Hazel Dickens, a pioneer who helped clear the bluegrass trail for Claire Lynch, Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent and others, will soon collect another award for her mantel.
Dickens, 75, is the second winner of the D.C. Bluegrass Union’s Washington Monument Award for outstanding contributions to bluegrass music. The award will be presented April 16, at DCBU’s second annual festival in McLean, Va. By coincidence, Claire Lynch, who embraces Dickens as a trailblazer, will be among the headliners at this year’s festival.
“Hazel is the real deal,” said Randy Barrett, president of DCBU. “Her songs have a unique universality that belies her humble beginnings.”
Dickens lives in Washington, DC, now, but grew up in a coal mining family in Mercer County, West Virginia, and had her first musical success in Baltimore in the 1950s. She had moved there to work and quickly became part of a thriving local music scene.
She rose to national prominence in the 1970s when she paired with singer Alice Gerrard, recording a handful of highly regarded albums.
Dickens continues to perform, but her most vital roles were showing the way for female-fronted bands, and as a songwriter. Her best songs are gritty blue-collar anthems or tales about women who couldn’t be kept down, such as Old Callused Hands and Working Girl Blues. The combination of those achievements makes her exclusion from IBMA’s hall of fame puzzling.
But she has collected plenty of other awards. Dickens was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and won a distinguished achievement award from IBMA in 1993. Her song, Mama’s Hands, was IBMA’s song of the year in 1996, after Lynn Morris recorded it.
Still no word from Rounder Records on the fate of a new album from Dickens or for a star-studded tribute album recognizing her music. Both projects were nearing completion when they were thrown off schedule by studio damage in last year’s floods in Nashville.
Last year, Bill Emerson was the inaugural winner of the Washington Monument Award.