When Nick Cave first heard Karen Dalton’s recording of “Something On Your Mind” he had to pull his car off the road and weep; not because it was sad – though it is – but because it was perfect. To Bob Dylan, who in the early 60s occasionally sang with Dalton in Greenwich Village coffee houses, she was the finest performer on the folk scene: “funky, lanky and sultry”.
As fellow folkie Peter Stampfel puts it, her authenticity stood out in an urban world of folkie wannabes. “She were folk,” Stampfel says. “Not that she resembles any folk you’ve heard before; perhaps Billie Holiday might sound like this, had she been raised on some Appalachian mountainside.” Dalton artfully combined influences ranging from jazz to hillbilly into a style that was utterly her own. Yet great artistry is no guarantee of a great career, as this intimate account of Dalton’s singular, emotionally penetrating music and hard, short life amply illustrates.
While film and recordings of Dalton are scant, directors Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz have created a deep and moving portrait, drawing on the testimonies of admirers such as Cave and intimate memories of Dalton’s daughter Abbe, an ex-husband, a few lovers and number of close friends. In addition, there are Dalton’s own poetic ruminations, read from her notebooks by Angel Olsen, plus enough of her music to leave you wishing she had made a whole lot more. — Nick Bollinger