Hazel Dickens – Coal Miner’s Sister
“People said that hearing Delia Byrd sing was like hearing heartbreak in a whole new key. Her voice could make you sweat, make you move, make you want to lift your hands and pull justice out of the air.”
— Dorothy Allison, Cavedweller
These lines, taken from Allison’s latest novel, describe a fictional rock ‘n’ roller in the Janis Joplin mold. But they could just as easily be about Hazel Dickens, a singer whose piercing, rough-hewn wail, an ache as raw as a wound laid bare, can evoke a woman in childbirth, a mother ravaged by grief, or the prophet Jeremiah crying out in the wilderness. At its most lovelorn, Dickens’ voice is also perhaps the purest embodiment of Hank Williams’ lonesome whippoorwill.
Take “Forsaken Lover”, the obscure Woody Guthrie plaint that opens Heart Of A Singer, an album of duo and trio recordings that Dickens made late last year for Rounder Records with Carol Elizabeth Jones and Ginny Hawker. “I will tell the sad, sad story/I’m gonna tell a story true/’Bout an old, forsaken lover/And his heart broke sad and true,” moans Dickens to the strains of a resolutely strummed guitar. Guthrie’s lines are formulaic enough; what isn’t is the way Dickens holds onto the word “old” for a full measure, so that it hangs in the air like mist in a mountain holler. By the time Jones, Hawker and the fiddle player add their doleful harmonies, it sounds as if the whole valley is weeping.
Dickens’ gift for conveying such close-to-the-bone emotion, for “putting you there,” as Hawker likes to say, has been the hallmark of her 40-year career, one that looms as large as that of any bluegrass or old-time singer to emerge since the folk revival of the 1950s. Dickens hasn’t enjoyed the commercial success many of her peers have; she isn’t the virtuoso that other pickers are, either. But by teaming with longtime partner Alice Gerrard to become the first women to front their own bluegrass band, Dickens created a legacy that is undeniable. Her songs of struggle and liberation, from the coal miners’ lament “Black Lung” to the proto-feminist broadside “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There”, are as hard-hitting and direct as any ever written.
Heart Of A Singer, Dickens’ first album of new recordings in eleven years, came about as most sing-alongs and picking parties do — by happenstance. Dickens, Jones and Hawker first sang together at Mike Seeger and Alexia Smith’s wedding in 1995. But it wasn’t until they gathered again at the 1996 Folk Alliance in Washington, D.C., that they first considered recording as a trio — and even that was somewhat by accident.
This is an excerpt of the full article which appeared in The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music, which features 25 of the finest articles from the magazines back issues, and was published in 2005 by University of Texas Press to help celebrate the magazines 10th anniversary. Due to our agreement with UT Press we are unable to include this article in our online archive.
The Best of No Depression is the only place you can find these articles other than our back issues. Visit the No Depression store to buy your copy for only $10.
The 300-page volume includes co-editor Grant Aldens award-winning 2001 feature on Billy Joe Shaver, co-editor Peter Blackstocks 1998 Artist of the Decade piece on Alejandro Escovedo, senior editor Bill Friskics-Warrens 2002 cover story on Johnny Cash, contributing editor Paul Cantins deep exploration of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco; and many other high points from our print heyday.
Table of contents for The Best of No Depression:
Preface, by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock
Los Lobos, by Geoffrey Himes
Alejandro Escovedo, by Peter Blackstock
Jon Dee Graham, by Peter Blackstock
Billy Joe Shaver, by Grant Alden
Ray Wylie Hubbard, by John T. Davis
Flatlanders, by Don McLeese
Ray Price, by David Cantwell
Johnny Gimble, by Bill C. Malone
Johnny Cash, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Rosanne Cash, by Lloyd Sachs
Lucinda Williams, by Silas House
Buddy & Julie Miller, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Kasey Chambers, by Geoffrey Himes
Loretta Lynn, by Barry Mazor
Patty Loveless, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Kieran Kane, by Peter Cooper
Paul Burch, by Jim Ridley
Hazel Dickens, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Gillian Welch, by Grant Alden
Ryan Adams, by David Menconi
Jay Farrar, by Peter Blackstock
Jayhawks, by Erik Flannigan
Wilco, by Paul Cantin
Drive-By Truckers, by Grant Alden
Iron & Wine, by William Bowers