Why should Hazel Dickens be in the next set of inductees to the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame?
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Hazel Dickens. Odd that, because one can’t really hear Hazel Dickens without knowing you’ve heard Hazel Dickens. Her voice is one that isn’t confused with anyone else’s; if you’ve listened to Hazel, you know Hazel! When I say I know Hazel, if feel that I truly do know her. That is the power of her words and melodies- they communicate to the listener the experiences, convictions, and insights of a powerfully strong woman, one who has excelled within an industry dominated by men.
But it seems to me that I’ve always known Hazel Dickens, although I realize full well I haven’t. Most likely, I first ran across Hazel Dickens on a Rounder compilation album, maybe Blue Ribbon Bluegrass but more likely Hand Picked: 25 Years of Rounder Bluegrass. I do know that when I first got to witness Hazel live at a Calgary Folk Music Festival around ‘bout 1998, I was well-familiar with the woman, her music legacy, her activism, and her place within the bluegrass and folk music canons.
Most obviously, I come to the game late. I wasn’t in the Baltimore area during the golden years, when Hazel and Alice joined in at living room pickin’ parties. Heck, I wasn’t even born then, so don’t hold that against me. I’m not from a part of the world where I may have found Hazel playing in a dingy club or coffee house or at a festival with Mike Seeger. I’ve been aware of Hazel to purchase only one of her albums as it was released, a very engaging collection she did in the late 90s with Carol Elizabeth Jones and Ginny Hawker, Heart of a Singer. But, this isn’t about me; this is about Hazel. There are better folks than me to champion Hazel Dickens for the IBMA Hall of Fame, something I’ve been doing for the better part of a decade. So, why haven’t they?
Maybe they have, and I just don’t know about it. It was only about this time last year that the idea that I should take my campaign – which truly has consisted of little more than a signature line on outgoing e-mails- to have Hazel elected to the Hall of Fame to the next level even occurred to me. It was only recently that I realized almost another year had gone by and I’ve done little to further advance Hazel’s cause. Here we are in the midst of 2010 and Hazel Dickens doesn’t appear to be any closer to the IBMA Hall of Fame than she has been for the past many years. I’m at a loss to explain why.
I well realize that a limited number of inductees can be made annually if the honor is to retain its pedigree and prestige. I also realize that the gentlemen who have been honored in recent years are all well-known and revered within the business. I’m sure they were well-deserving, although I may disagree with the inclusion of select inductees. What I don’t understand is how someone who has done so much within bluegrass can continue to be overlooked? Further, how is it that among the 50 or so members of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, the only women elected have been as members of the Carter and Lewis families? I can’t think of a more worthy female bluegrass performer, musician, songwriter, and spirit to be the first to go into the IBMA Hall of Fame under her own name than Hazel Dickens.
Don’t tell me Hazel Dickens isn’t a bluegrass performer. While her music has straddled various genres, what Hazel has always come back to can only be labeled bluegrass. Hazel’s history in bluegrass has been well-documented in various places, not the least of which by Neil Rosenberg and especially Alice Gerrard in the liner notes for the 1996 reissue of Pioneering Women of Bluegrass. Within that same set, Hazel shares her recollections of the duos earliest days making bluegrass music. Information about Hazel is commonly known within most realms of the bluegrass world.
We know she left her home in West Virginia while still a teen, moving to work in the factories and stores of Baltimore. We know that she used her early experiences to provide the realism readily apparent in her songs, be it the emotional turmoil of leaving home (“Mama’s Hands”), the longing of home from away (“West Virginia, My Home”), and a sense of place that few writers could capture (“Hills of Home.”) Is there a finer song capturing the truth that is the “Working Girl Blues?” Within “West Virginia, My Home” Hazel captures in ten syllables, seven straight-forward words what others have struggled to communicate in entire essays: “I can sure remember where I come from.”
We know that she has long been involved in expressing the struggles and lives of miners in any number of ways, not the least of which are her songs including “Black Lung” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” and “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” to name but three. She came to tell these songs in the most natural of ways, having had brothers and family working in the deep, dark mines of West Virginia.
