It is with tremendous sadness that I report the passing of bluegrass music's Queen Mother, the gifted singer/songwriter Hazel Dickens. Dickens died in her sleep today (April 22).
Hazel Dickens was the poster child for what music should be: unpolished, uncompromising, and from the heart. Dickens wrote and sang of the hard times in West Virginia, and she knew exactly of what she sang. She blended the folk songwriting traditions of Woody Guthrie and the early country sounds of the Carter Family into a precious sound. It wasn't pretty, but those songs reminded everyone that life isn't pretty.
Her influence was everywhere. Acts lined up to record her songs. Lynn Morris's rendition of "Mama's Hands" was the 1996 IBMA "song of the year." The final Johnson Mountain Boys album included their rendition of Dickens' "My Better Years." Even the Judds, the bastion of 1980s commercial country, proclaimed their main influence was Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. In 1993 she was given IBMA's "Distinguished Achievement Award."
One of my most treasured memories of Hazel was at IBMA. A late-night, post-showcase performance highlighted the female performers on Rounder Records (excepting Alison Krauss). Near the end of the show Hazel was invited onstage. Before she sang she commented, "It's great to be up here with my children." That was, and is, the truth. Bluegrass music is far richer because Hazel graced the genre with her presence.
Hazel Dickens was 75.