Whatever it is that great singers do, it's not merely a matter of hitting the notes. Like great instrumentalists, first-rate singers develop a sound that supports a strategy of music making — choosing a repertoire and working with the correct musicians are parts of the strategy. Like many artists rediscovered after they toiled in obscurity during their lifetimes, Karen Dalton may not have been a great singer, but her failure has something to do with her lack of strategic thinking, not her voice. So it's fitting that her voice comes through so tellingly on the new full-length collection 1966 — a home recording released by a Nashville record label devoted to just such unguarded moments.
For Mark Linn of the Delmore Recording Society, the Dalton performances that compose 1966 are the product of a process of discovery, which seems appropriate for an artist who mastered the art of sounding tenuously connected to everyday reality. "I get quite obsessive about the search and the connections, often getting too close to the subject and losing objectivity," Linn says. "It's like Fred Neil or Tim Hardin might lead someone to Karen Dalton, or vice versa."
Recorded on a reel-to-reel machine in a cabin in Summerville, Colo., in the summer of 1966, the performances unveiled on 1966 feature Dalton's 12-string guitar, banjo and vocals along with Richard Tucker's backing guitar and vocals. The record includes some folk tunes, but peaks with an amazing version of Hardin's "Reason To Believe."
Tucker had a relationship with Dalton that included marriage and, sadly, divorce. Now a musician living in Bellingham, Wash., Tucker played in a trio with Hardin and Dalton in New York City in 1963. "That was pretty short-term, and I can hardly remember specific dates we did," Tucker says. "I have a real hard time putting the '60s into chronological order."
Along with "Reason To Believe," 1966 features a version of Neil's "Little Bit of Rain," which also appeared on Dalton's 1969 full-length It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You the Best — the first of only two albums Dalton released in her lifetime. Dalton does fine with such folk tunes as "Green Rocky Road," but it's her strange way with pop music that is most compelling on 1966.
Born in Oklahoma in 1937, Dalton entered a folk scene that bears similarities to today's Americana scene — of course, the big difference is that Dalton was uninterested in promoting herself. Today, a striking woman playing banjo licks and performing a mixture of pop material and old-time tunes would be a natural. Back then, irony and careerism hadn't made serious inroads into a folk scene that was scandalized by Bob Dylan and rock 'n' roll.
Still, Dalton's choice of songs by Hardin, Neil and such likely and unlikely writers as Eddie Floyd, Richard Manuel and George Jones could often be inspired. Tucker says Dalton shared many of Hardin's self-destructive and anti-careerist tendencies.
"She was inconsistent when it came to performing, and it depended on her mood a lot," Tucker says. "Tim Hardin ended up being like that. Tim Hardin could've been huge, if he'd just kept going to the gigs and showing up, doing a good set. Fred Neil, Tim and Karen — none of them were dynamic performers every time."
Dalton sounds in control on the 1966 track "Reason To Believe," but that isn't always the case on her studio records. She hits bum notes on her cover of the soul standard "When a Man Loves a Woman," a song appearing on the 1971 full-length In My Own Time, and she does the same on "Ribbon Bow." Often compared to jazz singer Billie Holiday, Dalton does phrase somewhat at odds with the meter of the songs on her studio records, resulting in droll, inert performances.
What Linn gives us on 1966 is a tantalizing glimpse into the singer Dalton could have been. Folkies may not really need to be careerists, but they do need a musical strategy, and perhaps Dalton was simply too diffident and troubled to develop one. Yet her vision, at its best, is one of idyllic stasis, with a blues tinge. When Dalton died of AIDS in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1993, she was just a few years away from the kind of appreciation she's now receiving from a new generation of folkies.
As Linn says somewhat ruefully about Dalton's thwarted career and later struggles with a music business that never really noticed her, "Yeah, there was never any money. It seemed like in the '60s in Colorado at that time, the way I hear it from Richard Tucker and other people who were around then, it was kind of idyllic. It was still kind of innocent in 1966."
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