To date, It's Hard To Tell The Singer From The Song is Hazel Dickens' last solo album, and though its two predecessors are good and important records, it's also probably the finest of the three. Recorded in late 1986 in Nashville and originally released on Rounder in 1987, the album features an especially strong collection of material, including five Dickens originals, and displays her tough rural voice at its best. Still, what lifts it above the already high standard of her earlier efforts is the inspired selection of backup musicians.
About half the cuts here find Dickens in an acoustic country mode, accompanied by the late Roy Huskey Jr. on bass, Tommy Goldsmith on guitar, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Blaine Sprouse on fiddle. That trait is shared with the album's predecessor, By The Sweat Of My Brow, but on the remainder of the songs, she's backed by an intriguing and inspired collection of bluegrassers, notably veteran banjoist Allen Shelton, whose career dates back to the early 1950s and included a stint with Jim Eanes and several tours of duty with Jim & Jesse.
Together with Huskey, Monroe-leaning mandolinist Mike Compton, guitarist Pat Enright, and fiddlers Glen Duncan and Jim Buchanan (another Jim & Jesse veteran), Shelton's work here gives the album's bluegrass a kind of rootedness that earlier Dickens banjoists, for all their talent, couldn't match. In the same way, harmony vocalists Cheryl White Warren (of the Whites), Kathy Chiavola, Duncan and Enright are naturally adept at framing Dickens' voice, following her every twist and curl.
The songs, too, are an especially delicious bunch. "A Few Old Memories" is probably the best-known of the originals, thanks to Dolly Parton's recent recording, but they're all strong, including "You'll Get No More Of Me" and the powerful anti-war gospel song "Will Jesus Wash The Bloodstains From Your Hands?", both driven by Compton's crisp mandolin and Shelton's patented "bounce." The remainder, from the obscure uptempo waltz "Do Memories Haunt You?" to Dallas Frazier's "California Cottonfields", are handled with equal skill and feeling, especially a gospel "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" that's every bit as fine a piece of songwriting as the more famous Browns song of the same name she had recorded earlier.