America lost one of its most precious national treasures yesterday when singer Hazel Dickens died at age 75. Hazel, who died of complications from pneumonia, had been ill for some time, finding it more and more difficult to travel to concert dates around the country.
Hearing Hazel Dickens sing in a live performance was like being handed the keys to a time machine set to stop at a time when country music was still in its raw infancy. Those wondering what original country music sounded like before it was commercialized in the 1920s have only to listen to a Hazel Dickens recording to feel the power and beauty associated with the music of those early days. Thankfully, Hazel leaves behind a respectable number of recordings for those of us still here. Sadly, however, we are no longer able to ride that time machine back to a Hazel Dickens concert.
I was lucky enough to climb on that time machine only once - in June 2007 when Hazel performed at the International Bluegrass Music Museum's annual festival in Owensboro, Kentucky (ROMP). Regular ROMPers were not surprised when a huge thunderstorm began to roll in to Yellow Creek Park that afternoon, complete with spectacular displays of lightning and loud bursts of thunder. Hazel was in the middle of her second song of the day when festival organizers decided to clear the stage for the safety of the performers; the danger of a lightning strike was just too great to allow the show to go on even though it was still not raining. But the rain did come, and it came in buckets for more than an hour. By the time the stage was deemed safe again, Hazel (probably for health reasons) had left the park for good.
Hazel was scheduled to appear at ROMP the next year but had to cancel her appearance on her doctor's orders. She was simply too ill to travel to Kentucky that year, but even though I never had the chance to see her perform again, I will forever treasure the one-and-a-half songs I witnessed that June 2007 afternoon in a secluded little Kentucky public park.
Hazel Dickens was a union advocate, a feminist, and one of the women who paved the way for females to make their mark in bluegrass music. She and her partner, Alice Gerrard fronted their own bluegrass band when that was simply not done. Their vocals used the same arrangements used by their male counterparts, breaking new ground for women, and changing the music in a way that opened the door for all those female bluegrass singers who have followed them.
Hazel was very special to me and my bluegrass-loving friends and we will miss her greatly. Considering her ill health, her death is not a shock or a surprise - but realizing that I have forever lost my chance to climb back onto the Hazel Dickens time machine really hurts.
Rest in peace, Hazel. We loved you then, and we love you now.