-fledged bluegrass band with equal effectiveness and charisma. As a musician, she is frequently called on to provide session fiddle and vocal performances and to augment an established group. In a one week period years back I saw her with Kathy Kallick- a frequent singing partner- in a Red Deer bluegrass setting and the next weekend filling in with Dave Alvin’s hard-hitting Guilty Women at Hardly Strictly.
She has at least one signature song, “Who Will Watch the Home Place?” Kate Long’s exceptional song awarded the IBMA’s Song of the Year award in 1994. She has also been awarded the same organization’s Female Vocalist of the Year award twice and has been nominated frequently.
Like Hazel & Alice, Laurie Lewis is bonafide.
I’m told that Laurie Lewis has, with others, led the charge to have Hazel and Alice inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, that induction hasn’t yet happened. One wonders, why?
I’ve been told there is a faction who believes Alison Krauss must be the first female artist/bandleader elected to the Hall. Fair perhaps, but dang short-sighted. Hazel and Alice definitely deserve a place among the heroes of the music, and one could make a convincing argument that Lewis herself also deserves consideration for inclusion in bluegrass music’s most hallowed hall.
These powerful bluegrass forces come together on Laurie Lewis & the Right Hand’s The Hazel and Alice Sessions, surely one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of this year.
No disappointment here.
With songs drawn from 1965’s Who’s That Knocking through to Gerrard’s 2002 masterpiece Calling Me Home, a full half of the songs are from the Pioneering Women of Bluegrass anthology (a collection of their 1965 and 1973 recordings,) with a spattering culled from two ‘70s Rounder albums and an additional Dickens’ release.
The album kicks off with the energy of “Cowboy Jim,” a song Dickens wrote for the first album based around a scattered lyric partially remembered by her father. The album continues on, exploring the many shades of love, devotion, loss, faith, and heartbreak one would expect from a classic bluegrass set. “James Alley Blues,” one of the few songs here not written by either Dickens or Gerrard, contains a couple brilliant lines of insight including, “Could have a much better time if men weren’t so hard to please;” joined by vocal guest Aoife O’Donovan, Lewis retains the acapella arrangement to most excellent effect.
Tom Rozum is not only one of bluegrass’ most secure mandolinists, but he is a fine vocalist. He is featured taking a couple leads, doing justice to “Who’s That Knocking?” This decision confirms the gender-neutrality of the finest music, songs that reveal themselves no matter who is taking the lead and conveying the story. He also fair nails “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling,” a tipping of the collective hat to Mr. Monroe.
Hazel Dickens is quoted once saying, “My relationship was always with the words and the story.” The songs Lewis has chosen give truth to the statement. Perhaps Dickens’ greatest achievement, is there a finer song capturing the truth that is the “Working Girl Blues?” Lewis’ rendition is stellar, mournful yet spirited with Lewis’ fiddle conveying equal parts pride and misery. That Gerrard offers up the harmony here makes the experience that much more fulfilling; not surprisingly, it is this song that best captures the spirit of the original recordings. The further treat here is a previously unheard third verse that Dickens once recited to Lewis.
Chad Manning contribute fiddle to a few tunes including “You’ll Get No More of Me,” one of those songs that Dickens might have been referencing in the previous quote; the liner notes don’t make it apparent, but this one must be sung by Patrick Sauber, the Right Hands’ banjo man. “Pretty Bird,” previously released on a Linda Ronstadt compilation a couple years back, comes from sessions for a Rounder Dickens’ tribute album that never emerged.
The Right Hands are Rozum (mandolin, mandola, and guitar) as well as Sauber (banjo and lead guitar on a single track) and Andrew Conklin (bass.) Fiddler Natiana Hargreaves is on five tracks, with Dobro from Mike Witcher on three, including “Working Girl Blues” and Gerrard’s “Mama’s Gonna Stay.”
The album’s vocal showpiece is “Let That Liar Alone,” a song featured on the 1975 Rounder album Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. With Rozum driving the bus, this four-part vocal gospel song will leave listeners mesmerized; Harley Eblem drops in some bass vocals that are impressive. Avoid the devil, folks.
Laurie Lewis places Hazel Dickens with the bluegrass vocal big-three: Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and Lester Flatt. Alice Gerrard is a fearsome master of vocal folk, old-time, and bluegrass. The Hazel and Alice Sessions is not only a worthy tribute to a key bluegrass partnership, but an entertaining and formable collection of music. It’s early of course, but doubtless a strong contender for bluegrass album of the year.