Sing Me Back Home: The D.C. Tapes, 1965-1969, Free Dirt Records ★★★★
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard were steeped in folk, bluegrass,, a, d country tradition when they released their first album in 1965. Between the duo’s commanding approach to the music and their pioneering status as a distaff duo in what had been an almost exclusively male-occupied realm, Dickens and Gerrard became an important presence in and influence on the folk scene of the era (not to mention subsequent generations).
Dickens and Gerrard were from West Virginia and Washington, respectively, but they were headquartered in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area by the mid-sixties. During the surprisingly long period between their first two albums, they would convene to work out new material for their repertoire. They recorded these practice sessions at home, probably just for reference, with plenty of quotidian ambience in the background, including the occasional clamor of children. Thanks to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Folklife Collection, which handles Gerrard’s archives, a historic cache of those home recordings from 1965 to 1969 have been shared with the world.
On their early albums, the duo was backed by brilliant players like mandolinist David Grisman, fiddler Chubby Wise, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger, but the off-the-cuff performances captured here are strictly Dickens and Gerrard on guitar, banjo, and autoharp. The stripped-down setting and the lo-fi feel only add to the appeal, giving the album the intense, unvarnished vibe of an Alan Lomax field recording. The minimal arrangements lend the pair’s keening harmonies even more impact.
Sitting at the kitchen table with Dickens and Gerrard, we get a glimpse not only of their working process, hearing them get a handle on new material, but of the breadth of their sensibilities. The duo’s original albums contained songs by a handful of bluegrass and country artists, but these nineteen tracks shine a brighter light than ever on Dickens and Gerrard’s aesthetic purview.
On one hand are tunes from expected sources, like a rollicking version of Ralph Stanley’s “Bound to Ride” with some impressive banjo picking from Gerrard, and a boldly bounding take on The Louvin Brothers’ “Are You All Alone.” But we also hear an autoharp-assisted take on the Everly Brothers hit “Bye Bye Love,” and country hits of the day like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and Dolly Parton’s “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad).” Between the repertoire and the candid performances, this collection is both a historic find and a fan’s delight.