ALICE GERRARD has been a pioneering figure in bluegrass and a vital voice in folk music for the past five decades. Her recordings in the '60s and '70s with Hazel Dickens live forever in the canon of American music.
Gerrard has taught at universities and founded a publication dedicated to old-time music. She continues to keep a busy performance schedule, including two sets at Pickathon this weekend. In her spare time, she's a mother to four and grandmother to nine.
Yet it's her 2014 album, Follow the Music—produced by Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor—that has spurred a late-career surge of interest in Gerrard from unexpected corners. In a glowing review, Pitchfork praised the album's "rich, Appalachian greenness," and whoever runs the Grammy Awards nominated Follow the Music for Best Folk Album last year.
At 81 years old, Gerrard is "taken aback" by the recent attention, she says. And a little conflicted.
"I respect that and I'm honored by that and I accept that. However, the timing..." she says, her voice trailing off. "It's coming at a time when I really don't want to get out there." She tells a story of complaining about a gig to a young songwriter friend, who replied: "Well, it's good for your career."
"I don't give a shit about my career. I love doing stuff with my dog. I do a lot of stuff with my dog Polly. She's a rescue with some issues," she says. "I less and less like packing my suitcase and going. I like to be home."
It's hard to blame Gerrard for being ready to coast on her legendary status. But it's also hard to blame folks for latching onto Follow the Music, a beautifully low-key collection of traditionals and originals in which Taylor and Megafaun's Phil and Brad Cook, among others, give Gerrard's sprightly banjo and her perfectly seasoned voice space to shine.
Taylor approached Gerrard about making the album after serving as her graduate assistant when she was teaching a course at Duke University. "He applied because he wanted to meet me," she says. She was resistant at first, but eventually agreed to the project, even though she was mostly unaware of Taylor's music, Hiss Golden Messenger's stature, or the modern roots-music scene in general.
"He had a vision," she says. "He really did have this thing in his mind about what he wanted to hear."
Turns out Taylor's vision fit nicely with the path Gerrard has been traveling for decades. First attracted to unconventional sounds in pop songs (such as the jaunty harpsichord in Rosemary Clooney's 1951 hit "Come on-a My House") and then to the DIY freedom of folk music, Gerrard was hooked for life when she first heard Harry Smith's seminal Anthology of American Folk Music.
"I fell so in love with the sounds that came out of that thing," she says. "There was just something about them that resonated with me, and they still do."