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Bluegrass icon Alice Gerrard on her trailblazing career
Geoff Bennett: The Bluegrass duo of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard blaze trails for female folk singers. With their unique harmonies, they perfected their version of the so-called high load some sound, a signature of old time American music. Hazel and Alice were also civil rights activists using their music to speak out politically. To celebrate the pair's legacy, The Smithsonian recently released a selection of remastered and updated versions of their music. Ali Rogin recently spoke to Alice Gerrard about her trailblazing career.
Ali Rogin: Alice Gerrard, congratulations on the reissuing of your -- and Hazel Dickens, two albums as well as the collection of music you put out through Smithsonian folkways. These albums are going to be available for streaming for the first time, presumably opening you up to a lot of new listeners. What does that mean to you?
Alice Gerrard, Bluegrass Artist: Streaming, what's that? So yeah I'm aware of that. And I'm very pleased at the way Smithsonian folkways has gotten behind this recording. And I think it's great. I mean, the more people that get introduced to this music, the better as far as I'm concerned.
Ali Rogin: For people not familiar with the genre of bluegrass, before you and Hazel, there weren't that many women who were fronting their own groups. What did it mean to you to be kind of an outlier at that point?
Alice Gerrard: Honestly, we didn't think about it like that. We were just sort of hanging around doing this stuff. We weren't thinking in terms of careers. But it admittedly Hazel had some -- what I would call difficult experiences, you know, it was more often than not, OK, let's let the girl singer sing a song now. And so, it was not probably as easy for her at the time. But then when she kind of came into the circle of people like me and my husband and other people in the area who were also playing this music, and they just accepted her and encouraged her.
Ali Rogin: Your voices just meld in this incredible harmony. When did you realize that you really had something special?
Alice Gerrard: I listened to her for a very long time before I ever sang with her. You know, we had these music parties where all we did was play music, you know, every weekend or sometimes their weeknight, people would come over and bring their banjos and fiddles and guitars and we take turns getting up and being a band. And somebody suggested that she and I sing together. So, we tried it? And then we just kind of kept doing it.
Ali Rogin: Why did it take you so long to record after you started playing together? Because it was meant in the 60s. But you didn't record until the 70s together?
Alice Gerrard: I think we probably weren't even thinking about that. We just that was just this thing. You know, when music lives with you, it becomes an accompaniment to your everyday life. And you just do it in your life. The reason we started was Peter Segal, who came down to go to a bluegrass festival and then the Bluegrass Festival got rained out. And he heard about this party and came to the party. And Hazel and I were singing at the party. And he, you know, he really liked the way we sound it and asked us, why don't we want to do a record and we were like, what? What do you mean? And so that was how that started?
Ali Rogin: You toured with Hazel on the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project in the 60s and 70s, which was a gathering of black and white performers together to make a statement about civil rights. Why was that important to you to be a part of?
Alice Gerrard: I was a political liberal. My parents were political liberals. And I think that Hazel she was politically liberal, too. I mean, she -- you know, she grew up in right next to all the coal mine injustice and exploitation of that part of the South. So even if she might not have labeled it as politically liberal, you know, I was with her. She lived with that. It was Bernice Reagon, who formed Sweet Honey in the Rock and was a wonderful singer. And she and Anne Romaine from Gastonia, North Carolina, were working in Atlanta, Georgia, and it was their idea to put together a tour of black and white musicians who would tour around the South.
Ali Rogin: And you have remained very politically outspoken. You performed in fact, just earlier this year on at the National Mall on the same day, the Dobbs decision over abortion came out.
Alice Gerrard: It seems ironic to me that this is a festival honoring women and their achievements, while at the same time the Supreme Court has set them back at least 50 years.
Ali Rogin: Why is it important for you to remain politically outspoken?
Alice Gerrard: I think these are really bad, difficult times and we're on the edge of basically catastrophe if we don't turn things around here. And so, I feel like, you know, when things move me, I feel like I need to write about it. I wrote a song about Donald Trump once, and we performed it here in Chapel Hill. And I don't always write political songs either. But sometimes I do and I think there's a need for them.
Ali Rogin: And you are still creating prolifically. Alice Gerrard, thank you so much for joining us.
Alice Gerrard: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure talking with you.