Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Mark Linn of Delmore Recordings Discusses Karen Dalton's "1966"
Mark Linn is a man on a mission. He runs Delmore Recordings, which is a record label that is philosophically dedicated to unearthing and reissuing some remarkable recordings that would, in all likelihood, not being seeing the light of day if Mr. Linn wasn't on the job. The label has co-collaborated and worked with another one of my favorite labels, Light In The Attic.
Delmore Recordings has recently released a newly unearthed set of recordings by songwriter and banjo/ guitar player Karen Dalton called 1966. I saw this new release as the perfect opportunity to both spread the word on the label's work, as well as share the life and recordings of Karen Dalton with new listeners and faithful followers.
As you will very well read, Mark was generous enough to take a considerable amount of time and effort to discuss the work and history of Delmore Recordings, as well as his own impressions of Karen Dalton's recordings. In addition, he tells the story behind making Ms. Dalton's 1966 recordings available to listeners. Here's our in-depth conversation:
Hi Mark. Thanks very much for taking the time to share the history of Delmore Recordings and the new set of recordings by Karen Dalton, 1966.
Before we discuss the new Karen Dalton release, I'd like to ask you a little bit about Delmore recordings.
How and when did Delmore Recordings form/ get started?
Mark Linn: Delmore grew out of a 20th century booking agency and management company that I started in Chicago called Do Easy (after the William S. Burroughs philosophy). I had incredible experiences seeking out and working with, and sometimes touring with, legendary artists such as Arthur Lee, John Fahey, and Michael Hurley. Trying to help them get out there - along with a roster of critically acclaimed, but not particularly popular bands of the time was interesting...I often felt like Broadway Danny Rose!
The first Delmore release was a 7" single by Scarce (an incredible trio from Rhode Island that needed to be seen to be believed). A single by Wild Carnation (an offshoot of The Feelies), and a split spoken word / music 7' series featuring Alan Ginsburg and Hula Hoop, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Pale Horse Riders followed.
Delmore also released full length albums by High Llamas, Wild Carnation, Joey Sweeney, Flyer, The Mary Janes, and Ventilator followed before we took a nap and reemerged in Nashville with a Tom T. Hall tribute record (released through Sire), Diana Darby, and the first Black Swans album.
What is the label's mission and philosophy regarding the kinds of material you choose to work with and release?
Mark: Delmore exists to expose singular artists that don't quite fit in to the world. The pursuit and discovery of lost tapes, such as the Kris Kristofferson publishing demos that became Please Don't Tell Me How The Story Ends, and the previously unknown CBS sessions by Arthur Lee of Love that became Love - Lost (both Delmore co-productions) is another side of that mission.
I'm interested in delving deeper, hearing the first take, an unreleased session, or a guitar/ vocal demo. There's a forbidden pleasure in getting to hear a great artist and a song at the point of creation that I've experienced and want to share. Delmore strives to bring something of value into the world...music that might enhance our appreciation of an artist that was under recorded, or whose recordings were never released due to some vagary of the business.
When and how did you first hear Karen Dalton's work?
Mark: A friend of mine named Nicholas Hill worked for Koch records in the early 1990s and produced the first reissue of Karen's Capital album, It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You The Best. The connection for me was that Karen had sung with and known the Holy Modal Rounders, but I had never heard her before.
I don't think the reissue got much attention, but I had a very personal experience with it. I would put it on and listen alone, when I was in a certain mood and it just resonated deeply. I don't think I played it for many people, but I did talk about it. I think that reissue started a slow word of mouth appreciation, at least among some artists and friends of Nic!
What struck you most?
Mark: Her voice and also the strange, beyond understated vibe of the recording. It didn't feel like a "record" and was different from anything else I'd ever heard up to that point. The story, which turned out to be false, that she didn't know the record light was on was very believable.
I've always enjoyed seeking out the influences of my favorite artists, but the visible connections to Karen Dalton were indecipherable to me at that point. Even after all these years, Karen Dalton remains an unbelievably singular talent to me.
Can you describe your impressions of her studio albums, and what kind(s) of perspective they offer into her work?
