By James Calemine
Born Karen Cariker during 1938, in Texas, Karen Dalton grew up in Oklahoma. During her lifetime, Dalton received little critical acclaim for her music. In New York City she kept time with Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin and Fred Neil. Dalton was not a songwriter, but her adaptation of other songwriter’s music remains unsurpassed.
Dalton did not feel comfortable in recording studio, which put her at a disadvantage in the music industry. Her two albums, It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You the Best (1969) and In My Own Time (1971) remain a small, but formidable collection. It’s been said The Band’s song “Katie’s Been Gone” from The Basement Tapes was written about Dalton. She died virtually homeless in 1993. Bob Dylan wrote this about Dalton during the early 60s in his book Chronicles: “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. Karen had a voice like Billie Holliday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed. I sang with her a couple of times…”
1966 contains 14 previously unreleased recordings. Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” serves as the first song on 1966. Her rendition of this quiet goodbye song resonates a sadness of tragic proportion. The traditional “Katie Cruel” features a banjo that gives this song a spooky Appalachian echo…like a ghost coming through the speakers.
“Cotton Eyed Joe” highlights Dalton’s masterful guitar-playing as well as her haunting voice. “Green Rocky Road” reiterates Dalton’s guitar prowess and her rare ability to convey a visual story in just a few lines. Her version of Tim Hardin’s “Don’t Make Promises” awakens an old feeling of someone else’s inability to keep their word, promises or love.
Dalton covers Fred Neil’s “Other Side of Life” with confident soul. Another Neil song, “Little Bit of Rain”, definitely sounds like Billie Holliday singing. Dalton’s stark version of “2:19 Train” sounds as if it was recorded in the 1930s, as does “Misery Blues”. Dalton covers the traditional folk song “Mole in the Hole”, which sounds like it was recorded on a dilapidated wooden front porch. “Shiloh Town” (another Hardin tune) demonstrates the Dalton never wasted a note. In fact, every note evokes emotion.
The final track, “Hallelujah”, offers a lush 12-string guitar sound. Dalton’s voice on this closing tune is cut short, which ends the album…and serves as a parable for her short career and life. Karen Dalton’s sad talent remains preserved well on 1966.