2014 has seen a welcome return to the public eye for some of folk music’s longer established women singers and musicians: Bonnie Dobson, Vashti Bunyan, Shirley Collins, Beverley Martyn and Peggy Seeger, to name but a few and it’s heartening to see this trend continue with Follow The Music, the new record by Alice Gerrard, the American bluegrass singer, banjoist, and guitar player. Despite having been performing and recording since the mid-1960s, most notably with Hazel Dickens, Follow The Music is only Alice’s fourth solo album and it features contributions from Megafaun‘s Brad Cook (bass, guitar) and Phil Cook (keyboards).
M.C. Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger) has done a sterling job in his production of the record, foregrounding the essence of Alice’s voice to breathtakingly good effect. Opening with an old favourite, Bear Me Away is stripped right down to the bone, fading in over a skirling, mournful drone of strings over which Alice’s voice is clear and strong, like the sun breaking through the early morning mist as the strings weave around her melody. It’s the kind of performance that raises the hairs on the nape of your neck, but setting the bar this high in the first three minutes isn’t the calculated risk it might seem; this is just for openers. The following midtempo Strange Land continues the introspective mood with a single acoustic guitar holding down the rhythm as the banjo weaves in and out, while Alice’s voice bends the blue notes with an emotive power that far outstrips pretty much every single one of her younger peers.
Wedding Dress, originally released by Peggy Seeger in 1957 on Folkways but believed to be an adaptation of an Appalachian folk song, is quite a well-known song but Alice doesn’t let that get in the way of delivering a rousing stomper in which fiddles and banjos dance with wild abandon as Alice’s honey-sweet voice plies the listener’s ears with generous measures of melodic moonshine. I could listen to this on repeat for hours. I think I probably already have.
Drums and electric bass make an appearance in You Take Me For Granted, a slow, sad ballad at the boundaries of bluegrass and country whose harmonies alone would make the most uncaring listener pay attention. The mandolin and slide guitar hold each other close as they sway gently through the middle eight like two lovers sharing one last dance together.
The full band stick around for the uptempo title track Follow The Music, whose lyrics offer good advice to the most world-weary of travellers. This is perhaps the most radio-friendly of the songs on the album and serves to demonstrate not only Alice’s vocal prowess but also her ear for a good song, whatever label you may care to hang on it – and her ability to make it her own. Alice’s choice of a traditional Delta blues song, Boll Weevil, is further evidence of this talent and a gentle reminder of how steeped she is in America’s musical traditions. There have been many versions of this song, which is generally credited to Charley Patton, although I’m most familiar with Lead Belly’s recording for Alan Lomax (as reissued by Rounder Records). Alice’s version is a long way from Mr Ledbetter’s but is no less true to the spirit of the song for that. A rocksteady rhythm holds everything together (making an interesting contrast to the wandering tempo of Lead Belly’s version!) behind Alice’s full-throated holler and the fiddle motif that reappears throughout gets under your skin as sure as eggs is eggs.
Love Was The Price continues the bluesy theme with hushed, brushed cymbals, the deepest of basslines and a lonesome bottleneck guitar providing a sparse but more than adequate setting for Alice’s slow, smoky tale of woe. Teardrops Falling In The Snow takes the old description of blues music as being “sad music that makes you feel good” and stands it on its head with an almost jaunty, old-time country music arrangement over which Alice’s sweet crooning swoops and dives, effortlessly breaking your heart at fifty paces.
Foolish Lover’s Waltz is a reworking of the title track of the Weems/Gerrard Band’s 2004 album of the same name and back-to-back listenings of the two versions is an informative exercise. The most immediately noticeable differences are in the arrangements and the production, although the two elements go hand in hand. The Weems/Gerrard Band arrangement is very full, with fiddle, organ and guitars as well as the vocal interplay and harmonies between Mark Weems and Alice; all of which work well in their own right, but with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the production seems almost hesitant and the overall effect is more akin to listening to a very detailed demo. In contrast, Alice’s solo version is uncluttered – gone are the fiddle, organ and Mark’s harmonies – but the spacious production allows the song to breathe. It’s taken at a slightly faster tempo with the bass much more to the fore, providing a foil to Alice’s world-weary yet crystal voice, while the guitars weave in and out.
If you’ve never heard Alice’s music and are wondering what all the fuss is about, then penultimate track The Vulture will blow away all your doubts. In one eight-minute a capella tour de force, Alice not only shows why she has been so highly regarded as one of American folk music’s most influential singers of the last fifty years, but also demonstrates that she’s absolutely without equal and in a class of her own. The Vulture captures an utterly spellbinding and electrifying performance which leaves me struggling for words and I can only repeat what Emmylou Harris said earlier this year: “She is the real deal with the right stuff”.
Goodbyes closes the record with a softly-strummed reflection on the sadness of parting from a loved one. Alice’s voice hits all the right high notes and the low notes, both literally and lyrically, wrapping you in one last close embrace before leaving; it couldn’t be a more fitting end to a record which covers more ground in 45 minutes than many musicians will in a lifetime.
Follow the Music is a superb record in every way, it exudes a gentleness borne of strength, revealing its heart and soul, its depth and beauty, in its own sweet time, over successive listens. In my opinion it’s easily the equal of 1994’s Pieces Of My Heart, regarded by many as her finest work and is already near the top of my personal shortlist for best album of 2014.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Released 20 Oct 2014 via Tompkins Square
Order via Amazon