Mark: The more recent revival of interest in Karen seems to focus on her second album, In My Own Time, but for me it's always been the Capital album. Part of that may be because I heard it first, and that the personal experience that I had with it. I didn't hear In My Own Time until several years later. The original LP on Just Sunshine was hard to find, but I also didn't seek it out. The 10 songs on the Capital album were all I wanted.
When I finally got around to it I was disappointed. "Katie Cruel" and "Are You Leaving For The Country" are incredible and completely knocked me out the first time I heard them, but I had an initially negative reaction to In My Own Time as an album. I enjoy it now, but a few of the cover versions still feel forced and some of the production still doesn't feel right to me.
It's a different entry, more immediate yet still indescribable. I credit the record with turning a lot more people on to her music. The two records are so different and show such breadth of talent that they make me wish Karen had a catalogue like Nina Simone (or even one-tenth of Nina Simone) to discover and devour.
There are other artists that didn't do their best work in the studio, and it's hard to say based on so little evidence that Karen was one of them. I wish she had made a record earlier than 1969 when her vision seemed to be at it's most pure and focused. She really was ahead of her time and her peers in 1961-62, and then these records could have shown her progression (evolution or devolution) rather than being all there is. It's hard to understand how she didn't get some kind of record deal in those early Greenwich Village days, when it seemed like everyone else did.
Karen Dalton seemed to draw from such a wide range of influences and traditional musical styles in her music. Can you describe some of influences and sources of inspiration?
Mark: Everyone mentions Billie Holiday, and that's an obvious one, but she really loved Bessie Smith and listened to her records constantly. Karen grew up in Oklahoma with a grandmother that taught her to play banjo and instilled a love for old blues and mountain songs. It turned out that everyone in the Village back then had picked up on some of the same material through the Harry Smith anthology, but Karen somehow embodied it.
How do you think Karen Dalton expanded on the themes and musical styles that influenced her, and made these her own?
Mark: Karen made every song her own, sometimes with a radical arrangement change, but always with her voice that is one of the most unique instruments in the history of music. As Fred Neil said, "Her voice is so unique, to describe it would take a poet. All I can say is she sure can sing the shit out of the blues." I think that like every great artist, she expanded on the themes of the old songs by introducing them to us in a modern context. Would we know "Katie Cruel" or "Ribbon Bow" or really hear the story of "Cotton Eyed Joe" without Karen Dalton?
Delmore Recordings has released Dalton's more rare and previously unreleased recordings (as opposed to the reissues of her studio albums). Can you discuss Green Rocky Road and Cotton Eyed Joe? First, how and when did you come across these recordings?
Mark: The recordings on Green Rocky Road and Cotton Eyed Joe were discovered by Stéphane Bismuth of Megaphone Records in France. Stéphane and I met in the early 1990s when I was "managing" Arthur Lee of Love. Stéphane produced concerts at a theatre in Paris and also worked with a great Liverpool band called Shack, who backed Arthur on a 1992 tour. We became friends through that experience, and we shared a similar musical aesthetic.
Stéphane dug up the French film footage of Karen, that you can find now on YouTube, which he released on a French reissue of In My Own Time (Delmore included it in an American compatible DVD in the US version of Cotton Eyed Joe).
The tapes that became Cotton Eyed Joe and Green Rocky Road came from Joe Loop, who briefly owned a Boulder, CO club called The Attic in the early 1960s, and recorded everyone that came through. Karen was a particular favorite of Joe's, and it turned out she was a favorite of just about everyone on the scene in those days.
What inspired you to embark on the process of releasing these albums?
Mark: Stéphane had no experience releasing music here, so he invited me to be the US label for Cotton Eyed Joe. We ended up working well together initially, which led to my also working on Green Rocky Road. We had a particularly interesting experience in Woodstock, NY. where we met and stayed with Peter Walker, in hopes of releasing some of his music.
Peter is an incredible guitar player who made two seminal raga albums for Vanguard in the 1960s, and has become a student and auteur of Spanish guitar, that was embraced by the gypsy masters. He had known Karen well, and cared for her in her last months. It was through Peter that we obtained some of the beautiful photos that were used on Green Rocky Road.
What was most surprising and/ or surprising working on these releases?
