Karen Dalton: Blues from Beyond the Grave

Jun 18, 2008
Originally published on December 12, 2012 11:45 am

In her lifetime, Karen Dalton was anything but prolific: She recorded two albums, 1969's It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best and 1971's In My Own Time, before spending the rest of her life avoiding the studio and sliding into drug abuse and poverty. Since her death in 1994, however, Dalton has experienced an unlikely resurgence in both popularity and prolificacy. Both of her albums have been reissued on CD, and in the last year, some long-lost early-'60s reel-to-reel tapes have surfaced, only to be lovingly packaged as Cotton Eyed Joe (last year's two-disc 1962 live set) and Green Rocky Road, a new collection of humble 1963 home recordings.

Both of the recent releases chronicle Dalton's beginnings as a sad but fairly staid coffeehouse blues-folk singer; she didn't fully find her wearily knowing voice until It's So Hard to Tell, which captures the magic period in which Dalton's voice sounded weathered but not ravaged. Obviously, these recordings were never intended for release, but they do a marvelous job of addressing the massive gaps in a tragically truncated catalog — and fleshing out a great singer's mysterious, troubled legacy.

In Green Rocky Road's "In the Evening," which Dalton would later record for her studio debut, she infuses a Leroy Carr song with bluesy, woozy weariness, drawing the sorrow out of every note. In light of her circumstances, it's hard not to view the track through the prism of Dalton's haunted life, especially given how ghostly her voice sounded to begin with. But even if she'd lived a problem-free life, "In the Evening" would still back up one of the singer's most prominent endorsements, from the great Fred Neil: "All I can say is she sure can sing the s--- out of the blues."

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