Often called the “First Lady of Bluegrass,” Hazel Dickens was known for all types of songs, from emotional tunes about love and family to no-holds-barred anthems of protest and dissent. While she recorded a lot of her own material, what seemed to matter to her the most was the quality and message of the composition and not whose name was on it, as she also cut songs by Bob Dylan (“Only a Hobo”), Jim Ed Brown (“Here Today and Gone Tomorrow”), Harlan Howard (“Busted”) and others. She also recorded several albums of authentic, from-the-hills bluegrass and old-timey music with Alice Gerrard, onetime wife of folk icon Mike Seeger, including the recently-released Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969.
One of Dickens’ more sentimental songs is “Hills of Home,” from her 1987 release It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song. In “Hills of Home,” she reflects upon how her childhood home isn’t what it once was, how the hometown of her youth is now dilapidated and family members have moved on to look for greener pastures. Such themes were common in Dickens’ music, which often focused on the plight of the downtrodden in the Appalachians, and in the world in general.
Bluegrass singer Becky Buller, in addition to being the first artist to ever win in both the instrumental and vocal categories at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards in 2016, was the IBMA’s Songwriter of the Year in 2015, and has been covered by artists like Ricky Skaggs and Rhonda Vincent. Buller, like presumably most female bluegrass singers, is deeply familiar with Dickens’ work, including “Hills of Home.”
“I never got to know Hazel,” Buller said, “although I did ride an elevator with her at the IBMA conference one year; I was in awe of her and too shy at the time to introduce myself. There is a lonesome, raw, bone-gnawing authenticity to Hazel’s performances of her songs that has appealed to me more and more as I’ve grown and matured in my own writing and performing. She sounds like she could’ve recorded with the Carter Family in 1927! … Hazel was in tune with the tenor of her time, yet rooted in the tradition that raised her and blessed her with that voice. Hazel wrote such fine songs … the kind that are born of an innate need to write, to share from the deepest part of the soul.”
Dickens died in 2011 of pneumonia, after becoming a role model for not just female singers of bluegrass and old timey-music, but for all writers and artists who seek to project truth and authenticity through their work.
“’Hills of Home’” is an austere lyric and melody,” Buller said, “easily accessible to the listener, cutting to the core. Hazel could write and deliver it because she lived it. Though it’s incredibly sad, how lucky for us that she carried her memories of home close to her heart and she just had to share the sights and sounds of her childhood with us. My favorite lines are:”
Families that scattered
Parted and gone
Left a lot of good things
To wither away back home
Even the echoes are gone.
“That’s lonesome, right there!”