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Gail Ceasar’s music mixes spirituality, blues and bluegrass

Feb 2023 23

Most of the songs on Gail Ceasar’s debut album fit its title, “Guitar Woman Blues.” But alongside such blues standards as “Sweet Home Chicago” is a version of “Rocky Top,” a tune usually performed by country and bluegrass players. Bluegrass is a significant influence on the rural Virginia musician, whose distinctive vocal style seems to owe more to ethereal Appalachian balladry than to the muddier sounds of the Mississippi Delta.

“I first heard bluegrass in the place where I bought my first guitar,” said the laconic Ceasar in a phone interview. “There were a lot of guys sitting around playing bluegrass. I liked the music. I started listening to it and learning how to play it.”

The singer-guitarist’s album was recently released by the North Carolina-based Music Maker Foundation, which supports the careers of low-income rural musicians, mostly African American and generally over 55. Ceasar, who’s 39, and three other acts will play at a free Music Maker Foundation showcase Sunday at the National Gallery of Art.

“She’s like the antithesis of contemporary American culture in some ways. She’s not caught in trends and fads. She’s not materialistic,” said Tim Duffy, who founded Music Maker Foundation 29 years ago. “She’s Buddha-like. She’s so spiritual.”

“Guitar Woman Blues,” named for a Ceasar original, was made in a two-hour session at the musician’s home in Pittsville. Each song features just the musician’s voice and guitar, and all 12 numbers were recorded in single takes. In a calamitous coda to the session, the house was subsequently destroyed in a fire.

“When her home burned down, she didn’t ask for anything,” Duffy recalled. “Finally, she realized her guitars were completely gone, so she let us buy her a Martin, a Fender Stratocaster and an amp.”

The album was recorded entirely with acoustic guitar. “I play my electric around the house. And I play my electric at church,” Ceasar explained. One of the spirituals she often performs during services, “The Refuge of My Soul,” concludes “Guitar Woman Blues.”

Aside from church, there are few places for Ceasar to perform in her hometown. And while this Sunday’s concert is not her first Music Maker Foundation show, touring is complicated by the fact that the singer-guitarist is legally blind.

“I have a little trouble getting around, especially in strange places,” Ceasar acknowledged. “When I play, I may need a little help getting onstage.”

“But,” she added, “it doesn’t affect my playing.”

Feb. 26 at 1:15 p.m. National Gallery of Art East Building mezzanine, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. nga.gov. Free; no registration required.

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