TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard each had a successful folk music career before they started recording together the country and bluegrass music they loved. Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Naomi Judd have all cited Dickens and Gerrard as inspirational performers. And now we can hear the birth of their musical partnership on "Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969." Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU ALL ALONE")
HAZEL DICKENS AND ALICE GERRARD: (Singing) Are you all alone with a memory? Now that I am gone, darling, are you missing me?
ALICE GERRARD: (Singing) The day that I kissed you and told you goodbye, your lips told me that you would wait. But your lips deceived me and told me a lie while your heart was sealing my fate.
DICKENS AND GERRARD: (Singing) Are you all...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Alice Gerrard's voice lifts and rises from the bottomless despair of "Are You All Alone." And Hazel Dickens' vocal joins her in the chorus to affirm a unity through loneliness. The song was written and recorded by the Louvin Brothers in the 1950s. Unlike Charlie and Ira Louvin, connected by blood, Dickens and Gerrard were a bit of an odd couple.
Dickens, raised poor in the coal mining territory of West Virginia, and Gerrard, a classically trained singer approaching music from a rather more academic angle, were separated by a decade in age when they began running into each other in the lively folk scenes of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in the '60s. They found that their voices meshed well and that they shared an eclectic approach to the music that they enjoyed singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BYE BYE LOVE")
DICKENS AND GERRARD: (Singing) Bye bye, love. Bye bye, happiness. Hello, loneliness. I think I'm going to cry. Bye bye, love. Bye bye, sweet caress. Hello, emptiness. I feel like I could die. Bye bye, my love, goodbye.
TUCKER: That's "Bye Bye Love," a big pop hit for The Everly Brothers in 1957. It suggests the range of music to be found in "Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969," previously unreleased recordings of Dickens and Gerrard, the two of them sitting in a studio, working out the harmonies and playing, at various times, guitar, autoharp and banjo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO HARD TIMES")
DICKENS AND GERRARD: (Singing) I got a bale of flour, Lord, I got a bucket of lard. I got a bale of flour, Lord, I got a bucket of lard. I ain't got no blues, got chickens in my back yard. Got corn in my crib...
TUCKER: That's "No Hard Times," written by Jimmie Rodgers, frequently called the father of country music. It's a song Gerrard refers to as being re-genderized by her and Dickens. Both were highly aware of being women making music in a predominantly male music scene, and their close study of the songs they admired also required that they think about what it meant to interpret first-person male points of view. In a 1987 FRESH AIR interview with Dickens, who died in 2011, she told Terry that she was, quote, "the only woman writing songs for women to sing that she was aware of." One of the high points of this album is their interpretation of a song written by another musical feminist, Dolly Parton, on "In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)."
(SOUNDBITE OF HAZEL DICKENS AND ALICE GERRARD'S "IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS (WHEN TIMES WERE BAD)")
DICKENS AND GERRARD: (Singing) We'd get up before sun-up to get the work done up. We'd work in the fields till the sun had gone down. We've stood and we've cried as we helplessly watched a hailstorm beating our crops to the ground. We've gone to bed hungry many nights in the past in the good old days, when times were bad.
TUCKER: One of the accomplishments of the music here is the way Dickens and Gerrard appropriated the tradition of duo singing - until this point, primarily the province of brother acts like The Louvin Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse and Bill and Charley Monroe. Listen to the title song, Merle Haggard's then-current hit, "Sing Me Back Home." Here, Dickens and Gerrard's voices achieve a thrillingly piercing harmony that echoes Gerrard's autoharp.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING ME BACK HOME")
DICKENS AND GERRARD: (Singing) I recall last Sunday morning when a choir from off the street came in to sing a few old gospel songs. And I heard him tell the singers, there's a song my momma sang. Won't you sing it once before you move along? Won't you sing me back home?
TUCKER: In their more formal, commercially released albums issued in the 1970s, Dickens and Gerrard were backed by traditional bluegrass units. On "The DC Tapes," you hear them unvarnished, or as Gerrard describes it - unplugged, unproduced, unaccompanied except by ourselves, warts and all, wailing our hearts out.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. After we take a short break, film critic Justin Chang will review "First Man" starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.