Importantly, we know that she was part of the migration of mountain music to the eastern seaboard, one of thousands who moved from rural communities in search of work and bringing with them the music of their home counties. She championed the music, keeping it at the fore of not only her own life but communicating a relevancy with which the urban community could connect.
That she has written some of the finest bluegrass songs is without challenge. These songs have advanced the cause of women and the working poor in immeasurable ways, bringing strength and dignity to places and circumstances where such was often in short supply. Hazel has never shied away from subject matter that some would avoid, be they the protagonists of “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” the conditions of the mines (“Mannington Mine Disaster,”) or detailing the impact of miner organization in “The Yablonski Murder.”
But Hazel has been able to reveal her softer side as successfully. In “You’ll Get No More of Me,” she sings:
You wrecked my heart like a cruel winter storm
Bending my branches so low
Oh your wayward heart and your tortured soul
Leave no memory worthy to hold.
Okay, perhaps ‘softer’ is not the best word choice- how about vulnerable? But even then, she is no one’s patsy: no one is going to walk over her heart.
In what Tim Stafford has called ‘One of the best songs I’ve ever heard,” Hazel sings,
Just a few old memories going way back in time
Well I can hardly remember I don’t know why I’m crying
I can’t understand it well I’m surprised at myself
First thing tomorrow morning I’ll clean off that shelf. (“A Few Old Memories”)
She has spoken openly and honestly of the struggles she and hers have experienced. She knows there is no shame in saying she has been poor, has required assistance. Her thoughts on war are revealed in “Will Jesus Wash the Blood Stains from Your Hands.” She is unabashedly pro-labor, a position revealed not only in song but action. This activist aspect of Hazel is well documented in the film Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song and in the tours done with Anne Romaine. Also in that production, Laurie Lewis places Hazel with the bluegrass vocal big-three: Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and Lester Flatt.
Hazel Dickens has left a legacy in song, one that has been compounded by her live presence. I’ve been fortunate to experience Hazel in concert on three occasions, and each time she has impressed me a little bit more.
As I stated earlier, I saw Hazel for the first time in (I think) 1998 when she and Alice made an appearance with what appeared to be a pick-up band featuring Ron Block. I tripped across their side-stage rehearsal minutes before their set, and I knew I was witnessing something powerful and special. The details are lost to time, but I recall sitting transfixed for almost an hour as the ladies held sway over a crowd comprised largely of folks who had known little to nothing of what they were going to experience with these pioneering women of bluegrass.
I next saw Hazel at Wintergrass in 2003. She filled the First Baptist Church with a band led by Tim Stafford. Although the fidelity is dicey at best, my recording of that set is one of my most treasured. The power of her voice is never in dispute.
I most recently saw Hazel at Hardly Strictly this past October in San Francisco. Again, the hard-singing (Alison Krauss’ description) of Hazel came through loud and clear. What resonated this time was not just the power of the songs and the strength of the voice, but the humor of the woman. She was as vibrant on this appearance as she had been more than a decade earlier.
On each of these occasions, the players knew to stay out of her way and let Hazel do her thing. She sings. Whether a high tenor while harmonizing or singing lead, Hazel Dickens is a bluegrass singer without peer. Certainly other female singers have had more success in the bluegrass field. Hazel has never been awarded an IBMA award for her singing, but just ask those who have- Laurie Lewis, Lynn Morris, Alison Krauss, Dale Ann Bradley- and they’ll tell you that with Hazel what you get is the real deal. Some call it piercing, some call it raw. What I hear is controlled emotion within a style of singing that lacks pretension or commercial consideration.
All who have attempted the chore understand that leading a bluegrass band is a challenge. Hazel’s situation is a bit different in that she hasn’t employed a long-standing band to back her on extended tours or even regularly scheduled shows. Despite this, Hazel always has a tremendous band with her no matter where she appears. If one is judged by the company they keep, one has to realize the esteem in which Hazel is held when folks like Dudley Connell, Marshall Wilborn, David McLaughlin, Ronnie Simpkins, Richard Underwood, Jack Leiderman, and Barry Mitterhoff are eager to appear alongside Hazel. Not speaking for those gentlemen, I’d be shocked if any of them didn’t feel it was an honor to share a stage with Hazel.