Mark: As I am prone to do, I became obsessed with Cotton Eyed Joe, listening to it ad infinitum, much like I had with her first album all those years ago. Once you get past the sound quality, and set your ears to the experience, you are really transported to The Attic, and it's an incredible document of Karen's amazing interpretive skills, and fascinating song choices. What she does with the Ray Charles songs is particularly mind blowing to me still. She was definitely not just another folkie in those very folkie times!
Most surprising, though I really shouldn't be anymore, is that some journalists didn't get it. Cotton Eyed Joe was released in the wake of the very successful reissue of In My Own Time, and it sold well, especially considering that it was expensive due to the packaging. But I got some disheartening feedback from writers that I truly respected, both from the "freak folk" writers that had embraced In My Own Time and even one from a legendary journalist. One of the freak folk writers told me that it didn't sound like Karen, and that his friends agreed!
I understand the lack of attention span in the 21st Century, and I'm guilty of it myself sometimes, but this is Karen Dalton! I've come to realize that many newer fans of Karen had experienced an immediate connection with "Something On Your Mind," the first song on In My Own Time, and just had a different relationship with Karen Dalton to folks who'd known her forever or at least since the 1990s reissue of her first record.
To me, Karen has always been someone you truly appreciate over time and repeated listens, and Cotton Eyed Joe got stronger for me the more time I gave to it. Ironically, that was part of Karen's problem as a performer. She apparently had no problem playing five slow songs in a row, and didn't acknowledge or always connect with the audience. Which is another reason I love Cotton Eyed Joe. It could be my imagination, but it feels like the tiny audience is rapt and hanging on every word. There's incredible tension.
What was most memorable and/ or rewarding from working on each?
Mark: Receiving letters and emails from people that were as moved as I was, and thrilled for it's existence. And hearing from people who knew Karen and getting the opportunity to know some of them myself. There was an incredible community in Boulder and Denver in the early 1960s that is deserving of documentation.
What do you think these albums offer that Dalton's studio work doesn't? Overall, what do you think they add to her legacy? What led you to take on the releasing these recordings?
Mark: They capture another side for sure, but for me when there's a truly great artist, and how many are there really? I want more! I love the Dylan official bootleg series and the hundreds of non official bootlegs that I have, and I appreciate all the unreleased Velvet Underground that's turned up.
Meeting Karen's friends led to tracking down leads for more tapes from different eras. I think that Karen's music is a particularly personal experience for listeners, but certainly not for everyone, and not even everything is for everyone. I've come across tapes that I've personally enjoyed but I don't think would add to her legacy. The more I listen the more I realized that even her first album is not as natural as she could be.
I first heard that from many of her friends from the early 1960s who were disappointed by her singing on that record. So many of these friends have the memory of long evenings listening to Karen sing at home permanently etched in their brains, their time around her being the best time of their lives. One friend and musical collaborator moved to San Francisco shortly after Karen left Boulder in late 1966 for New York, but he couldn't be bothered to check out any of the now legendary bands on that scene. He didn't believe anything could measure up to hearing Karen Dalton sing in the cabin.
Let's dig into 1966. Can you describe Dalton's original recordings.
Mark: 1966 is taken from a rehearsal tape at her Summerville, CO cabin. Noone remembers much about the circumstances, other than Carl Baron brought his reel to reel up there and held on to the tape for 40+ years. Dan Hankin, a friend of Karen's who plays on both her records told me about Carl, thinking he might have photos, or even film footage. The tape had solo recordings of Karen, Richard Tucker, and Carl, as well as some Karen and Richard duets and trio recordings. I released what I considered to be the best of the tape, which is most of the Karen solo recordings, and a few duets.
How and when did you first hear these recordings? What was the process for preparing these for release?
Mark: I first heard the tape a few years ago, and immediately hoped I'd be able to release something. I licensed the recordings from Carl, Karen's two children, and Richard Tucker, and then started the slow process of readying. The tapes are obviously lo-fi, like the other releases, but they had some extra issues. Carl used every inch of both sides of his tape, and even switched to the slowest speed (worse quality) a couple of times to capture as much music as possible. He actually flipped the tape more than once, meaning a few songs were cut off at the beginning or end.
