The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

March 16, 2013

The ballad of Karen Dalton

Bob Dylan admired this obscure Enid folk singer’s vocals


Good times rooted in Enid

Look closely, too, and you’ll notice the missing teeth. Dalton’s story had no classic “Behind the Music” narrative arc. There was no rise to fame before the trouble started. Her life was tumultuous from the get-go, from her days growing up in Enid. She drank hard, she took drugs, she acted out. She was married and divorced twice before age 21, before leaving Oklahoma. Those two bottom incisors stayed behind.

“She was living with a guy who caught her in bed with my eventual stepfather, and she got punched in the face,” Baird said. “She used to say she was going to get her teeth fixed when she got to be a big star.”

Dalton, however, never got to be a star — and didn’t always seem to really want to be.

Like another Okie transplant in the Big Apple, Woody Guthrie, she sabotaged many chances to move her career forward. She hated recording; her first album, “It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best” (1969), was only captured because producer Fred Neil fooled her into believing the tape wasn’t rolling. She never wrote her own songs, performing and recording only covers in an era that valued the individual voice of the emerging singer-songwriter. Releasing only two albums, she never toured.

Saddled with drug and alcohol addictions, she roamed the country for years until even her two children and closest friends lost touch. She had one friend to the end, a country singer named Lacy J. Dalton (yes, she adopted the last name as a tribute), who got her into rehab a couple of times. But those missing teeth and the pain they caused were Dalton’s ticket to getting codeine prescriptions. She died in 1993, in Woodstock, N.Y.

“But she was more than just this junkie person that had a horrible life,” Tucker said. “People have a tendency to think of musicians that way instead of thinking about the music they made. I don’t see Karen as a tragic figure but more as a misunderstood artist. There’s a lot of good times and inspiring music.”

The good times were rooted in Enid, in Oklahoma’s red dirt (and, eventually, Red Dirt music) heartland.

Dalton, born in 1937, grew up on three acres near the edge of Enid. The land was big enough to have horses. By all accounts, Dalton loved horses.

“She always had horses,” recalled Tucker, now 72 and holed up in Bellingham, Wash. “We had horses (when we lived together) in Colorado. We’d ride all day through the Rockies with the dogs. She really knew horses, too. We went to one big horse sale, were going to buy a couple. This guy had 50 horses in his pasture. She immediately pointed to one horse, which turned out to be the owner’s fastest quarter horse. She bought it. She just knew how its legs were shaped or something. She never lost a race — not on a racetrack or something, just in the hills. She raced a pickup truck once and beat it. Even when Abbe was living with us, she had a pony.”

To counter her aversion to recording, before retreating to upstate New York to record her second album, “In My Own Time” (1971), Dalton first returned to Enid to fetch her kids and her favorite horse.

“It’s no wonder she loved them so much,” Baird said. “She had the same wild spirit.”

Tucker visited with Dalton once back home in Enid. “Her dad was a welder, her mom was a nurse.

They were real Oklahoma people, the whole family having lived there forever,” he said. (Dalton’s mother, Evelyn, was of Cherokee descent.) “I remember on that visit, her mother picked us up at the bus station. In the car on the way home, after just five minutes, Karen started talking like her mother, talking more Okie. It was fascinating.”

“She loved to tease people with that accent,” Baird said. “She’d hear people use bad grammar, and she’d put on that act of an Okie hick to one-up them. But she didn’t have to act too hard.”

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