Bittersweet – Alice Gerrard

This review is a contribution from Louisa Branscomb, one of bluegrass music’s most prolific and celebrated songwriters.

Do the math: a legendary singer-songwriter singing her own, plus a producer who understands the impressive scope of the material and how to render each and every song a gem (because her own music has the same remarkable breadth), musicians who are all about the song, and an engineer who knows how to use the knobs so that you never know knobs were used. Quite obviously, then, the result is that Alice Gerrard’s new CD Bittersweet is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Guided by producer Laurie Lewis, with support from friend Laurelyn Dossett, this project speaks of musical competence and integrity from beginning to end — beautiful, artfully executed songs that reflect Gerrard’s substantial, if not iconic, musical path, and all the skill that we expect from a founding figure in the modern folk/roots genre. Known for her years with Hazel Dickens in the duo Hazel and Alice, here Alice steps forward to remind us that she is present and accounted for, and still writing and singing great songs. Having a great gig or a great song in the past is a blessing and a curse. We wonder if we will be typed as a “one trick pony,” and have to work a little harder to break the mold of others’ expectations. Between the lines, the message here is as gently powerful as the songs themselves: “I’m Alice Gerrard.”

It’s nice when it’s hard to pick a favorite because all tracks are consistently pleasing and excellently executed – which is no small feat, since the styles and rhythms span the gamut of acoustic stylistic approaches. There’s the haunting a cappella ballad (Lonely Night), lovely waltzes (Sweet South Anna River), a song of human struggle reminiscent of older folk music (Borderland), several “true country” numbers, an old time flavored song, and the lovely up tempo contemporary acoustic song (Bittersweet). No need for “typing” here. There are just great songs that can be produced in a variety of genres from bluegrass to country to Americana. Good songs plant themselves and wait to see how we will dress them. In this case, the musical cast succeeds at capturing the essence of each of these very diverse songs. This is no surprise, since Laurie Lewis is at the helm, herself a veritable virtuoso of variety in acoustic music styles. The supporting cast includes familiar master musicians Bryan Sutton, Todd Phillips, Stuart Duncan, Tom Rozum, and Rob Ickes, with Ben Surratt at the board, and Laurie herself contributing many of the harmony vocals.

While nothing comes off as a “killer song” that knocks you over, nothing is trying to, nothing needs to, and more importantly, it would be disruptive if one did. It’s a 13-song cascade of heart-felt, consistently in-the-pocket compositions and performances. These are delightfully different tunes, carried along by Alice’s smooth, earthy, authentic vocals – perfect, of course, for songs that tell stories of rivers, mountains, lost love, and stories fading in time. My favorite is the title cut – with its lilting rhythm, plucked fiddle, and easy-on-the-ears melody; a masterpiece of writing, playing, and production in itself.

Bittersweet is a listen that you will never tire of. It promises unexpected discoveries of charming musical moments each time you listen. It’s ok that new cars hold only one CD when you have one like this.

Songwriters have the daunting job of listening deeply to the soul of the culture of their times, and rendering this soul – no matter how torn or searching or ragged its nature – into songs. Alice is one of the few still among us who has breathed and transcribed the Appalachian and American soul from the heyday of protest folk music (’60s) across the decades. This CD shows her evolution over the years, right up to more contemporary pieces. We owe her a debt of gratitude for her tireless deep listening, and giving back in words and melody. Many of us in bluegrass and roots music have ridden on your shoulders, Alice, whether we knew it or not. And your new music seems to say: I’m still here, and you were never heavy.

May the sun keep shinging on you, Alice. And don’t be a stranger.