She had one of the most haunting, most arresting voices in all of American musical history, as immediately recognizable as Ralph Stanley and Billie Holiday’s. Bob Dylan called her his favorite singer. The Band’s “Katie’s Been Gone” was rumored to have been written about her. Yet Karen Dalton released only two albums during her lifetime, neither of which included any original compositions. At last we have an album of original lyrics by Dalton, set to music and performed by 11 wildly literate, seriously gifted female singer/songwriters, just like she was. Its lyrical content alone would make Remembering Mountains an event, but the record is a triumph on every level, honoring Dalton’s talents even as it moves her lyrics into diverse settings. Remembering Mountains is simply looking like one of the best albums of 2015, a claim I feel sanguine making even though we’re barely at the halfway mark.
The easiest way to frame Remembering Mountains would be to make the obvious point that all 11 of the composers and performers here—from the venerable Lucinda Williams through Sharon Van Etten to comparative newcomer Laurel Halo—owe some sort of stylistic debt to Dalton’s sparse, eerily minimalist aesthetic. Halo’s sample- and production-heavy “Blue Notion” will likely be the controversial track among fans and reviewers, as it strays farthest from Dalton’s sonic territory. But even Halo clearly gets it—the wide, airy space into which Dalton poured her voice and stringed accompaniments, the roomy echoes that always made Dalton’s music sound as though it had just appeared out of the landscape as a natural extension of it, as much a part of the earth as the rocks and the trees. And rather than try to replicate that sound exactly—or, conversely, force Dalton’s lyrics into needlessly clever or unexpected arrangements—every track here honors the spirit behind her performance style first and foremost. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a so-called “tribute” record (an unhelpful description here anyway) that sounds so close, in its bones and its nerves, to the honored artist’s unique aesthetic.
So, the easiest talking point—women artists honoring a woman artist—is the least impressive element of Remembering Mountains, and any review that foregrounds that element misses the core fact: This is a superb assembly of collaborative compositions, an album whose historical significance, in terms of Karen Dalton’s work and influence, is easily matched by the quality of the music. The greatest joys here, such as the two completely distinct yet equally stunning settings of “Met An Old Friend” by Lucinda Williams and Josephine Foster, are best experienced directly and not described. It’s enough to speculate that from what we know of her tastes, Dalton would likely have loved this album. A higher compliment than that, I don’t know how to give.