Hazel Dickens,
It's Hard to Tell the
Singer from the Song

(Rounder, 2000)

If you've read my previous reviews of Hazel Dickens' albums, you'll know that I think this lady is the goddess of real country music, and this CD re-release of a classic 1987 LP makes me change my opinion not a whit. Dickens has a raw, pure voice that sounds like it's come up from the mines, out of the hollows and down from the mountains in one fell swoop. What makes her singing so powerful and moving is that it is indeed "hard to tell the singer from the song." Dickens has lived a lot of this music, and it shows.

This album is more bluegrass-oriented than some of her others, and she's assembled a fine group of musicians, including Jim Buchanan, Blaine Sprouse and Glen Duncan on fiddles, Mike Compton on mandolin, Russ Barenberg, Tommy Goldsmith and Pat Enright on guitars, Roy Huskey Jr. on bass, Allen Shelton on banjo and Jerry Douglas on dobro, and folks, they don't get much better than that. Some of the above sing backup, along with Kathy Chiavola and Cheryl White Warren.

The album boasts five Dickens' originals, and the first is "You'll Get No More of Me," a great, straight-ahead bluegrass song with great banjo work by Shelton. Dickens' "A Few Old Memories" follows, a moving bluegrass ballad in three-quarter time with some commanding harmonies. This song nicely shows off Dickens' skill as a singer: she can hold a note long and pure, and utilizes some tricky vocal ornamentation. "Do Memories Haunt You" struck me as odd on first hearing, but as my ears grew attuned to the unpredictable melody and rhythm, it grew on me. The two-part harmony on the chorus suffers from a slight lack of intonation, but when it turns into a powerful three-part on the final chorus, you'll be blown away.

"Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" is a rolling, up-tempo song, followed by a mountain lament in "Hills of Home," where Dickens' sorrowful voice bewails the "families scattered off and gone." It's a beautiful ballad saying that no matter what the faults of a mountain home, it's still a simple paradise. The band gets to shine more brightly in "Don't Bother to Cry," and the title tune follows, proving to be the quintessential Hazel Dickens song, rich with pain and love.

"Only a Hobo" follows. This is an early Bob Dylan tune, written in his early years. It smacks strongly of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams' "Luke the Drifter" songs, and is a perfect vehicle for Dickens' raw-boned style, as though she'd been born to sing it. Dickens' original "Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains from your Hands," rather than being a backwoods spiritual, is a primitive and moving anti-war song, and Dickens gives it a chilling reading.

The album's last two songs are "California Cottonfields," a Merle Haggard vehicle that Dickens makes her own, and "Play Us a Waltz," a great tearjerker with a sobbing dobro solo from Jerry Douglas.

As a writer and interpreter of pure country song, Hazel Dickens has no parallel. This is only one more jewel in the crown of this true queen of country.

[ by Chet Williamson ]



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