I’m assured on good authority that in the past it was a challenge for anyone to hold a group of players together in a bluegrass collective, whether a continuing, professional outfit or a free-flowing band of regulars. Considering the world in which Hazel found herself in the mid- to late-50s, I imagine the difficulty was magnified for a female. Yet, Hazel (along with as well as independent of Alice Gerrard) managed this feat while playing in and around the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area.
Through my limited travels and scattered writings, I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the finest ambassadors of our music- Dale Ann Bradley, Lynn Morris, Randy Graham, Rhonda Vincent, Greg Cahill, and David Davis, to mention but a few. I’ve also been privileged to speak with Hazel on a couple occasions, and I can attest that our music has no kinder or more natural ambassador. Her knowledge of the music is without limit and she is generous, giving of her time and spirit. Additionally, Hazel has been performing her bluegrass music to non-bluegrass audiences for a very long time. Whether at labor rallies, demonstrations promoting social justice, fundraisers, or at folk music festivals, Hazel has exposed our music to people who may never have before heard the music. And don’t overlook her appearance in feature films including Matewan and Songcatcher; I’m sure I’m not the only one who has squealed in surprise, “That’s Hazel!”
A member of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, inducted by Alison Krauss, Hazel Dickens has been honored by the IBMA in the past. She received the IBMA Award of Merit/Distinguished Achievement Award in 1993 and was recognized for the 1996 Song of the Year for Lynn Morris’ recording of “Mama’s Hands.” In 2001, Hazel was awarded a Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Since I started down this road of formally advocating for Hazel’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame, I’ve become aware of a belief within some quarters that Hazel Dickens must only be elected to the Hall as part of Hazel & Alice. I had wondered if the Hazel & Alice vs Hazel situation may exist, and I don’t quite understand the position. Alice Gerrard, influential on Hazel, without doubt, and her partner for many years, has concentrated very ably on producing and advocating old-time sounds for the past thirty-plus years. When I think of bluegrass I don’t think of Alice, and I don’t mean that as any type of slight toward her. She just went down a different path than did Hazel.
Hazel, on the other hand, has stayed solidly within the bluegrass fold. My suggestion and my efforts are to have Hazel Dickens elected to the Hall of Fame as an individual, in part because of the work she did as a ‘pioneering woman of bluegrass’ with Alice Gerrard. Hazel and Alice- esentially- were a duo for only a portion of Hazel’s long and distinguished career in bluegrass, recording four albums over the course of a decade. And don’t forget the very excellent Stranger Creek Singers album. Since then Hazel has recorded three additional and brilliant albums, with another slated for release shortly.
I don’t expect this little rambling piece to sway the bluegrass community. I do hope it will cause some discussion when the IBMA Hall of Fame nominating committee next meets. After more than 50 years as a leading light in bluegrass, we all know what Hazel Dickens means to the music; if we don’t, it is shame on us. As she approaches her 75th birthday, it is time for the professional bluegrass community to do what they have too frequently neglected to do- bring flowers while the pioneers are living.
Nominate and then elect Hazel Dickens to the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame this year.
As we all are, I’ve been quite busy these last weeks. What with watching (too much) Olympic action- after vowing not to watch any, but come on- how can you not watch more skicross or snowboard cross once you see it- and trying to keep up with my real job and life, writing sometimes has to take a back seat. Compound this with things I stumble across on the Internet when doing research, and I’m surprised I accomplish anything anywhere. Below are a few sites I’ve discovered the past few weeks- I have no interest in any of them and do not advocate their content beyond the fact that I found them interesting. Don’t blame me for the time you spend visiting them. Best, Donald.
http://1000awesomethings.com/about/ What it says.
http://www.outinthestorm.com/ Alberta singer-songwriter Ruth Purves Smith’s site with music and video.
http://redneckerson.blogspot.com/ One of my favourite places for out of print and often obscure country recordings.
