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Bluegrass Legend Hazel Dickens To Receive Lifetime Achievement Award

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Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard.

Dickens' career didn't begin with the glitz and flash of Nashville, but deep in the mountains of West Virginia. She grew up one of 11 children in a household so poor, breakfast was a biscuit, and often a glass of milk was a luxury.

"You can start with nothing. We were very, very poor and there was not money to buy instruments so you used your voice," Dickens says.

She moved to Baltimore in 1954 to make some money as a housekeeper and waitress, then got a job at the Continental Can Company. As a musician, Dickens wasn't an overnight success. For more than a decade, she piled into a car with her guitar, her band, and other acts to perform at bars, festivals and tiny clubs. Today, her wall is covered with awards and many consider her a queen of "traditional" bluegrass music.

"She's like the Sex Pistols of old-time music," says Dudley Connell, who's been playing with Dickens for 30 years. "It's aggressive. It's in your face. It's take-no-prisoners and she's kind of relentless. And I mean that all of that in the most positive sense possible."

Connel says when Dickens starts going, it's a revelation.

"This little old lady climbs up on stage. We help her up and help her get her guitar on and tune it up and she starts to sing and you see these kids faces...they can't believe it! You know, because it's just so real, so heartfelt, and emotional," he says.

Dickens' style has won her many fans, and many artists have covered her songs, but Conell says the most creative Dickens covers comes from Dickens herself.

"Hazel doesn't ever do the same thing the same way twice. I've listened to her closely and worked with her so long that I actually can kind of anticipate. I just kind of keep an eye on that ole gal," he says.

Song was a big part of family life in the Appalachian Mountains. Especially for Dickens, since they didn’t have much else.

"It saved me," Dickens says. "Singing saved me because it was something that I didn't have to pay for, you know...I had no money to pay for it, but I had it. It was always there. I could always turn to it. It was always a friend."

Several of Dickens' songs deal with hard issues: labor, poverty, abuse. But she says she didn't write them to be political.

"I would see something that bothered me or I would see a really loving person that would be overwhelmed," Dickens says.

And it's that empathy that speaks through her music.

"'Cause you got to get inside if you're writing about a person. You have to really get inside that person and know the depths of their feelings, their emotions, and what they're about. If not, it's just words," she says.

And on April 16, there will be words and music aplenty as McLean lights up with the D.C. Bluegrass Festival. As for Dickens, who knows? After accepting her lifetime achievement award, she might just grab a guitar and start jamming.

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