THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KAREN DALTON.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KAREN DALTON.

Karen Dalton could’ve, and should’ve, been one of the most successful singers of her generation. She certainly had the talent. Her peers agreed. Bob Dylan described Karen Dalton as his favourite singer in his autobiography. He compared Karen’s voice to Billie Holliday, and her guitar playing to Jimmy Reed’s. Sadly, all this potential and talent never materialised into commercial success. Instead, the Karen Dalton story is a case of what might have been.

Karen Dalton was born Karen J. Cariker in July 1937, in Enid Oklahoma. Growing up, she learnt to play both the twelve string guitar and long neck banjo. She wasn’t just a talented musician, she was also blessed with a fantastic voice. By the early 1960s’ she had moved to New York.

Now living in New York, Karen Dalton was soon a mainstay of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Her friends included Fred Neil, whose songs she would later cover. Karen was also associated with various bands, including the Holy Modal Rounders. However, in 1961, Karen met one of the biggest names in folk music, Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan first encountered Karen Dalton in 1961. The pair would sing together a few time. Karen must have made a huge impression on Bob Dylan, considering his later compliments about her. However, it wasn’t just Bob Dylan Karen Dalton made a big impression on. 

During the sixties, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel of The Band also met Karen Dalton. She must have made an impression on the two men. Karen is thought to the inspiration for Katie’s Been Gone, a track on The Basement Tapes by The Band and Bob Dylan. Karen it seemed, was making an impression on some of the biggest names in music. Surely, it wouldn’t be long before Karen Dalton was recording her debut album?

It took until 1969, before Karen Dalton before Karen signed to a record company. It was worth the wait. She signed to Capitol Records, who would release her debut album later that year. By then, Karen had been a stalwart of the New York folk scene for eight years. She was more than ready to release her debut album.  Karen was an experienced and talented singer. 

It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best.

Later in 1969, Karen Dalton released her debut album It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best on Capitol Records in 1969. Many within Capitol Records had high hopes for Karen Dalton. When work began on It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best Karen had chosen an eclectic selection of songs by a number of artists.

Two are written by Karen’s friend Fred Neil, Little Bit of Rain and Blues On the Ceiling. Another, How Did the Feeling Feel to You, is written by folk singer Tim Hardin. Two others, were blues songs. Sweet Substitute was written by Jelly Roll Morton and Down On the Street (Don’t You Follow Me Down) by Leadbelly. With such a diverse range of material, this allowed Karen to demonstrate how versatile her voice was.

Sadly, although It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You the Best was well received by critics, the album wasn’t commercially successful. For Karen Dalton this was a huge blow. 

To make matters worse, Karen was dropped by Capitol Records. Without a label, the future wasn’t looking bright for Karen Dalton. Her recording career had stalled after just one album. However, as the sixties became the seventies, Karen Dalton’s luck changed.

Michael Lang, the promoter of Woodstock, was also the owner of a record label, Just Sunshine Records. He realised and recognised Karen’s talent, and signed her to Just Sunshine Records. Work began on Karen Dalton’s sophomore album later in 1970.

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In My Own Time,

For the recording of what became In My Own Time, no expense was spared One of the top studios of the time was chosen. This was the famous Bearsville Studios, near Woodstock, in upstate New York. It had been used by some of the biggest names in music, including Tim Buckley, The Band, Van Morrison and The Rolling Stones. With her band in tow, Karen headed to Bearsville Studios, where they met producer Harvey Brooks. He had previously played bass on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited would produce In My Own Time.

At the famous studios, Karen cut ten tracks. This album of cover versions and traditional songs became In My Own Time. It included covers of When A Man Loves A Woman and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). Among the highlights were covers of Karen’s arrangement of Katie Cruel, Dino Valenti’s Something On Your Mind and Are You Leaving For The Country, penned by Karen’s husband Richard Tucker. These songs became part of In My Own Time, which was released later in 1971.

Just like It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You the Best, In My Own Time was well received by critics, but failed commercially. Lightning had struck twice for Karen Dalton. However, most people thought she would return with another album. Sadly, it never worked out like that.

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After releasing just two albums, Karen Dalton’s musical career was all but over. She never entered the recording studio agin. There would be no followup to  In My Own Time. Karen was lost to music and became a troubled soul. She became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and bravely and valiantly, fought her addictions. 