http://tinyurl.com/y8wcab3 My newest favourite album- Strange Creek Singers, featuring Hazel Dickens, and somehow I had never heard of it before last week. On eMusic and YouTube.
http://www.blueberrybluegrass.com/ Once upon a time my favourite bluegrass festival. It is still great, but has went a bit ‘big’ for my tastes- whatever that means- but their lineup is usually pretty good. This coming July’s festival lineup will be tough to beat.
http://www.countrystandardtime.com/countrymusic.asp I usually find something of interest here.
http://www.carrienewcomer.com/ Not a new discovery by any means, but I’ve been delving into her back catalogue and am liking everything I hear. Her new album is fabulous.
http://redbeetrecords.com/ For all things East Nashville, Eric Brace, and Peter Cooper.
http://www.archive.org/details/audio I’ve recommended this site before. Legit live recordings approved by the artists. You will spend hours here if you allow.
http://www.jennywhiteley.com/home/index.php Her new album is quite good and “Cold Kisses” is one of those songs that screams “You won’t hear anything better this week.” Really.
http://www.killbeatmusic.com/ For those of us in the business- okay, I’m not in the business, but whatever- Ken is one of the best promoters of independent and mostly Canadian talent. You can get lost here listening and viewing.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OjDalPzTz4 James Reams is one of my favourite bluegrass singers and people. There are several Barnstormer clips on YouTube.
http://www.oldmanluedecke.ca/ His new album (coming late March) is a huge step forward. Much of this is due to the presence of Tim O’Brien, never a bad idea, but also due to OML’s development as a songwriter, singer, and performer. Covers Willie P. Bennett’s “Caney Fork River.”
http://btxmp3index.freeforums.org/index.php The Springsteen mp3 archive. O my gosh. If he wanted it down, I’m sure it would be. An amazing resource. I can’t get enough of the late 2009 shows.
and finally http://record-fiend.blogspot.com/search?q=Africa A website that I found while doing some searches after reading the 2003 Oxford American music issue last week. This album is one I can’t stop listening to.
After years of searching, I’ve found my people. And they were all with me at the Star Stage at the 9th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Saturday afternoon.
I’m still not sure exactly how it happened, but my wife agreed a weekend getaway to San Francisco, a couple hours by plane, was a good idea. I had an earned day off, she took a holiday day, and within a few hours of making the decision we had booked the rooms and flight.
What a treat! We decided to spend the Friday afternoon of our arrival seeing as much of the city as we could, foregoing John Prine and Lyle Lovett. Our hotel was in the heart of the Haight area- Stanyan Park- and was quite nice, although we were shortly to discover it was a bit like sleeping in a tent. The hotel was right across from the park, but deceptively far from the festival site- it ended up being about a brisk, 30 minute walk to the festival.
None the less, we jumped on the Hop On, Hop Off bus tour that stopped across from the hotel, and within 90 minutes of arriving in the city, were streaming across the Golden Gate Bridge on top of an open-air double-decker bus. I was giddy like a kid! Deana claimed I wasn’t as excited when we were in Greece, which was only partly true- when in Greece, I was constantly exhausted, so it was difficult to show excitement.
Truly a beautiful city, the Hop On tour was a nice way to get a quick overview of the city. An extended stop at Macy’s downtown demonstrated that Starbucks coffee truly tastes the same no matter where you are and that some folks will pay way too much for a sweater. We concluded our city tour unsure of how to spend our evening, and found a nice place for supper around the corner from the hotel- Siam Lotus, I believe.
But before we got there, I saw- in the distance- the glory land that is Amoeba Records! O, gosh. What a place. We don’t have stores like this in Alberta anymore, and likely never did. An unreal selection, and because I was pressed for time, I never made it past the first five aisles. The CD clearance section was bigger than most retail stores in my area! 14 discs and $30 later and we were ready to eat.
We turned in pretty early after the flight and stress of a new city, and made plans for a long day at the festival site. One of us had a long day, anyway.
