Alice Gerrard turned 80 this July, and while that shouldn’t necessarily matter when it comes to assessing the singer/banjoist’s new album, Follow the Music, it’s worth taking into consideration. Ageism is a real thing in the music world, and that reality is made all the more tragic by the fact that so many of our best artists get better with time. Sadly, ageism is still the safest of all bigotries to harbor; the quest for the new and novel never relents, especially in music. It’s ironic, then, that Gerrard is new and novel to most contemporary listeners; despite the fact that she’s been recording for half a century—a discography that includes historic records with Hazel Dickens, such as the duo’s Smithsonian Folkways’ anthology Pioneering Women of Bluegrass—she’s known primarily in folk and bluegrass circles.
Follow the Music might change that, if ever so slightly. The album was produced by M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, who also plays on the record, and Brad and Phil Cook of Megafaun contribute, as well. These are artists whose own work, while never strictly traditional, understands and engages with the folk idiom; that engagement becomes intimate on Follow the Music, but it never creeps into overfamiliar territory. Taylor and the Brothers Cook mostly fade to the background, leaving Gerrard plenty of clear air and open space in which to thrive. Taylor in particular is used to working with legends: As a member of country-rock revivalists the Court & Spark, he enlisted the help of the Byrds’ Gene Parsons (on 2001’s Bless You) and folk-rock icon Linda Thompson (on 2004’s Dead Diamond River).
To Taylor’s credit, you barely know he’s there: Follow the Music is as sparse as prairie grass, even as it teems with a rich, Appalachian greenness. “Bear Me Away” glides on a twangy drone, as much of a plea for release as a surrender to eternity. The metaphysical underpinnings of the album can’t be ignored, nor should they be: this is spiritually harrowing stuff, from the eight-minute, a cappella paean to predatory lonesomeness “The Vulture” to the almost cosmic resignation of “Goodbyes”. Gerrard’s songs cast long shadows; “Wedding Dress” quivers with violin and Gerrard’s spry yet stately banjo, while her similarly arranged reworking of the standard “Boll Weevil” takes on a sinister, at times lascivious symbolism. “I seen a spider runnin’ up and down the wall/ He must be going to get his ashes hauled,” she sings, and the potency of those delivered lines is enough to the ruffle the spine.
As strong as Gerrard’s gifts as an instrumentalist remain, it’s her voice that consumes Follow the Music. On the honky-tonk romp “Teardrops Falling in the Snow”, she weaves her narrative through the loping rhythm with an easy yet aching cadence, holding notes until they strain from the weightlessness. That masterful, effortless tension—not to mention her ability to veer from breezy to steely at the drop of a chord—makes the album’s title track as much of a ghostly confession as an abridged autobiography. But it’s “Foolish Lovers Waltz” that draws the ear the closest, a feather-soft shuffle in which Gerrard exhales, “Whirl, twirl, spin faster now/ They know they’ll never fall/ But the piper always plays his tune/ In the foolish lovers waltz”. The arc of youth to adulthood to middle age and beyond is bound up in that whirl, and it’s as close as Gerrard comes to meditating on her own longevity. But it’s enough to make Follow the Music a strong case as to why audiences and artists alike would do well to follow her.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1pllEc9