At 89 years old, old-time music community leader, Grammy nominee, and Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame inductee Alice Gerrard continues to place her music making and creativity decidedly in the present. While every lyric she utters and every note she picks feels effortlessly timeless, storied, and burnished – by her lived experiences and by days, weeks, and months of toil – her songs are ultimately forward-looking, leaning into the future with intention and wisdom. They also feel paradoxically light and joyous while at the same time they stand at the nexus of “what used to be” and “what will come.” Gerrard holds this position with equal power, agency, and insight.
Her latest album, the upcoming self-produced Sun to Sun, out October 20 on Sleepy Cat Records, captures the ineffable of the particular center-of-the-Venn-diagram that she inhabits, as a song collector, a knowledge bearer, and a folk music synthesizer of the world’s woes and struggles for justice. As witness to more than a handful of iterations of the modern movement for equal rights and racial, gender, and economic justice, Gerrard is able to challenge the systems and powers that be in grounded, measured, and realistic ways – ways that never limit possibilities for the future. (A remarkable trait in a creative who uses “old-timey” media and formats as her primary form of expression.)
“Remember Us,” the album’s stunning lead single, is – as Gerrard says via press release – an ode to “all the departed whose shoulders we stand on, whose work and lives we benefit from, who came or were transported against their will to this land.” Sung in stark a capella by Gerrard, Tatiana Hargreaves, and Reed Stutz, the track feels pulled directly from the gospel singing traditions of the American South that each stem from Black and formerly enslaved musical traditions. It speaks into community spaces the names, lives, and souls of so many Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks who lost their lives at the hands of empire and the police state.
“Old Jim Crow” makes the apropos point that segregation and racial apartheid in our country were not that long ago nor that far away, calling the partisan gerrymandering, political divisiveness, and waves of hatred befalling the U.S. exactly what they are: a new kind of the Old Jim Crow. “Keep It Off the Seat,” a Gerrard-penned modern classic, was inspired by the North Carolina General Assembly’s transphobic HB2 measure from 2016 – that also inspired our showcase, Shout & Shine, at IBMA in Raleigh and eventually saw Gerrard singing “Keep It Off the Seat” from the Shout & Shine stage in 2017 with Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer, Hargreaves, and more. At her live shows, she encourages her audience to sing along during the rousing chorus: “Who cares where you pee? Just keep it off the seat!”
These themes and through lines would be notable in any bluegrass and old-time forebear’s catalog, but here, among Gerrard’s lifelong discography, they are certainly not outliers but continuations of a career that has always been committed to telling untold stories, singing unsung songs, spotlighting and amplifying invisible voices. Gerrard’s age, her position as a roots music elder, reinforces the importance of these subjects, and leaves subtle, existential fingerprints over the entire album. We know Gerrard’s commitment to singing and standing in truth, but in these songs and in this collection, we feel that commitment more than see it, we sense it just as strongly as we view it.
Sun to Sun was tracked in Durham, North Carolina – Gerrard’s home turf for decades, now – with a collection of collaborators and musicians pulled directly from her immediate community. Hargreaves, one of the most prominent fiddlers in the old-time and bluegrass scenes of late, has worked for Gerrard for a number of years as an archivist and assistant of sorts and features heavily on the album; Stutz, an in-demand multi instrumentalist who also straddles the fences between folk, bluegrass, old-time, and Americana, plays guitar and banjo. Other credits include first-rate sacred steel player DaShawn Hickman, Hasee Ciaccio on bass, Marcy Marxer guesting on guitar and cello banjo, Gail Gillespie, Nick Falk, and soulful songwriter, singer, producer, etc. Phil Cook – who collaborated with Gerrard on her 2014 album, Follow the Music – as well.
It makes perfect sense that a community builder such as Gerrard, who has always prioritized the most human aspects of roots music in her creative output, would be able to construct a collection of songs that feels pointed and convicting, but also organic and natural. Sun to Sun approaches heavy topics with ease, as a pair of good friends over a cup of tea on the porch can seemingly solve all of the world’s problems with passion, joy, and unbridled care for the forgotten and invisible among us. Gerrard calls on her folks, her musical and personal communities as well as her listeners and fans, to join with her in the journey she has begun and that we must continue, from sun to sun to sun to sun.
To celebrate Alice Gerrard’s selection as our October Artist of the Month, we’ll be diving back into our archive of Sitch Sessions, interviews, posts, and stories that highlight her incredible music – and her exemplary activism through that music and across the decades. In the meantime, enjoy our Essential Alice Gerrard playlist below, plus two of our BGS favorite Sitch Sessions of all time that feature Gerrard (viewable above), and watch for our Artist of the Month feature to come later in October.
Photo Credit: Libby Rodenbough