My wife repeatedly challenges me on why I go to festivals. She points out that I hate crowds, which is generally true. I hold noisy chatterers in disdain. In general, I find port-o-potties psychologically scarring. Now, while I feel she is projecting her feelings a little bit here, in general she has a point. I shouldn’t like festivals for a whole lot of reasons, including the ones mentioned as well as less than ideal sound, excessively priced food, and set changeover times that are usually painfully long. And yet I continue to go. I am pleased to say that on the whole Hardly Strictly exceeded all expectations, and only the port-o-potties cast a pall over my two days on the grounds.
My wife and I decided we didn’t want to run around the grounds capturing every act of appeal. So we had made our selections based on a mutual common ground, and we had most of our day slated for the Rooster Stage. She thought Jorma Kaukonen would be to her taste, and I thought she would enjoy the Boz Scaggs revue as well.
The decision made, we set out for our walk through the park to the festival site. And we walked. And walked. With only a general idea of where we were going- even following a map- we likely added a couple kilometres to our journey, but for the most part it was a very nice walk through a lovely green space. (For the record, if you’re going- walk straight west up JFK Drive…if only we knew!)
We set up our mats at the Rooster Stage, and got ready for a day. Walking across the site of the Banjo Stage, I started to really get a sense of the size of this event- it makes the Edmonton Folk Festival seem quaint, and gives Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park a run as a primo festival site as far as trees, shade, and atmosphere go.
Marshall Crenshaw was up first, and did a fine little set. Not terribly engaging, but that had more to do with how far from the stage we were, not to mention the jerk who set up a normal-sized chair four feet in front of our ground level mats- wearing a freakin’ straw hat to boot. That he and his colleagues seldom paused in their chats did little to temper the holes my eyes were drilling into his mealy wee brain…but I had promised myself not to care about such things, and therefore eased back to listen to the power pop sounds of Crenshaw.
While a fan- I have several of his albums and believe his version of “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)” is a top 100 all-time rock song- I was surprised at how many songs I could mouth-a-long to.
My wife started the Guy Clark jokes before he even hit the stage, and she soon went for a walk rather than listen to his ‘old man’ music. I thought his set was pretty good- he was in strong voice, Verlon Thompson complemented with nice lead work, and Bryn Davies was a nice, unexpected touch on bass and vocals.
Clark did the expected numbers- “L. A. Freeway,” “Home Grown Tomatoes,” and “Let It Roll”- but no “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train” (fine by me, to be honest) or “Texas, 1947” or “Randall Knife” which would have been nice. A few new songs- “Some Days the Song Writes You,” “The Guitar”, and “Hemingway’s Whiskey”- held their own. By the time “Dublin Blues” and “Stuff That Works” were done, I was very pleased that I had forgone some of my other choices for a set from the master.
Mid-set, my plans for the day changed when Deana decided she had already had enough of the people and didn’t want to put up with a day in the wind and dirt; she happily went off to continue her city tour (“You’ll probably enjoy yourself more without me,” she claimed; I denied such, but after almost thirty years, I could tell she wasn’t buying it) and I hastily re-planned my day. O, the bounty of choices I faced!
After a few minutes at a way too crowded Banjo Stage trying to listen to the Tim O’Brien Band, I made the last minute decision to head toward the Star Stage for Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women. The reasons were numerous- I always enjoy Dave Alvin, Laurie Lewis had just appeared in Red Deer so the chance to have her in my city one week and then see her in her’s eight days later was too obviously serendipitous to pass up, and the fact I probably wouldn’t have another chance to see them as a combo also played a part. But mostly, it was sentimental curiosity- with the recent death of Amy Farris, I really wanted to see and hear what the band would do.
Since I arrived a full-set early for the show, I found an almost too good to be real space down front, and even met some folks from Utah and Wisconsin to chat with. All the signs were present that the show may be a bit rough- Dave and Laurie working up a tune with fill-in fiddler Suzy Thompson, a lot of uncomfortable milling about on stage from various musicians. But the smiles were obvious, and soon it was apparent that we were about to witness something quite spectacular.
