AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
More than 60 years into her career, trailblazing folksinger Alice Gerrard is still exploring the darker corners of the folk music tradition. Gerrard recorded some of the most influential folk albums in the 1960s with her collaborator, the late Hazel Dickens. Gerrard just celebrated her 80th birthday, and she's made an album with a new collaborator, an up-and-coming rocker who wasn't even born when Gerrard made her first records. NPR's Joel Rose has their story.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Alice Gerrard is best known for being half of one of country music's first female duos.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COAL MINER'S BLUES")
GERRARD AND DICKENS: (Singing) Some blues are just blues. Mine are the miner's blues. Some blues are just blues. Mine are the miner's blues.
ROSE: Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens started playing together at folk music parties around Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s. Gerrard says they were sort of an odd couple. Dickens was older, from West Virginia. Gerrard was younger. She'd gone to college, but she didn't grow up around the music the way Dickens had.
ALICE GERRARD: You know, I was aware that I was the learner in this situation, and Hazel was the teacher. I was learning from her. I was kind of hippie, you know, and she was kind of more streetwise, you know? And she was always saying, oh, you've got to comb your hair. And you've got to (laughing) wear a skirt. (Laughter).
ROSE: But when their voices came together in songs about hard times and heartbreak, the chemistry was unmistakable.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY'RE AT REST TOGETHER")
GERRARD AND DICKENS: (Singing) A boy and girl once loved each other more than this world will ever know. But the girl, she took that old consumption. It broke the boy's heart, you know.
ROSE: Dickens and Gerrard made a handful of records together in the 1960s and '70s. And they inspired other women, including Emmylou Harris, to sing bluegrass, which until then was mostly a men's club. Their music also influenced a younger generation of fans.
MC TAYLOR: It fell very genuine. It felt simple, in a way. And I don't use that as a pejorative term at all. It felt like the songs were the most important thing.
ROSE: MC Taylor is a singer and songwriter who performs under the name Hiss Golden Messenger. He also produced Alice Gerrard's new album. But long before he met Gerrard, Taylor was a fan of her records.
TAYLOR: I remember coming across the Hazel and Alice record, the gray one with the really striking photograph of the two of them on the cover.
GERRARD: We're just looking right into the camera. And there's something kind of spare about it, too. And I think that was true of our music on that recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO STRANGER")
GERRARD AND DICKENS: (Singing) Get up around her. Let a working girl lay down. Get up around her. And let a working girl lay down. You are around her, and you're all out and down.
ROSE: When the duo broke up in the 1970s, Alice Gerrard kept learning about traditional music.
GERRARD: I've always sort of had one foot in music to play and then one foot in documenting the music and the musicians.
ROSE: In the 1980s, Gerrard moved from Washington, D.C. to southwestern Virginia to be closer to the old-time musicians who still lived there. She and a friend started interviewing them.
GERRARD: We loved the music, and we wanted to know everything about the people who played the music and what their lives were like. And we didn't have any money; we just had these cassette recorders. And we just turned them on and got a lot of really great stuff.
ROSE: Over the years, she's interviewed Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass and guitarist and singer Elizabeth Cotten, the composer of the folk standard, "Freight Train."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GERRARD: Do you like traveling around, Elizabeth?
ELIZABETH COTTEN: Well, if I could get to a place without traveling, I'd like it better. (Laughter).
ROSE: Later, Alice Gerrard moved to North Carolina. She founded and edited a music magazine called The Old-Time Herald. But she was no academic. In fact, Gerrard says she dropped out of Antioch College without graduating. So when she was invited to teach a class on music and folklore at Duke University and the University of North Carolina a few years ago, Gerrard was a little taken aback. Luckily, she had some help from longtime fan MC Taylor.
TAYLOR: Remember the day you asked me what a syllabus was?
GERRARD: (Laughter). Yes I do. What's a syllabus? And he said...
TAYLOR: That was an amazing question.
GERRARD: I had heard the word, of course, but I just really, you know - now I really had to know what it was 'cause I had to sort of produce one.
ROSE: Taylor was a grad student in folklore at UNC. He helped Gerrard get through the class, and they became friends. At the same time, Taylor's band, Hiss Golden Messenger, was attracting more attention. And they started talking about making an album together.
TAYLOR: You listen to her older records, and the instrumentation is quite sparse. And I wanted to stick to that aesthetic because I wanted her voice, and I wanted the songs up front.
ROSE: That album, called "Follow The Music," came out this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOLL WEEVIL")
GERRARD: (Singing) Boll weevil told the farmer, you'd better treat me right. Gonne eat up all your cotton, sleep in your grain rigs at night.
ROSE: Alice Gerrard says she's always been drawn to tragic songs and murder ballads. And she's never felt the same passion for the happier side of country music.
GERRARD: I gravitate toward the darker material in traditional music and in - I guess in my own songs, too. I've never had much success writing a really - a funny song or anything like that. The high, lonesome sound is what appeals to me more than the skillet liquor sound, for example. You know, I like that too. But the stuff that really resonates at a deep level is the lonesome stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAR ME AWAY")
GERRARD: (Singing) Long, long ago, in the days of my childhood, fond were the memories when I stood at Mother's knee.
TAYLOR: That's where your voice is at its most compelling, when I hear you singing the stuff that feels minor key. That's where it's like, that is someone that has mastered the art of singing that sort of material.
ROSE: It's the sound of a master sharing what's she's learned with her collaborators; the same way Alice Gerrard learned the craft half a century ago. Joel Rose, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLLOW THE MUSIC")
GERRARD: (Singing) Follow the music. Follow the music home. Follow the music home.
CORNISH: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Our theme music was composed by BJ Leiderman and arranged by Jim Pew. Renee Montagne is away and will be back later this month. I'm Audi Cornish.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.