The past few days I have really been getting into the new Karen Dalton
release, Green Rocky Road
I am a big fan of Dalton's studio albums, It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You the Best
(1969) and In My Own Time
(1971). When I first heard them, they seemed like precious relics from the past. It also seemed unlikely anything else of hers would ever be uncovered and released, but now, just a few years later, there have been reissues and even video footage released!
Dalton's life story is very compelling. She seems to have lived on her own terms, with little compromise and a lot of eccentricity and self destruction. Basically, Karen was a free spirit. She was half Native American and grew up in Oklahoma. She married and had two kids by the time she was 21. She also played banjo and 12 string guitar. Dalton left her husband and moved to New York in time to take part in the early '60s Greenwich Village scene, playing clubs and hanging out with Bob Dylan
and Fred Neil
. Later, she moved north to Woodstock, where she was surrounded by a creative community that included her friends and sometime lovers The Band
. Her two albums never sold well and she slipped into obscurity, heartbroken. Eventually, after a life of drinking and drug abuse, she died of AIDS in New York in 1993.
Her voice is unmistakable: a craggy, worn sound that cracks and
warbles its way through old folk standards. Green Rocky Road
is a 1963 recording of Karen in her home, something never intended for release. Her sound lends itself to this type of setting and is only enhanced by the intimacy of the recording. Dalton slowly winds her way through the songs, taking her time and allowing her throaty voice to coat the jingle jangle of her banjo accompaniment. It's well-known that Karen hated being in the studio, and though her two official albums are extremely well worth seeking out, there is a certain pleasure, a palpable ease and comfort that the informed listener can wring from her voice in these home recordings that may be lacking from the studio records. It's also enjoyable to listen for the idiosyncrasies of the recording: her mother's voice, a phone constantly ringing, picking errors that simply serve to remind me of the organic nature of song. Dalton's voice is haunting and like no one else's.