I’ve seen Dave Alvin several times at various festivals, but never to such an attentive and involved audience. We knew all the words, we were familiar with most of the moves and riffs. After years of searching, I had found my people. And they were all with me at the Star Stage on a glorious and sunny Saturday. Without much formality, the band launched into the Cajun arrangement of “Marie, Marie” that kicks off the recent album. We were on our feet right away, and you could light a small town with the energy the audience and band generated. Powerful doesn’t start to describe it.
Appropriately, Alvin brought things down for moments of somber reflection to acknowledge the absence and passing of Farris. I’ll admit, I blubbered for just a few seconds- it was worse than a Hallmark commercial. Pushing me over the edge were the few bars of “California Bloodlines” Dave sang in honour of Amy as an introduction to “California’s Burning”, bringing to mind not only Farris’s death, but that of the songwriter John Stewart. To be in California, and to be reminded of a true son of that state was just too much for me, and I sat down and teared up. Weird.
But the only burning to be smelled on this day was of the medicinal variety, and sadness was short-lived in this environment. Anyway, the rest of the set was steaming. “Abilene” featured an extended jam and “Boss of the Blues” drew me in to vicariously cruise the bluesy streets of southern California with Dave and Phil. “Potter’s Field” was especially poignant on this day, and the band found a new way to play the blues on “Dry River.” Laurie Lewis really cut loose on the set closer “Que Sera Sera”, tearing up a bit of a hoedown with Alvin on that one.
The surprise of the set? Lisa Pankratz! Wow, she can pound. Really nice. Without doubt, the set of the weekend for me. Everyone sounded at their finest, the band’s energy was very positive, and Christy McWilson only threatened to strangle Dave once.
I stayed at the same stage- listening to the Old 97’s play on the adjoining stage- for the Nick Lowe set to follow. A fine decision, and one that was on my original list of ‘must-sees’. Again, talked to folks about common music interests- including Steve Forbert- and had a fine cookie and coffee to pass the time. Lowe was appearing solo, a bit of a disappointment as I had seen the same in Calgary a few years ago and would have enjoyed a band show. But the calm sophistication of Lowe was a nice palate cleanser after the full-bodied brew that was the Guilty Women.
By starting the show with “Ragin’ Eyes”, Nick gave me hope that we would hear a few unexpected numbers- perhaps “Time Wounds All Heels” or “Breaking Glass.” Alas, such was not to be as he delivered a solid, well-performed but not especially inspired list of his most familiar numbers. Mood was lighter than last time out, definitely less restrained, and he cracked more than a couple smiles. But the songs were of the expected sort- “What’s Shaking on the Hill,” “Long Limbed Girl”, “Does She Have A Friend”, et al. “Heart” was a nice surprise, but he really needs to retire “All Men Are Liars.” “Cruel to Be Kind” got the sing-a-long treatment, and “The Beast in Me” silenced everyone, as it should.
It was nice to hear “Without Love,” the other song of Nick’s J.R. Cash recorded and one of my personal favourites before he launched into the expected and populist climax of “I Knew the Bride” Staring into the sun, the silhouette that was Nick Lowe concluded with his eternal song- the one that’ll last long after the bride has divorced and she discovers that being cruel is seldom kind; hearing “(What’s So Funny About)” Peace, Love and Understanding” in San Francisco was pretty darn neat for this old man.
Things were starting to cool off a bit, especially in the shade and I wasn’t exactly positive where to go next. I decided to forego the crowd of the Banjo stage- again- and skip Gillian Welch in favour of Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. With the best corn dog I’ve ever eaten quickly devoured, and in fine company with Al and his gal Susan, I sat back to enjoy classic country music without worrying about analyzing every nuance.
Some old (“Tempted”), some borrowed (a Buck Owens- Bakersfield instrumental that some may have recognized as “Buckaroo” but that I’m just guessing at, “Long Black Veil”), something blue (“California Blues”), and very little new, Marty and his boys did themselves proud. A strong, unpretentious set highlighted by acoustic gospel vocal tunes such as “Working on a Building” and “A Little Talk with Jesus”, the Osborne Brothers’ “Bluegrass Express”, and a Carteresque guitar instrumental.