So the sound was not uniform in quality or volume throughout, and my goal was for 1966 to feel like the record she might have made then if given the opportunity. A lot of work was done by Delmore's mastering guru, John Baldwin, trying to achieve what I heard in my mind. I'm not sure we completely got it, but as Arthur Lee would say, "Nothing beats a failure like a try!"
What would you say makes these recordings on 1966 significant, and what would you say this release adds to the Karen Dalton discography?
Mark: Karen changed a lot between 1962 and her first album in 1969, and 1966 appears to be the only documentation of the midway point in-between. Tim Hardin is an obvious signifier, the first ever recording of "Reason To Believe", etc. Karen, Richard, and Tim were old friends in the early village scene of 1960-61 and had a trio that performed in the coffeehouses. Tim didn't write songs at all then, so it must have been a shock when he showed up in Summerville with all those amazing songs. Tim's songs are in a different style than the traditional or even Fred Neil songs that Karen mostly did before and it either expanded her range of emotion or it was always there and this is the first evidence.
There is a nice passage in Ben Edmonds liner notes on 1966 where he talks about Katie Cruel and and how he believes the version on 1966 may be the definitive one. He says that the difference between the version on Cotton Eyed Joe from 1962 and the one on 1971's In My Own Time must be measured in lifetimes.
I tend to romanticize the 1960s, and many of my favorite albums were released in 1966. But Karen's best times were earlier, in the post beatnik, early 1960s Boulder and Greenwich Village scenes that Dylan describes in Chronicles.
With Karen there was never any money or many gigs, but in Summerville she and Richard were able to get by in the mountains with odd jobs and living off the land. They had horses, and she was able to have her children around for an extended time. It's reflected in the performances on 1966, which are informal but incredibly pure. It was the end of an era, as Karen and Richard split up for good soon after, and she once again returned to New York in search of a record deal.
What would you say it is about Dalton's work that resonates with contemporary artists, as well as continues to appeal to new listeners just discovering her work?
Mark: That's hard to say. You'd have to ask them, as I'm uncomfortable enough answering for Karen!
I'd like to think it's the same thing that resonates for me, or anyone that appreciates great art. You can feel it, it can make you feel. I know that Devendra Banhart is a passionate fan, and his proselytizing exposed a whole new generation to her music. I went to meet him and see him perform in Nashville around the time that Cotton Eyed Joe was released, and I had the surreal experience of walking past a long line of his young fans waiting outside, and overhearing several of them talking about Karen Dalton.
What contemporary artists would you say connect to Karen Dalton's work?
Mark: Nick Cave, Lucinda Williams, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Jolie Holland, Meg White, Diana Darby, Beth Orton. I know there are others.
Along the same lines, for fans who enjoy Karen Dalton's recordings, could you direct listeners to some of her influences, peers, and recommend some works that you would say connect strongly to Dalton's work?
Mark: Bessie Smith, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, Nina Simone. You can really hear Karen's influence on Fred Neil's vocal style on his Capital albums. Fred helped Karen get both of her record deals, and was a true believer in her artistry, as she was in his songs.
Tim Hardin's singing also has a Karen influence, although nobody sounds like her. I highly recommend Tim Hardin's first two albums and the live one from Town Hall for a start.
What's next for Delmore Recordings?
Mark: Our very next release is the first record in 7 years from Diana Darby. Diana is not the only living artist on Delmore, but she is the most alive. After releasing 3 great records from 2000-2005, touring the US and Europe (and getting a nice following in Italy), Diana completely disappeared due to a combination of illness and all Hell breaking out. Last year she recorded 12 new songs that absolutely stopped me in my tracks, and we're going to release I V (intravenous) in May. Diana's songs are quiet but intense, beautiful but scary. I'm excited to be working with her again.
There's a long, narrow pipeline of Delmore releases that I hope to get out in the next 12 months, There is a record from 1973 called The Kingston Springs Suite that was never released. Produced by Shel Silverstein and Kris Kristofferson, and funded by Johnny Cash, it's a "concept" album about a small town outside of Nashville that has great history, but is being "modernized." It's a poignant song cycle with spoken passages between songs by people who'd lived there for generations and the music has a stoned, Crazy Horse vibe that instantly attracted me. I hope to release it this fall. There's also projects in the works by Antonia, Gary Stewart, Jay Bolotin and Ronnie Self will follow. Stay tuned!