Hazel Dickens Tribute

More than a decade ago, bassist Todd Phillips walked into his first rehearsal for a reunion tour by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, and was caught by surprise.

“I realized things I thought of as traditional or Carter Family were actually her songs,” Phillips recalled in a weekend telephone chat. He had recently won a Grammy for producing a tribute album, True Life Blues – The Songs of Bill Monroe, and hatched the idea of a similar tribute to Hazel.

He signed the contract in 2001, and recorded the first tracks in 2005. But the project still hasn’t been released by Rounder Records.

Phillips is too much the gentleman to talk about reasons for the delays, but he is hopeful the project will come out this year, while Hazel, who is 75, can enjoy it. Friends say she has had a difficult winter, and she wasn’t well enough to accept the Washington Monument award from the D.C. Bluegrass Union at its weekend festival in northern Virginia.

“This is really a gift for Hazel,” Phillips said of the compilation, which includes an all-star lineup of musicians – Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Claire Lynch, Roseanne Cash and others.

Phillips joked about “stalking” some artists, and having to tell them about Hazel and her music before they would commit. But Costello was ready from the start, wanting to record Don’t Put Her Down. Harris offered to do A Few Old Memories, and Lynch added Beyond the River Bend.

At least two more tracks will be added, at the behest of Rounder boss Ken Irwin. Phillips said he couldn’t discuss those tracks, but he took the call from Irwin as a good sign. “It’s going to happen,” he said.

Hazel also recorded tracks for her first solo project in years, but that release, too, has been on hold since last fall. Irwin said at the time that discussion of either project was “premature,” an odd comment given that the tribute project has been in the works for so long. There is some speculation that the delays are related to Rounder’s purchase by the Concord Music Group, or because of licensing problems involving some of the performers.

“I’ve never worked on anything this time consuming,” Phillips said. Ever the diplomat, he left it at that.