Karen Dalton: Green Rocky Road

By: Sarah Moore

Somewhere between the vocals of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin sits Karen Dalton's strong, cigarette-stained voice. Dalton was considered part of the folk revivalism movement of the 1960s; but rather than shun commercialism, she, along with greats like The Carter Family and Mississippi John Hurt, combined tradition with modernism for her authentic blend of folk music. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Devendra Banhart considers her to be one of the greatest singers of all time. Although she only recorded two studio albums, she left behind several home recordings of herself with her banjo circa 1962 or 1963. Green Rocky Road (Delmore Recordings) is part two of those remastered tracks (part one being last year's Cotton Eyed Joe). It is said that her official releases were made under duress and thus possess an awkward, stoic quality. Green Rocky Road is Karen Dalton free, unhindered and unadulterated.

With just two tracks to record her voice and banjo, Dalton plays earnest, honest old-time songs with only her voice, her banjo and the room itself. Her clawhammer style of playing is sturdy against her forceful, throaty vocals. Her bluegrass and Scruggs' styles of picking are jaunty, tinny excursions. Everything about the recording is raw from the self-overdubs and brief tape malfunctions to the inclusion of background noises. In "Katie Cruel," a telephone's ringing and birds' chirping help to envision what kind of surroundings she recorded in. A bright spring morning alone envelops the feeling of the track. In seamless, clawhammer style, Dalton brushes and thumbs intricate patterns of notes. Her low alto is not so much sultry as forced, stark and awkward. She sets up walls and barriers with her forceful voice, and her clawhammer strumming tears them all down. Cowboy song "Whoopie-Ti-Yi-Yo" is one of the highlights; it shimmers as Dalton's voice hits its most forte moments, reverberating against the microphone and the tin strains of the banjo. Although the final track seems non sequitor with its acoustic guitar, blues nature, it still offers a glimpse at the late singer's early guitar inklings. That being said, listening to each track feels like uncovering a lost, forgotten, valuable diary in a secret, hidden space in your grandmother's house.

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[Published on: 10/22/08]

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Matthew Jaworski starstarstarstar Thu 10/23/2008 11:27AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Matthew Jaworski

Sweet. Nice review. I picked up "In My Own Time" after I heard Joanna Newsom cover one of Dalton's tunes, and the album is fantastic. I didn't realize "that her official releases were made under duress," so I'll definitely check this out.