Her life spiralled out of control, with Karen becoming increasingly dependent on drink and drugs. It was Karen’s way of taking the pain away. On at least one occasion, Karen overdosed. There was an inevitability that the Karen Dalton story wasn’t going to end well. 

By then, Karen was in self-destruct mode. She was taking heroin, and at one point, it has been alleged that Karen and her boyfriend resorted to dealing to feed her habit. Karen had fallen a long way. Old friends who met her, almost didn’t recognise her. She was a very different person. Her lifestyle was taking its toll. When it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

In 1985, Karen was diagnosed with AIDS. Still she continued on a path to self-destruction. That’s despite the best efforts of her remaining friends, including country singer Lacy J Dalton.

Lacy first met Karen when she and her boyfriend were looking for a room to rent in New York. They were lifelong friends, with Lacy standing by Karen when things got tough. In 1992, in attempt to help her old friend, Lacy arranged to get her into rehabilitation in Texas. Before that, Karen wanted her cat to be brought from Pennsylvania. Lacy saw to this, and as an incentive for Karen to get clean, setup a recording session at the end of the rehab. It was all for nothing. Just a day later, Karen wanted to return to New York, where she was addicted to Codeine, which was prescribed by a dentist. For Karen, this latest addiction proved too much for her system.

Less than a year later, on March 19th 1993, Karen Dalton died. She was just fifty-five. At the time, it was rumoured that Karen had died on the streets of New York. That wasn’t the case. Instead, Karen Dalton died in the care of her old friend Peter Walker. She was only fifty-five, and had the potential to become one of the most talented singers of her generation. 

As music mourned the loss of Karen Dalton, the obituaries referred to Karen as a singer. They never referred to Karen as a songwriter. Both of her albums, It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You the Best, and In My Own Time featured a mixture of cover versions and traditional songs. Not once did Karen include one of her own songs. This lead people to believe that Karen Dalton wasn’t a songwriter.  

After Karen Dalton’s death, two further albums were released. Cotton Eyed Joe was released by Delmore in 2007. It was a double album featuring live recordings from 1962. Then in 2008, Green Rocky Road, an album of songs Karen had recorded was released. Neither of these albums featured a song written by Karen Dalton. Critics concluded that Karen Dalton wasn’t a songwriter.

Four years after the release of Green Rocky Road, and Delmore discovered a collection of songs featuring Karen Dalton and her husband Richard Tucker. These songs were released by Delmore as 1966. Again, none of the songs on 1966 were penned by Karen Dalton. Critics felt this was irrefutable evidence that Karen Dalton wasn’t a songwriter. 

That seemed a safe conclusion to draw. Twenty-nine years had passed since Karen’s death, and nobody was able to find evidence of a song she had written. This however, was all about to change.

Fellow musician, Peter Walker had been one of Karen’s best, and most loyal friends during her lifetime. He was there when she needed him most. After Karen’s death, Peter was given the job of administering her estate. It didn’t amount to much. Peter realised that, as he sorted through the various papers and files. This wasn’t, he thought, a lot to show for fifty-five years. Despite that,  Peter was determined to do the best for his late friend.

Carefully and methodically, Peter Walker sorted through Karen Dalton’s estate. Much of his time was spent bringing order to the various papers and files. Within one of these files, were everything from appointments, right through to folk songs that Karen had previously transcribed. However, what caught Peter’s attention were poems and handwritten lyrics. It seemed that Karen Dalton was a songwriter after all. Everyone was wrong.

Secretly, Karen had been writing lyrics. She had even got as far as adding chords to the lyrics. Given that there had been an upsurge in interest in Karen Dalton’s music, this was a discovery that Peter and Karen’s estate wanted to share with the world. 

In October 2012, Peter Walker published a book called Karen Dalton: Songs, Poems and Writings. It was published by Ark Press, and was irrefutable proof that Karen Dalton wasn’t just a singer, but a singer-songwriter. Sadly, Karen had never got round to recording these songs. A rueful Peter thought that these songs would just become part of the Karen Dalton archive. They deserved to be heard Peter thought. That wasn’t possible though. The thought that Karen’s songs might never be heard, saddened Peter Walker. 

