Chrissie Dickinson, a longtime Tribune contributor and music critic who specialized in country music, and who was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s former pop music critic, died May 19 at the age of 62 in Chicago. Her death of her was announced on social media by fellow musician Cynthia Hammond Jenkins. The cause of her death was heart failure.
A musician who played in punk and rock ‘n’ roll bands at the University of Indiana before veering into journalism, Dickinson had a reputation for incisive reviews and artist interviews. When country superstar George Jones died in 2013, she said of his famous voice: “It soared up and out, it boomed down, it clenched so fast and hard in such sharp and wrenching ways, I knew that I would never catch up with it. .” After June Carter performed with her husband de ella, Johnny Cash, at the Bismarck Hotel in 1994, Dickinson wrote in the Chicago Reader that Carter “brought the evening down to an appropriate trash level, mixing in odd portions of schmaltz and deep-woods snake -handler fervour.”
“Just very poetic in the way she put words together,” says Greg Kot, the Tribune’s former pop music critic who first hired Dickinson for freelance stories in the early ’90s, then edited her video reviews for the Coda Collection where he is head of editorial. “She had great books in her. She had more great writing in her than her. There was so much more she could’ve accomplished.”
Born in Crown Point, Indiana, in Feb. 1960, Christine Ann Dickinson first played guitar in high school, then attended Indiana University, where she joined like-minded women in bands such as the Altered Boys, Glass Factory and Sally’s Dream, which opened for 10,000 Maniacs and others. “There weren’t female bands — there were very few and very pop. We were pretty pioneering at the time,” says Jenkins, singer and guitarist, who first met Dickinson at a Halloween party. “She had so many different artistic pursuits. Music was one of them, of course, writing was another, and she was a videographer and photographer.”
In a 2019 article, Dickinson recalled the ’80s Bloomington music scene: “There were boys with leather jackets, Doc Martens and mohawks. There were girls with blue hair, antique tea dresses and Keds sneakers. The bands were loud, fast and filled with explosive energy. We danced until we nearly dropped, a happy sweaty undulating sea of tattooed arms and spiked hair.”
Dickinson and her bandmates moved to Boston after that, and she relocated to Chicago in 1990, where she wrote for the Reader and the Tribune, reviewing hundreds of artists and interviewing hundreds more over the years, including Rickie Lee Jones, Trisha Yearwood, Brandi Carlile and Lucinda Williams.
“Chris was a remarkably clear-eyed writer,” says Bill Wyman, a former Reader music writer. “She once just bashed the heck out of Joan Jett. Something like, ‘She bashes her guitar de ella like it’s going to take her to a high point in a career full of low ones.’ Hilarious — and true.”
After writing in Chicago for several years, Dickinson took the job at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, then spent time in Nashville as editor of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Journal of Country Music. While there, she wrote a pioneering feature about LGBTQ country artists, beginning with this line: “The last taboo in country music is about to be challenged.” After that, she returned to Chicago and picked up writing for the Tribune, the Washington Post and other publications.
In addition to music journalism, Dickinson wrote songs and personal essays, including a devastating piece she posted on Facebook calling her late father a “violent crude gun-wielding alcoholic filled with fathomless and ceaseless fury.” Ella says her longtime romantic partner, Michael Redman of Bloomington: “When she did interviews, she was good at asking good questions, and getting information from people, and doing the logistical thing of asking questions that might piss them off at the end of the interview. But her personal pieces of her are really where she shines. ”
For the Tribune in 2013, Dickinson interviewed bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, who said he was pleased to be able to visit his own museum in Clintwood, Virginia. “They usually wait until (a person is) gone, then they build memorials and museums,” said Stanley, who died three years later.
Dickinson did not get to experience a similar level of recognition. “She should have been a much bigger name than she was. I don’t think she cared too much about self-promotion. She cared about the artist and the work she was doing, rather than putting her name into lights,” says Bob Gendron, a Chicago journalist who writes about music for the Tribune and edited Dickinson’s stories for other publications. “I appreciated her modesty.”
Survivors include four siblings, Marie Dickinson of Muncie, Indiana; Lore Summers of Prosser, Washington; Paul Dickinson of Washington; and Neal Dickinson of Oregon. A memorial service is planned for later this summer in Bloomington.