By this time, even a Canadian was getting cold, and I needed to move on, and finally gave in to the calling of the Banjo Stage for Steve Earle & the Bluegrass Dukes. That this festival’s biggest and most crowded stage hosts the most traditional bluegrass acts lends this fest a giant heap of credibility. The festival features the gamut of roots and Americana sounds (well, almost- more on that in a moment), and I’m sure would draw even more people if the bluegrass aspect was played down a bit. But, true to their roots, mainstream, progressive, traditional, and contemporary bluegrass acts play to an audience that possibly surpasses 20 000 at this one stage alone. I missed Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, Skaggs, Dry Branch, and others who played the stage earlier in the day, but managed to catch much of the Earle set. I’m glad I did.
I had a decent sightline from the side of the stage, away from the hordes, and the sound was still decent. The blowing wind was numbing fingers on stage (and off, for that matter), leading Earle to quip, “I can’t feel them, but it sounds good.” The set wasn’t particularly tight, hardly surprising given the conditions, but I’m glad I can check off the Bluegrass Dukes on my list of Bands to See. This was a particularly charged set of Dukes- O’Brien on mando, Darrell Scott on banjo and such, with Dennis Crouch (bass) and Casey Driessen (fiddle). “Sin City” sounded especially nice, as did “The Hometown Blues”, complete with familiar story about square-headed cowboys named Otto.
They did “White Frieghtliner Blues” and a few songs from the bluegrass album like “Texas Eagle” and “Yours Forever Blue.” Darkness was moving in, and I still had to walk back to the hotel, so I started off on perhaps the second longest walk of my life. Well worth it, though. A terrific day.
A couple random thoughts. Everyone has a dog, and they all come to the festival. Where I come from, dogs don’t go to festivals. It was a nice touch to see all the pets, and several were absolutely gorgeous animals. All appeared to be well-behaved, save the one who bit me! Seriously, all these well behaved, mannerly and docile dogs, and one little yapper jumps out at me and grabs my leg! Fortunately, he/she caught mostly jeans, but I felt its teeth on my leg. Gave my old heart a jump, for sure. The owners were blissfully inattentive and quite taken back that their little Foo-Foo would do such a thing.
For a cosmopolitan city, the festival is very white- both in audience and music. Race doesn’t really enter my thoughts too often, but it was pretty apparent that the weekend lacked colour. True, I didn’t exactly go out on a limb, listening to more than a few aging white guys, but I know my wife would have appreciated more world and blues music; heck, she may have even stayed around for a little while. And yes, Mavis, Allen Toussaint, and others were on the bill- but it still seemed fairly pale.
The festival merch was a bit sparse, with only t-shirts, posters, and blankets on offer. I was hoping to buy a button-down denim or black shirt, but such was not to be found. Both of the major Alberta festivals have extensive merchandise for sale, and I’m surprised HSB doesn’t take advantage of this revenue stream, while fully aware cash flow isn’t a factor here.
The port-o-potties were gross. I’m so glad I’m a man and don’t need to sit to urinate. Come on, with a 1.5 million (or whatever) budget, get the toilets pumped out over night.
Finally, I was shocked at how laid back everything was, for the most part. Little jostling for position, very few folks apparently losing their bearings- the whole festival had a real positive vibe. Even with so many people and being in a foreign land, I felt comfortable leaving my backpack unattended while moving about the stage areas. The whole festival had a very calm mood associated with it. I wonder why?
We needed to catch a late afternoon flight back home, so I knew I would only be able to take in three acts of the Sunday, but I knew which they would be- Darrell Scott, Hazel Dickens, and Doc Watson, all at the Banjo Stage.
Under a warming Northern California sky, the final day of HSB9 opened with the Darrell Scott Band. Having arrived well early, I was able to find a small spot amongst the mammoth and largely abandoned tarps covering the front of the stage area. With Casey, Tim, Bryn and Matt Flinner, Scott delivered a scorching 6-song, 40-minute set.
“Family Tree” was dusted off for a fine performance. On Paul Simon’s “American Tune” Scott again demonstrated his prowess, alternating powerful and rhythmic strumming with carefully chosen, flat-picked notes. A song I don’t remember having previously heard, maybe called “Long Wide Open Road,” featured a great, star-crossed line- “While I was looking for forever, she was looking for the door.”
