The Hazel and Alice Sessions
In the mid-1960s, two women from very different origins (Alice Gerrard from the West Coast, Hazel Dickens from West Virginia) blew apart the male-dominated bluegrass world. With singing that was closer to the hard-edged style of early Monroe and Stanley Brothers bluegrass, Hazel and Alice challenged the expectations of women in bluegrass. They blazed a trail still followed not only by the many great women of bluegrass who came after, but by stars of Americana and country like Emmylou Harris and The Judds. Ten years later, in the mid-1970s in California, fiddler, singer, songwriter, and bandleader Laurie Lewis was looking for inspiration. As Lewis told the Berkeleyside, “I had heard ballsy women singers on the local bluegrass scene, but I hadn’t heard other women doing that on recordings.” Chancing on a copy of Hazel and Alice’s first LP, Lewis knew she’d found her muses.
Now, over forty years later and with a career as a pioneering trailblazer in bluegrass and roots music herself, Laurie Lewis returns to her roots with an album-length tribute to Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard that joyfully re-introduces us to two of the genre’s most important artists. The Hazel and Alice Sessions brings together Laurie Lewis and her band The Right Hands for a fresh look at Hazel and Alice’s classic and lesser-known songs. Laurie has chosen some of the sweetest, the toughest, the most spirited of Hazel and Alice’s songs for album, and, not one for imitation, has reworked the songs as well. Recorded at Lewis’ own studios in Berkeley, California, The Hazel and Alice Sessions became an opportunity to bring in some of Lewis’ best musical friends for collaborations, like Americana rising star Aoife O’Donovan, or the great Linda Ronstadt, who joins Lewis for an a cappella duet to close out the album. Over 25 years of singing together, Laurie and her musical partner Tom Rozum have perfected the art of duet singing. Tom is also a versatile mandolin player: a master of the Monroe-style downstroke who plays equally tasteful back-up to the sweetest ballad. Laurie and Tom are joined by fellow Right Hands band members: masterful Bay Area bluegrass banjoist Patrick Sauber (whose father is a long-time musical companion of Gerrard), and eclectic bassist Andrew Conklin. Other guests include young old-time fiddle prodigy Tatiana Hargreaves, longtime Right Hands alumnus Chad Manning, and in-demand dobroist Mike Witcher. Alice Gerrard herself guests on “Working Girl Blues,” bringing the project full circle.
Having collaborated with Dickens and Gerrard over the years, and having produced Gerrard’s 2013 album, Bittersweet (her first album of original songs), few people know the music of Hazel and Alice as well as Laurie Lewis. Still, it was a tough challenge to approach these songs. Nobody can replicate Hazel and Alice’s vocal blend: their voices were riveting -- like the sound of the wind in the mountains. But Laurie Lewis knows a thing or two about making riveting bluegrass music, and today she’s just as much a trailblazer as Hazel and Alice were in their time.