The name Karen Dalton isn’t as well-known as her contemporary folk music troubadours like Joan Baez and Judy Collins, or even friends and collaborators like Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. Even though another folkie—a guy named Bob Dylan—said of her in his autobiography Chronicles Vol. 1 during his early days in Greenwich Village, “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed.”
But among deep divers of the genre, her brief career was both impactful and stunning. Even as new generations discover the woman with an otherworldly, ghostly voice often accompanied by just her guitar or banjo singing blues and folk standards, old Appalachian songs, Olde Scottish/English tunes, Civil War and murder ballads and tunes by her friends.
Dalton’s music and interest in her life has seen a sharp rise in recent years. First with the heartrending (and often heartbreaking) release of last year’s feature documentary Karen Dalton: In My Own Time. Then last month’s reissue of her second album of the same name with bonus material.
Now comes Shuckin’ Sugar (Delmore Recording Society). It features 12 tracks—seven of Karen solo and five as duets with music partner and then-husband Richard Tucker—recorded at 1963 gigs at the Boulder, Colorado club the Attic (save one from the next year at an event for the Congress of Racial Equality). A vinyl 2022 Record Store Day exclusive is limited to 3,500 copies, and CD and digital versions will be available soon.
It's not music that Tucker ever thought had even been recorded, much less discovered, and then able to be released nearly 60 years later.
“I was pretty excited when Mark [Linn, Delmore Founder and Producer] sent me the tapes. I didn’t think I’d ever hear those duets again! They were sort of part of legend,” the now 81-year-old Tucker says today from his home in Bellingham, Washington on (appropriately) Record Store Day.
Songs on Shuckin’ Sugar include “Trouble in Mind,” “If You’re a Viper,” “Blues Jumped the Rabbit,” “Lonesome Valley,” “In the Pines,” “Shuckin’ Sugar Blues” and perhaps Dalton’s signature song, “Katie Cruel.”
“I didn’t even remember what they sounded like, to tell you the truth,” Tucker continues. “And her voice to me is strong. She’s younger here than on her commercial albums years later. There’s a freshness to it. I think she was even a little better [vocally]. I’ve even got this twangy thing on my voice on those songs.”
The recent reevaluation and appreciation of Karen Dalton’s music is something that Tucker is especially excited about. Surprisingly, Dalton wrote a lot of poems but no real songs of her own, preferring to put her arrangement on traditional tunes. One song not on this record but featured in the documentary and a Dalton career highlight is one Tucker wrote, “Are You Leaving for the Country.”
Photo by Kai Mort Shuman/Courtesy Mark Linn & Jan McClain
“It’s kind of weird,” Tucker says. “I’d say even five years ago, you mention ‘Karen Dalton’ is to someone and they’d say ‘Huh?’ But these are people who also don’t know who Fred Neil or Tim Hardin are,” Tucker offers. “But now, it’s much different.”
Tucker recalls about a year ago he went into his local record store, Everyday Music, and came across one of Dalton’s records with a picture of him on the back. He brought it up to the desk and pointed himself out, and the clerk and another employee “went ape” when they realized who he was.
As for his song, Tucker says he was disappointed that in the doc In My Own Time (which is actually the second produced on Dalton after A Bright Light: Karen and the Process). While watching it with subtitles, he realized several the lyric transcriptions were inaccurate, possibly due to a miscommunication between a Dalton on tape and a computer translator.
“I wrote all the songs I did in about a year, and never wrote again,” he continues. “It was maybe a year after we had broken up I saw her and sang it for her and she liked it. I never wrote it down or taught it to her. And then it came out on [the record] In My Own Time. She changed a chord and a bridge and left out the third verse completely, but I’m glad my song is on there.”
Karen Dalton’s life story is almost as rambling as one of the characters she sang about. Born in Bonham, Texas in 1937, she grew up in Enid, Oklahoma where playing music became her passion. She lit out for New York in the early ‘60s to try and make it as a folk musician, playing coffeehouses with an occasional help on harmonica from another struggling young artist, that Dylan guy again.
In her personal life, there were complications with husbands, her two children, and various boyfriends and temporary liaisons (in the documentary, it’s noted she lost her two bottom teeth trying to break up a violent confrontation between two boyfriends).
For a time during their two stints living in Colorado, Dalton and Tucker resided in a cabin in Summerville where both spent a lot of time riding horses, playing for themselves and friends and just living a carefree hippie experience, despite the poverty. Informal recordings the pair made there surfaced on the 2012 release 1966, also on Delmore.
“I thought I would never see those horses again, but there’s [footage] of them in the documentary and Karen riding them around Boulder reservoir,” Tucker says.
For his part, Tucker admits he has “a great memory of things but is really weak on chronology.” He says that he married Dalton after meeting her on the folk music scene “in 1961 or 1962.” It was not a storybook relationship.
“We were apart and together and apart and together a lot of the time. At one point, I was living in town and she was living in the mountains,” he says, recalling them even visited Dalton’s parents in Oklahoma at one point, arriving by bus since the pair didn’t own a car.
But a combination of Dalton’s overt pride and also self-loathing—and a fiercely independent streak—hampered any career ambitions from the start. Karen Dalton was far more comfortable playing in a living room or on a porch for friends than she ever was in a recording studio or club stage.
Traveling back and forth between New York and Colorado (with and without Tucker), she only put out two releases: It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best (1969) and In My Own Time (1971). After the latter’s commercial failure, she basically retreated from life while developing a severe substance abuse problem. She died in 1993 at the age of 55 from an AIDS-related illness.
After their final breakup, Dalton and Tucker still never officially divorced. That was until “around 1978.” Tucker hadn’t even seen his wife in “about seven years” when his then-current girlfriend was pressuring him to get married. He mailed divorce papers to Dalton, who was then living near Woodstock, New York.
“She actually signed them and sent them back, which kind of surprised me. That she would cooperate,” she says. “It was easy with no red tape because it was an uncontested divorce.”
Tucker says the liner notes for Shuckin’ Sugar—a 6,000-word essay by music journalist and Dalton acolyte Kris Needs—are “very detailed.” And include pictures that even he hasn’t seen before, including one of him and Dalton. Needs’ appreciation in those words runs deep.
“Karen’s strength was in channeling every shard of pain and sorrow that dwelled inside her with a gentle caress that might have even surprised the song being reinterpreted. And she made it intensely personal through her supernaturally powerful but beautifully splintered delivery,” he writes.
As for all the attention now paid to Karen Dalton and her music—some of which of course involves Tucker—he says “it’s incredible.”
“I get these statements now for mechanical royalties, and they show about 20 countries where people are [buying] her records!” he says brightly. “There’s a lot of people who know about her now.”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.