Flinner did some nice work low on the fret board during “A Memory Like Mine;” the song had a real jam feel with everyone taking the opportunity for extended breaks, Driessen most impressively working the low register. The too-short set concluded with “Long Time Gone.” Time well spent.
Hazel Dickens, truly supported by a cast of trusted sidemen, was who I really wanted to see on this day, and that is no knock against Doc. But Hazel Dickens just makes my bluegrass engine purr. I love her voice, and even knowing the voice isn’t what it once was, it doesn’t hardly matter. She can flat out sing.
Called the Heart and Soul of the festival by its benefactor Warren Hellman, Hazel struggled a bit to find her voice on “Things in Life”, but rounded into form by the time she concluded “Aragon Mill.” “Mannington Mine” was performed, as was the similarly themed “America’s Poor.” (And I tripped over a wee bit on the ‘net that mentions these songs and puts Hellman’s contributions to the festival in a less positive context: http://www.beyondchron.org/news/index.php?itemid=2528)
To ‘appease’ Dudley Connell, Hazel allowed him to sing the Stanley Brothers song “Lonesome Without You.” “Jack and May” had Dudley singing with Hazel, and Marshall Wilborn adding additional harmony. “Mama’s Hand,” “Love Me or Leave Me Alone,” and “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” were also performed.
Hazel also delivered the line of the weekend when she deadpanned- “I smell pot- someone’s smoking. Shame on you.” A few beats later adding, “You got to pass that around!”
When one considers the esteem in which Hazel Dickens is most obviously held at HSB, and judging from the size of her attentive audience it is considerable, it is hard to fathom why she has yet been made a member of the IBMA Hall of Fame. (Yes, I’ve flogged this old horse before, but I will continue to do so until there is some evidence of someone listening.) Could it be that this collection of liberal, wheat-germ eating, pot smokin’ hippy wannabes and their brethren of the Bay Area are more attuned to the musical contributions made by Hazel Dickens than are those who make such decisions on behalf of the bluegrass industry? I exaggerate, of course, but Hazel remains on the outside looking in at her industry’s highest honour while year after year the male (and largely dead) are recognized. All deserving, I’m sure- but really, there is no rush to get some of these names on the wall as their time has (literally) passed.
She has been a groundbreaking bluegrass performer for nigh on fifty years, and with each year that passes we (the bluegrass community) miss an opportunity to bestow upon her the honour she deserves. Her performance at HSB9 gave ample evidence that she remains a vital component of today’s bluegrass scene. Hazel didn’t perform a dozen or more songs I would have loved to have heard, but what she did perform was stellar, even when it wasn’t.
Also appearing with Hazel was Barry Mittenhoff (mandolin), a fiddler I could not recognize, and a banjo player who may have been Jason Burleson, but more likely was someone else.
Finally, my last act at HSB9 was to be Doc Watson, appearing with David Holt. Their three-disc set of interviews and performances is an absolute favourite; while I would have preferred to hear Doc with Jack Lawrence, I wasn’t about to pass up to here Doc and Holt’s homespun music.
The chosen set wasn’t nearly adventurous- “Way Downtown,” “Shady Grove,” “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” and “Stagger Lee” being the first four tunes played. But Doc gave a finger-pickin’ clinic, and Holt’s clawhammer-style of playing does complement Doc well. I was glad to hear Doc perform “Deep River Blues” before I had to leave the park to catch the plane. As I turned away from the stage area, Richard Watson was joining the duo in “Roll On Buddy.”
If considering a weekend away for roots music, one could do worse than giving Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 10 a spin next autumn. I was only able to catch a fraction of the acts I would have loved to hear- heck, I had to pass up The Knitters, Billy Bragg, Rosie Flores, Todd Snider, Del McCoury, and Emmylou Harris, not to mention Booker T and the DBTs, Richie Havens, Billy Joe Shaver, Elizabeth Cook, Robert Earl Keen…
The hard part will be to not allow this festival to overshadow all which follow.
Thanks for spending some time at Fervor Coulee. Donald