When Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens started playing together at folk music parties around Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s, they were a bit of an odd couple. Dickens was older, from West Virginia. Gerrard was younger; she'd gone to college, but didn't grow up around the music the way Dickens had.
"You know, I was aware that I was the learner in this situation, and Hazel was the teacher," the 80-year-old Gerrard says. "I was learning from her. I was kind of hippie, and she was kind of more streetwise. She was always saying, 'Oh, you've gotta comb your hair, wear a skirt.' "
But when their voices came together in songs about hard times and heartbreak, the chemistry was unmistakable.
Dickens and Gerrard made a handful of records together in the 1960s and '70s, records that inspired other women — including Emmylou Harris — to sing bluegrass, which until then was mostly a men's club. Their music also influenced a younger generation of fans.
"I gravitate toward the darker material in traditional music, and I guess in my own songs too," Gerrard says. "I've never had much success writing a funny song, or anything like that. The high, lonesome sound is what appeals to me, more than the skillet-licker sound."
Taylor concurs: "That's where your voice is at its most compelling," he tells Gerrard. "When I hear you singing the stuff that feels minor-key, that's where it's like, 'That is someone who has mastered the art of singing that sort of material.' "
It's the sound of a master sharing what she's learned with her collaborators, the same way Gerrard learned the craft half a century ago.