Essential New Music: Karen Dalton’s “Shuckin’ Sugar”

Karen Dalton was one of the great interpretive singers of the American folk revival, but when she died in 1993, she had just two studio albums to her name. In subsequent decades, tapes recorded in concert or private were turned into a couple more records. Now Shuckin’ Sugar, which was originally released on vinyl for Record Store Day 2022 and has now been placed on streaming services and pressed as a CD, joins them.

While Dalton made a great splash in Greenwich Village, where she shared stages with Bob Dylan and Fred Neil, she was notoriously more comfortable elsewhere. One of her preferred environments was the Rocky Mountains, and the concert recordings from which Shuckin’ Sugar was compiled were recorded in Boulder in 1963 and 1964. She and her husband at the time, Richard Tucker, were regular performers at a folk club called The Attic, whose 50-person capacity wasn’t much bigger than the rooms she liked to play the most: living rooms.

Such intimate confines may contribute to the music’s relaxed vibe, which eases back the intensity a notch from Dalton’s enduring debut, 1969’s It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best. But her unerring instinct for finding a song’s emotional center is intact, and Shuckin’ Sugar’s 12 songs are evenly split between familiar repertoire (including the bleak “Katie Cruel” and a beautifully unhurried rendition of “Trouble In Mind”) and six songs that are new to Dalton’s discography. They range from playful stoner’s confession “If You’re A Viper” to a desolate take on folk standard “In The Pines.”

The rich ring of her 12-string guitar still cuts through, and Dalton’s comfort in this relatively low-pressure setting draws out the intuitive swing of her vocal phrasing. The recording quality is a bit rough; not many microphones were adequate to the demands of Dalton’s bluesy drawl on its own, and The Attic’s was definitely not among the worthy. When she and Tucker harmonize, the limits of the gear that was on hand are especially apparent. But the compelling and distinct performances easily cut through the haze of time and cheap, old machinery, making Shuckin’ Sugar a worthy addition to Dalton’s slender discography.

—Bill Meyer