Hazel Dickens,
By the Sweat of My Brow
(Rounder, 1999)

God bless Hazel Dickens! From the first note of this album, first released in 1984 and now on CD, you're overwhelmed by a fresh wind from the West Virginia hills, and a voice that sounds as old and wise as those rough mountains. It's strong and rawboned and pure, and will quickly draw the line between those who really love country music, and those who like the homogenized, citified "dorks in hats" who offer little more than soft rock with a touch of twang.

"Beyond the River Bend," the opener, will curl your hair. It's sad and beautiful and joyful all at once. "Only the Lonely" is a heartbreaking cry from the depths of the soul, and a solid study in "heart singing" that would benefit any bluegrass or acoustic country vocalist. This is the kind of voice that you find in the true legends: Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe -- and of course Hazel Dickens.

Hazel can handle the blues too, and "By the Sweat of My Brow" is a prime example, filled with hard times workin' for the Man. Still, there's a happy, purgative tone here as well, with a chorus reminiscent of "Footprints in the Snow." "Mama's Hand" returns us to the heartwrenching ballad -- it's a great song, perhaps best known to bluegrass fans from Lynn Morris's fine cover. There's another heartwrencher in "Little Lenaldo," the kind of overly sentimental song that only an artist of Hazel Dickens' stature can handle, but handle it she does, and we accept it as a sincere expression of what she's seen in her life.

"Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again," a great expression of the rage that poverty can create, is followed by a gentle three-part harmony ballad, "Go Away with Me," that Ronstadt, Harris and Parton should consider covering someday. We get to straight-ahead bluegrass with "Your Greedy Heart," featuring some hot banjo pickin', and "Scars from an Old Love" offers some sorrowful wailing that richly befits the title. There's a moving instrumental dialogue here between Jerry Douglas on lap steel and Blaine Sprouse on fiddle. Another ballad, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," tells of the tragedy that befell the American Indian who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. Dickens relates it with honesty and sincerity.

"Old and In the Way" relates the crime of growing old in a style reminiscent of Hank William's "Luke the Drifter" songs, and "Here Today and Gone Tomorrow" closes the album with another weep 'n wailer, this one by Jim and Maxine Brown. The lyrics include such countrified gems as, "Our love will always be a hit and run affair."

Hazel Dickens' singing is pure class-A country throughout this album. The harmonies are chilling, and the instrumental work, much of it done by the Johnson Mountain Boys, is traditional bluegrass and old-time at its finest. This is an album of hurtin' and cryin' songs, performed by the best in the business. If you want slick, commercial country, the usual twangy pop, go ring up Garth "Chris Gaines" Brooks and his fellow hats. But if you long to hear a real voice of the mountains expressing all the pain and loneliness the human heart can bear, make this CD your stop.

[ by Chet Williamson ]



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