Then one day when Peter was talking to his friend Josh Rosenthal of Tompkins Square Records. The pair had been friends for some time. They had often spoke about Karen Dalton and her music. Josh was already interested in the enigmatic singer. His interest had grown when he read Peter Walker’s book. So one day, Peter showed Josh Karen’s handwritten lyrics.  

This was the holy grail of Karen Dalton’s estate. Although people had read the lyrics in the book, very few had seen the original. Josh was one of the privileged few. After seeing the original lyrics, Josh realised that the songs had to be sung from a woman’s perspective. So he sent a file featuring copies of the original lyrics to some of his favourite female artists, including Sharon Van Ette, Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams and Isobel Campbell. Josh and Peter knew this was a long shot. With the letters sent out, it was just a matter of waiting and hoping. 

Eventually, Josh received replies from the artists. They had all been influenced by Karen Dalton’s music, and  agreed to cover a song. So eleven artist entered the studio, and recorded the songs that became Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs By Karen Dalton. When the compilation was released, here was the proof that Karen Dalton wasn’t just a singer, but a songwriter too.

This was ironic, because from the release of her 1969 debut album It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best, critics and cultural commentators had always commented on how Karen Dalton wasn’t a songwriter. The same comments were made when Karen Dalton released her 1971 sophomore album In My Own Time. These comments were still being made even when there was a resurgence in interest in Karen Dalton’s music. It was as if that by not writing her own songs, this made her less of a singer. Little did the critics and cultural commentators realise, that Karen Dalton had been writing her own songs all along. 

Sadly, Karen Dalton never got the opportunity to record them. Instead, circumstances intervened, and Karen Dalton’s life began to unravel. After the release of In My Own Time in 1971, turned her back on music. She never again entered a recording studio. 

There was chance of that. Karen Dalton was in the vice-like grip of addiction. Drugs and alcohol were the only way that Karen Dalton could dull the pain, and keep her demons at bay. Surely, things couldn’t get worse for Karen Dalton? Sadly, they did.

In 1985, Karen Dalton contracted AIDS. She was just forty-eight. This was a huge blow for Karen Dalton. Still, though, she bravely battled on.  By then, most of her friends had drifted away. A few loyal friends remained, and were they were determined to help her. This included country singer Lacy J Dalton. She arranged for Karen Dalton to enter rehab in 1992. Alas, that wasn’t to be, and at the last moment, Karen Dalton had a change of mind. She returned to New York, where she had an appointment with a dentist. This proved to be the last straw for Karen Dalton.

When Karen Dalton visited the dentist, she was prescribed codeine by. It’s a powerful, and can be a highly addictive drug. Sadly, Karen Dalton quickly became addicted to codeine. This was just the latest substance that Karen Dalton had  become addicted to.  This was one addiction too many.

Less than a year later, on March 19th 1993, Karen Dalton died in the care of her friend Peter. She was just fifty-five, and could’ve, and should’ve, been one of the most successful singers of her generation. She certainly had the talent.

Despite her undoubted talent, Karen Dalton neither enjoyed the commercial success nor critical acclaim her music deserved. Maybe if Karen Dalton had been signed to a different label things might have different? Elektra Records which for a while, seemed to specialise in singer-songwriters, would’ve been the perfect label for Karen Dalton.  She would’ve thrived, fulfilled her potential and had her music heard by a much wider audience. Sadly, that didn’t happen until later.

The resurgence of interest began just before Karen Dalton’s death in 1993. Before that, just a discerning group of musicians and music lovers flew the flag for Karen Dalton’s music. However, since Karen Dalton’s death, there’s been a huge upsurge in interest in her music. Both of her albums, It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best and In My Own Time have been reissued. Somewhat belatedly, Karen Dalton’s music is receiving the recognition it so richly deserves,

That is no surprise. The music on Karen Dalton’s two albums, It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best and In My Own Time is breathtaking in its beauty and truly captivating. Both albums feature a singer who was blessed with the ability to breath life, meaning and emotion into songs. This Karen Dalton seemed to do effortlessly on It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best and In My Own TimeSadly, these were the only albums Karen Dalton released during her all to brief recording career. This means It’s Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best and In My Own Time are Karen Dalton’s musical legacy, and a remainder of an artist who could’ve, and should’ve, become one of the most successful singers of her generation. 

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KAREN DALTON.

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