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Alice Gerrard

Bitterwsweet – 2013 (Spruce and Maple)

Reviewed by Larry Stephens

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CDs by Alice Gerrard

Alice Gerrard's music has stayed in the vicinity of bluegrass, old-time and roots music, including early collaborations with Hazel Dickens. "Roots" tends to be a generalization used when the music sounds something like, for instance, bluegrass, but doesn't exactly fit there. It can be applied to a variety of slightly better defined genre.

In a backhanded way, that's a good description of Gerrard's music: it's hard to define even though it is embraced by multiple genre fans. That's especially true here because she dips her musical toes into varied influences. She composed and sang all of the songs backed by an excellent group of musicians very often identified with bluegrass. Bryan Sutton plays banjo and guitar, while Todd Phillips is on bass. Rob Ickes provides the Dobro, and Stuart Duncan plays fiddle. Tom Rozum rounds out the group on mandolin and the rarely heard mandolin-banjo. There are other guest artists including producer Laurie Lewis adding vocal harmony on tracks.

The title track is not maudlin; the melody is light, almost lilting, but the message is about looking through a life's collection of memories, some tangible, some just stored in the mind. What to do with them? Hold them close or discard them? The more years you have behind you the more you appreciate this message. My Once True Love is another reflective song that could easily find its way to a country or bluegrass repertoire, while The Stranger is a country-sounding song of lost love.

She switches to the blues when she sings Somebody Have Mercy, with Lewis, Rozum and Chloe Tietjen providing a background chorus. The song rocks along, and it's easy to imagine her in a roadside joint, on a smoky stage, crooning in between sips of iced tea (or something). More jazzy than bluesy are Payday At The Mill, a number about the anticipation of spending the week's check on the weekend, and Sun Keep Shinin' with a bit of ragtime banjo in it. In a complete change of pace, she sings about a woman's wish to have her body float away on a river rather than be buried, her friends standing on the banks waving her goodbye. Sweet South Anna River, with piano and cello, is a quiet, beautiful song. Unexpected Love, on the other hand, has a kickoff that has you thinking Everly Brothers with a classic rock feel to it with a lot of dropping into minor chords. Going the classic country route, Sing Me a Song I Can Try To originated from a chance remark by a bystander, easy flowing with nice instrumental work on the break. In the same mold is Maybe This Time, with an Ickes break that could as well have been Pete Drake a few decades ago. She doesn't forego her old time roots, including Borderland, a minimalist arrangement with with clawhammer banjo and a bowed bass.

Gerrard doesn't aim this CD at a specific genre, and it's impossible to pigeonhole it that way. But many bluegrass fans, and most fans of excellent acoustic music, will enjoy this celebration of her years of living and music.