By Larry Stephens
Hazel Dickens (1935-2011) and Alice Gerrard are two respected pioneers of bluegrass music and women in bluegrass music. It’s a genre dominated by men but, both as a team and independently, they changed bluegrass in ways that will never be forgotten. Their friend and mentee, Laurie Lewis, an established star herself, has released a collection of Hazel and Alice songs that should catch the ear of all bluegrass enthusiasts.
“I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling” is a familiar Bill Monroe composition, recorded by many artists through the years. Lewis has recreated a classic sound with a slow, deliberate beat; the lead singing reminds me of Peter Rowan. I like harmonies and their blend is what you hear from many bands, reminiscent of Flatt & Scruggs and others: not the smooth, almost perfect blend of family groups like the Forbes Family or the Marshall Family but with a slight dissonance. It sounds like bluegrass. They go back to the fold with some Carter Family numbers like “Let That Liar Alone” and “Who’s That Knocking?” Lewis has a new arrangement for some of these songs. “Let That Liar Alone” has an upbeat tempo and the band joins the lead on the chorus with gospel–sounding harmony, people jumping in and out with different parts. It makes a nice change from a song that was very simple when done by the Carter Family and only marginally different in this 2011 performance by Gerrard.
Lewis is joined by longtime musical partner Tom Rozum (mandolin, mandola, guitar, vocals), Patrick Sauber (banjo, vocals) and Andrew Conklin (bass). The musicians provide a good background for the vocals, never overwhelming them but always supporting the singers and carrying them along through the lyrics. Also appearing are a variety of guests including Gerrard on a Hazel Dickens song, “Working Girl Blues.” Another Dickens song is brimming with pathos. “Pretty Bird” is a number you can imagine being sung at dusk beside a hard cabin in the mountains. It was recorded a decade ago by Lewis and Linda Ronstadt for a record that has never been released. “James Alley Blues” is an Americana number with Aoife O’Donovan joining Lewis in an a cappella version.
Like the namesakes of the CD, Gerrard and Dickens, Lewis walks a line between bluegrass, old–time, and Americana/roots music. This is a worthy celebration of the music of two legends in the acoustic music world of bluegrass–and–something–else and should be in the collection of anyone who enjoyed their great voices.