West Virginia Wailing

Hazel Dickens is a venerated voice of conscience within the world of bluegrass and folk, but that voice is not one that sweetly caresses the ear. It's hard as rock when conveying lyrics that confront issues of faith and social injustice. For anyone who gets a rush from unadulterated mountain singing, the sound of Dickens' rough-hewn West Virginia wail is exhilarating.

It's Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song was first released in 1987, 14 years after Dickens and Alice Gerrard ended their partnership as the hugely influential duo Hazel & Alice. Backed by a tight crew of bluegrass pickers, Dickens attacks her material with forthright indignation. The songs she chooses to cover — especially Bob Dylan's "Only a Hobo," Dallas Frazier's "California Cottonfields" and Charlie McGuire's sad tale of forgotten old folks, "Play Us a Waltz" — eloquently express her worldview.

Most powerful, however, are her own songs. She sounds almost relaxed on the title tune, which fiddler Blaine Sprouse and Dobro master Jerry Douglas buoy with a lightly bouncy swing. She's touchingly plaintive on the homesick ballad "Hills of Home" (RealAudio excerpt). "A Few Old Memories" (RealAudio excerpt), which Dolly Parton covered on her recent bluegrass album The Grass Is Blue, is similarly affecting.

"Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains From Your Hands?" (RealAudio excerpt) is Dickens at her fiery best. A potent denunciation of war ("Bloodthirsty warriors don't know when to quit") and the cynical political machinations that create it, it's one of the tough, bold gems that bolster Dickens' uncompromising legacy.