Folksinger Karen Dalton was legendarily loathe to record in studios. The two albums well-intentioned producers managed to coax from her before she gave herself over full time to the addictions that ultimately killed her were the result of stressful negotiating and even trickery. 1966 is her third posthumous release by Delmore Records; like the other two it was recorded before the “proper” albums she made with Nick Venet and Harvey Brooks, and it wasn’t done in a studio. Dalton made 1966 at her mountain home in Colorado with her husband Richard Tucker, who supplies some guitar and voice on five tracks to augment her 12-string guitar, banjo and inimitable low moan. This may account for some of the ease one hears in these performances. Tucker relates in the liner notes that Dalton was never happier than when she was sitting in a rocking chair, singing and playing for visitors.
One of those visitors, Tim Hardin, contributed four of the songs heard here. Like Dalton, he had left New York City with a wealth of musical learning and a monkey on his back; when he joined the couple in Colorado, he briefly found companionship, understanding, and musical accompaniment that no orchestra or session man posse ever matched. Tucker and Dalton may already have learned some of those songs from Hardin when they were all part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, but they sang those songs together during Hardin’s visit to their home, and there’s a lived-in quality to them on 1966.
Hardin isn’t on this record, but the presence of his songs is one of the decisive differences between the Dalton who recorded Green Rocky Road and Cotton Eyed Joe in 1962-3 and the Dalton who made this record. Those records leaned on old folk songs and ones Dalton probably learned off the radio, but nearly half the songs on 1966 were written by her buddies Hardin and Fred Neil. The influence of her time in NYC is also evident in her guitar playing, which is more fluid and less anxious here. You can hear her becoming the performer who would make It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best, but not so fraught by the discomfort that going into a studio caused her.
That said, I’d still take It’s So Hard… over 1966. There must have been a lot of hiss on those tapes, because it sounds like the high end has been sucked out by some noise-reduction vacuum cleaner; her duets with Tucker are a tadd too informal. But second-drawer Dalton with a few blemishes is still far more worthy than whatever new or rediscovered songstress the zeitgeist might throw your way. By turns languidly bluesy and as stark as an oak branch against a February sky, her music is a treasure, and this record fills in a story-line with far too many gaps.