“She is one of the absolutely finest and [most] authentic singers we have,” music historian Charles Wolfe told The Washington Post in 2001. “Her singing has not only that ‘high lonesome sound,’ but you can hear the pain and anguish and the anger in it. It is absolutely heartfelt and sincere.”
Having supported herself since she was 16, Ms. Dickens brought a bracing real-world perspective to bluegrass songwriting and was among the first to address the plight of women in the workplace. She and her onetime singing partner, Alice Gerrard, were identified with the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1960s with such songs as “Working Girl Blues” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” about a woman mistreated by men.
An autobiographical song Ms. Dickens wrote in the early 1980s, “Mama’s Hand,” about leaving a mining town with “one old paper bag full of hand-me-downs,” was named bluegrass song of the year in 1996, after it appeared on an album by the Lynn Morris Band.
Ms. Dickens released a handful of albums during her lifetime — including two with Gerrard and three solo efforts — but she became a favorite performer at folk and bluegrass festivals and exerted a strong influence on such later singers as Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and the Judds.
According to Ken Irwin, a founder of Rounder Records, a tribute album is in preparation, with Ms. Dickens’s songs performed by such diverse artists as Harris, Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash. A new album of unreleased music by Ms. Dickens is also nearly complete.
Although she made her home in Washington for more than 40 years, Ms. Dickens always stayed true to the sound and spirit of the mountains of West Virginia.
Her rough-hewn, keening singing style grew out of her early experiences in her father’s Primitive Baptist church, where musical instruments were not allowed, and from a mountain tradition that included singers Aunt Molly Jackson and Sarah Ogan Gunning.
“When I’m at my best is when I’m belting it out and giving it all I’ve got,” Ms. Dickens told The Post in 1981. “It’s not a smooth style, it’s all feeling and emotion.”
Hazel Jane Dickens was born June 1, 1935, in Montcalm, W.Va., the eighth of 11 children. Besides his weekend preaching, her father played banjo and drove a truck delivering timber to the mines.