My favorite singer of 2008 has been dead for almost 16 years, yet "new" recordings by her continue to be released. For the second year running, a new Karen Dalton record is my choice for The Album of the Year.
I've never much believed in the artificial man-made time blocks called "years." The late Skip Spence used to say, "I do not worship the Time God." I've always been comfortable living in the past, present, and future simultaneously, killing time with the earthly as well as the departed. On the heels of last year's Cotton Eyed Joe, aught-eight saw the first release of Green Rocky Road: The Loop Tapes/Pine Street Recordings (Delmore Recordings), performances captured in 1962/63 at home by a 25-or-so-year old Karen, "recorded on two tracks," as she states at the beginning of the very first cut. Sweet Mother K.D. -- as her friend, the great Fred Neil, dubbed her -- was too real for the clamor and glamour of 20th Century America. With eleven or so exceptions, humans stopped being real years ago. (There are only eleven authentically hip people on the planet at any given moment, and that list is fluid.) Karen must've seen the 21st Century coming, cuz she checked out in 1993, timed to miss it completely. (You ain't missin' nothin', baby.)
I owned her first two albums on vinyl back in the day: It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You The Best (1969) and In My Own Time (1971). Both have been re-issued on CD. Other than a little background singing, they were the only recordings released in her lifetime. Her voice is an exposed nerve wrapped in a fragile rose, so haunted she makes others sound like frauds. So mournful, a deep, deep blue, expressing an unquenchable sadness that love will not be requited and that humans are doomed to be fools. She had both that blue note and the high lonesome -- blues and country -- wrapped in one. Her later recordings are reminiscent of Billie Holliday, another fragile flower, more intimate, introspective, worldly. Quieter. On Green Rocky Road, Karen's voice is bigger, wide open, as big and open as Colorado where they were recorded, without the urbane edge she developed and that's partly the charm. Neither better nor worse, just different. She sings eternal standards some call folk music with durable themes like alienation, greasy skillets, and the sensual longing of nighttime. These songs were written by Public Domain -- the greatest songwriter ever! They come from the British Isles and found their way to Appalachia and the Deep South. She exudes more soul than a white person can rightfully claim. Soul is a lost value in 21st Century America because it ain't for sale. One either has it or one doesn't. No singer with soul shows their pussy to the paparazzi. But the sexiest singers show their soul through song. So it is with Karen.
The double tracking enabled her to play both 12-string guitar and banjo and she's as earthy, beguiling and commanding an instrumentalist as she is a singer. There are moments where she veers from a song's strict structure and plays with notes as if to search for hidden magic, but then rules weren't one of K.D.'s favorite things. One could call these experiments otherworldly, even psychedelic, but if the native Texan were here to hear, she would probably scoff. Also endearing is the brief conversation where daughter Karen asks her mother Evelyn Cariker if she was allowed to dance when she was young. Yes, but "no public dances," laughs Mom.
It should be noted that K.D. had nothing to do with commerce. It's been said that she wasn't easy to work with, either in a recording studio or in a band. She paid no attention to the show biz racket and wouldn't dance for her dinner even though she apparently was often in dire need, both for day-to-day survival and to pay for certain habits. This is a way of life that's inconceivable in the 21st Century. Jon Pareles wrote recently in the New York Times how certain fledgling musical artists that sing "bohemian...insurgent, quirky" songs, lease themselves to advertisers before they ever make an album. I don't enjoy passing judgment on my fellow musicians, and I know too well the economic terrorism of contemporary American capitalism, but the mercurial K.D. would've shoved her cowboy boot up someone's butt for suggesting she commit such a crime.
Like all geniuses, Karen Dalton did it her way. And like all geniuses, she is a genre of one -- simply one of the greatest singers ever without belonging to any category. In the 1970s I had a band with Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders called The Wipe-Out Gang. Peter invited his friends to come sit in with us at gigs. I got to jam and record with Bill Barth and Luke Faust of the wonderful Insect Trust. I begged Peter to get his pal K.D. to join us. He would ask her and she said she'd come down, but never did. It's now 35 years later. I've had a lousy century thus far, but I've got these recordings by Karen Dalton and she keeps me company in a cold, cold, cold, cold world.