One of the endlessly repeated and therefore defining stories of Karen Dalton's career is that she hated recording so much that she had to be tricked into laying down the songs on her 1969 debut, It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best. That may be true, but by now it's legend, portraying the contrary Okie as a true folk artist who rejected the commercial enterprise of making and selling music. It's not that cut and dry, of course: It seems she felt uncomfortable only with studios and practiced performances. In his liner notes for Koch Records' 1997 reissue of her debut, Peter Stampfel recalls that when Dalton was scheduled to sing harmonies on a Holy Modal Rounders album, she spent hours psyching herself up for the task, at one point even ripping out a bathroom sink.
Recording-- or, perhaps more specifically, being recorded-- apparently didn't trouble Dalton very much. Since her rediscovery in 2006 via Light in the Attic's reissue of her second and final album, In My Own Time, two recordings from the early 1960s have surfaced: The first, the two-disc Cotton Eyed Joe, is a recording of a live performance at the Attic in Boulder, Colorado, captured by Joe Loop. Released less than a year later, Green Rocky Road is a more intimate set that Dalton recorded herself at home on the same reel-to-reel tapes. Acting as vocalist, accompanist, engineer, and producer, she overdubs guitar over her banjo tracks and even invites guitarist Richard Tucker and Loop to play on it. You can even hear the phone ringing and Dalton talking to her mother.
Green Rocky Road is a much different listening experience than Cotton Eyed Joe, which she performed specifically for the small crowd around her, who listen raptly and applaud heartily. If that release is public, then Green Rocky Road is pointedly private. Here Dalton entertains no one but herself. In addition to singing traditional ballads like "Nottingham Town" and "Skillet Good and Greasy", she runs through pensive versions of "Ribbon Bow" and "Katie Cruel", which would appear later on her first and second albums respectively. They have all the informality of someone thinking aloud, which suits her signature vocals perfectly. "Ribbon Bow" sounds careful and simmering, with Dalton reaching down into her lower register to sound uncharacteristically foreboding-- an approach that adds a bit of malice to the lyrics. Her takes on "Katie Cruel" and "In the Evening" (which also appears on Cotton Eyed Joe) show just how malleable she considered these songs, open for any possible inflection or interpretation.
Dalton's primary accompaniment, as always, is her trusty banjo, which she plays in a clawfinger style to give these songs a distinctive style that fits her free-floating vocals nicely. It rings out brightly on the cowboy song "Whoopee Ti Yi Yo" and the lover's lament "Red Rockin' Chair", and she adds dissonant notes to make "Nottingham Town" sound like a raga. In overdubbing, she seems to consider tempos and time signatures almost as restricting as a real studio. Opener "Green Rocky Road" overlays an acoustic guitar over her banjo, but the two instruments don't always mesh, lending the song an unrehearsed emotional push and pull.
There's no telling what purpose she intended for these recordings, or if the mere act of setting these songs to tape was the extent of her endeavor. Possibly she might have planned to record over them, or give them away, or store them in some dusty attic box for another generation. Whatever the case, Green Rocky Road stands as a particularly personal statement, a career marker that shows where she was and what songs obsessed her at a particular moment. That we can listen to these songs nearly half a century later is certainly a benefit, but it never feels like her primary concern.