Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard came from different worlds. One from the open-minded neverland of San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest, the other from the green rolling hills of West Virginia. They met through a mutual friend–Mike Seeger, master of old-time folk music and brother of Pete–and started recording their particular brand of intrinsically feminist bluegrass music in 1965, the same year Bob Dylan went electric at Newport. But while Dylan’s bold move shook the folk world in a way that has been discussed ad nauseum ever since, the influence Hazel and Alice have had on fellow musicians has been just as profound and incalculable.
Though they only recorded two albums together, Dickens spun off the success of the duo into a career singing politically charged folk songs, while Gerrard conteinues to maintain a tight allegiance to the power and importance of old-time music. While Dickens passed away in 2011, Gerrard has continued to make new albums, including 2013’s Bittersweet and the following year’s Follow the Music. As it happens, the former was produced by Bay Area singer-songwriter and bluegrass path-forger Laurie Lewis, who has just released a 14-song tribute to Hazel and Alice titled, aptly, The Hazel and Alice Sessions.
For years, Lewis has been a beacon of the Bay Area bluegrass scene – she won a Grammy Award for her tribute to Bill Monroe and has twice been named Female Vocalist of the Year by the IBMA. She is an accomplished artist in her own right, to be sure, and she also possesses a producer’s ear and a teacher’s deep knowledge of the music. All these things came to the fore when I talked with her recently about what she learned from Hazel and Alice. In fact, that’s exactly where our conversation began:
Kim Ruehl: What did you learn from making music with both Hazel and Alice?
Laurie Lewis: With Alice, I think it’s very different. I [didn’t make] that much music with Hazel. I’ve been more involved with Alice’s later things. I produced one of her albums, and all through that I was really impressed with how she was willing to entertain ideas from a producer, which is something I’ve always had a little trouble with. … She was much more open-minded than I am when it comes to my songs. I really appreciated that.
I also just love the fact that her songs are, at the same time, very personal and universal. I guess because they are personal, they’re universal, because we’re all human animals dealing with the same things.
Well, and Hazel did this too – she does such a great job at the essence of folk music, which is to tell your story in a way that acknowledges it’s everybody’s story.
Yeah, you put it better than I did. … As for Hazel, What I really admired about her is her outspokenness – her plain-speaking straight-forwardness, both in her music and in her being.
There’s a famous quote – you know she became friends with Warren Hellman, the billionaire banker who bankrolled the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival out here. He really started that festival because he just loved Hazel Dickens and wanted her to come out here to the festival. He told me they were visiting one day, and he was telling her about the estate where he grew up, [how] there were peacocks [wandering] the grounds and it was really beautiful. She looked at him and she said, “That makes me want to throw up.” [laughs]
For me, what has been inspiring about both of those women, who were very different and made such great music together, is that they were coming from this culture where women were not encouraged to be so outspoken and opinionated. When you’re singing their songs as a Bay Area native, where the culture is a little more open, how do you reckon with that?
For the record, I should say that Alice is from the Bay Area, mostly. Her youth was spent in Berkeley … and then Seattle. She comes from a more liberated area for women, in general.
She totally embraced old-time music and bluegrass. [She] really went to folk music when she went to Antioch College, I think, and then shortly thereafter met Hazel. And you know, I’ve never talked to Alice about this, but I would suspect that Hazel found in Alice somebody who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. … Hazel came from such a different background, in West Virginia. I think she probably was encouraged by meeting Alice, and that probably helped her be able to express herself better, and she just ran with it.
I talked to Alice around the time that Bittersweet came out and I think I remember that she had the opposite sense, that Hazel helped her open up.
That’s really interesting. The best relationships do that for each other, I think.
How did you narrow down the songs to put on this record?
Well, [laughs] we ran out of room. We could’ve kept going. It was so much fun.
We actually have maybe three songs we started that we decided not to put on the album … it was just too long. There were a lot of songs. We narrowed it down because we didn’t want songs that were well-recorded already, from Hazel and Alice records, like “West Virginia, My Home” and “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia.” Things like that, that have been covered by other artists a lot. We decided not to do those and stay more in the deep-catalog stuff. There’s such a wealth of material there. We just pulled out everything we liked, skimmed off the top, and came to  songs.
How important was it for you to stay true to their version, versus adding your own thing to keep the songs moving?
I think it varied from song to song. Something like “Let That Liar Alone,” we changed quite a bit from the way they did it. They were [coming] more from the Carter Family school on that one. I listened to it and I was like, you know with our strengths in the band, we could do a real [Flatt and Scruggs]-style guitar thing. I felt perfectly good about messing with that one.
Then on things like “James Alley Blues” [which features Aoife O’Donovan], which is something Hazel and Alice really took from Richard “Rabbit” Brown and made it into their own song, we decided to keep that one pretty much how they did it.
So it varies from song to song. I don’t think we ever worried about getting too far away from the original. That wasn’t a concern.
Well, and you have a good track record of making traditional music that sounds both current and traditional at the same time.
Yeah, it’s almost impossible, anyway – for me – to take a song from anybody [else] and do it exactly the way they did it. I’m not that kind of musician. I would fall flat doing that. One of my strengths is the ability to interpret, so I just let that come to the fore, rather than trying to imitate.
In the liner notes, you talk about how important it was for you to discover these women in bluegrass music, because your scope up until that point had been all these men. Certainly when I, as a reporter, first started to dig into bluegrass music, I found it was very male-dominated – with the exception of Hazel and Alice, and you, and a handful of others. Do you feel like that’s changed at all? Certainly there are a lot of very important women in bluegrass, but the perception is still, somehow, that it’s a men’s field.
Well, in the traditional bluegrass world, it is still a man’s world, I’d say. It’s still definitely got [probably something like] three times as many men playing bluegrass as women. In the big tent of bluegrass, there’s certainly a lot of women included, who have been schooled in traditional bluegrass and then taken off from there. And I think there’s really a lot of women today who are doing great stuff within the broader bluegrass field.
What excited me about Hazel and Alice when I first heard them is that they were really true to the style, I thought. They weren’t trying to pretty it up or something.
Yeah, and as you said that about the broader bluegrass world, the women in this kind of music who spring immediately to mind tend to be more innovative than straight traditional bluegrass, like Abigail Washburn and Sierra Hull and Sarah Jarosz, and that crowd. What do you think that’s about? That women are more prone to innovation?
Well, I think there’s a lot of reasons but probably one [reason] is that the traditional repertoire tends to be more male-oriented, so they’re looking elsewhere for material to bring into the music. The other thing is that if you’re … not made to feel welcome, let’s say [you’re] a traditional bluegrass banjo player and you want to play that music, it makes sense that you would just start changing it, to make it [into] something that could be accepted, rather than trying to compete on the same field.
I also want to say this, in terms of traditional bluegrass. There’s no preconception that, if you’re a woman, you’re supposed to play this way – like for the guys, if you’re a mandolin player, you should play like Bill Monroe. There’s no preconception like that. The guys don’t even think a woman can play a mandolin like Bill Monroe. [So] you would just naturally go for something else. The field is wide-open. You become Sierra Hull or something.
Or [for banjo] Allison Brown.