Major Singer In A Minor Key
Country Music Awards to Honor Lacy J. Dalton
Lacy J. Dalton may be best known as a country singer, but her musical roots go back to growing up in a musical family in Pennsylvania, years in New York City during a decade when Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Fred Neil, Karen Dalton and many others were making the scene, and time in the Bay Area when the Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane were at the top of their games. She moved to Nashville where her singing and writing almost immediately earned her top ratings on the country charts for what have become classics, such as “Crazy Blue Eyes,” “Black Coffee,” and “16th Avenue.” She’s opened for and/or played with musical greats including Hank Williams Jr., Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Grateful Dead, to name a few.
Lacy will be inducted on March 18th into the Country Music Hall of Fame – with much thanks, she says, to long-time friend David Frizzell. “I think that David Frizzell put my name in the hat for people to vote on, and my contemporaries … I’m very honored, I’m very flattered by it, I’m very surprised by it because I have been out of the loop of country music for quite a while so it came as a very big surprise to me … and I’m humbled by it, really.”
Also being inducted are Paulette Carlson (Highway 101), Gary Morris, Irlene Mandrell (Barbara Mandrell’s sister) and Grand Ole Opry member Freddy Hart, who is getting the Legend Award.
A short chat with Lacy J. Dalton…
by Mike Foldes
My introduction to Lacy J. Dalton came through Bill Laymon, a former member of New Riders of the Purple Sage who tours now with Edge of the West, based in Santa Cruz, California. Our conversation began as I made the connection for Lacy, who asked right away if I’d read “The Tao of Willie” (which I had not), that Bill had given her for her birthday. They’ve known each other for 40 years, sung and written songs together, and, Lacy says, “He taught me more than I ever taught him.”
Many of the players in Lacy’s band of 30 years, The Dalton Gang, still live in Santa Cruz, which led me to ask how she ended up living in Nevada.
“Eight of the longest years of my life were in Nashville. When I moved back you could not buy a place in Santa Cruz… you could not buy an outhouse on a postage stamp for less than $450,000. My husband and I figured we could save a lot by just moving over the border. We found a post and beam house made with pegs that rocks in the wind like a big old ship, near Virginia City.”
Asked about where she keeps her horses in winters like this one, where the snow in the mountains is 20 feet deep, she opened up about one of her great passions.
“I don’t have horses here at the ranch anymore. My ranch ran out of water in the wells, so I have to import all my water…. The horses are stabled at Wynema ranch, a big horse sanctuary, a foundation for wild horses. We help support the Wynema ranch folks, who have 103 wild horses, and I have a few other horses at Shingletown in California on the wild horse sanctuary up there.
“They roam free…all they have to do is be wild horses forever. They have a wonderful life and both places are scenically spectacular. 750 acres and 5000 to 6000 acres. I’ve been very fortunate to find some places where I can keep them and let them be what they are.”
Standin’ Knee Deep
Offered congratulations on her upcoming induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, she modestly gave credit to David Frizzell, whom she called “country music royalty.” “His older brother Leftie was incredible – his style of singing I hope will be preserved in the Smithsonian, (it was) a style adopted by Merle Haggard and Leftie’s younger brother David. Merle’s son Marty can do it. He has a very unusual singing vocal style (Marty), very distinct, the way he developed his own style.”
“I always loved that Maria Muldaur when she did that “Midnight at the Oasis,” and back earlier with Jim Kweskins’s Jug Band, when she was throwing her voice around… I enjoy hearing different vocalizations that people do. I didn’t like that hiccupping around, but in the new ones where the men are singing in falsettos, I think it’s very compelling…”
Asked about the bittersweet, melancholy sound she’s mastered in many of her songs, “I felt like I was born to sing in a minor key. Like my career,” she said and laughed. “I have an unusual voice and some people like it. I don’t know how gorgeous it is… it’s dropped quite a bit since I was singing in Nashville. The new Americana work I do, I like the lower tone of my voice so much better than when I was singing in Nashville. It’s so much different. The new work that I do, the Americana work, is so much more pleasing and I’d love you to hear some of that, because it’s quite different from what you may have heard before.”
My familiarity with Lacy’s music is from recordings and videos, most of them older, and I’ve never seen her in performance.
“I don’t get back East much, but when I did get back East I had some fabulous shows in New York City, and when I was there I was doing outlaw country stuff.
Her name, then, was Jill Crofton. “The great Billy Sherrill said, ‘You can’t have this last name, you have to have an (outlaw) name.” That’s when she took the last name Dalton, prompted in part by her friend Karen Dalton. “I thought I would honor her by taking her last name. She sounded like Billy Holiday, only country-folk. I can’t explain, she was a protégé of Freddie Neil, she is mentioned in Bob Dylan’s book, she taught him some guitar…”
KAREN DALTON/ Katie Cruel
“Karen looked like a Cherokee Indian. … She lived with me in a house a block off Sunset Strip. I learned a lot about phrasing from Karen, which you might not have heard and won’t hear in earlier recordings, but will hear in the new Americana recordings.”
“She used to say, ‘Don’t sign your songs, talk ‘em… sing your songs like you’re talking to people, talk to the music, don’t sing. Everybody sings’… It was a tremendous gift she gave me, because people always say when you sing we believe you and they should, because I try not to sing anything I don’t believe in – at least since I’ve been able to control what I sing.”
“I’m so free now. … I’m 70, and I still work as much as I want to and I can say anything I want to people and I do…
Asked how do audiences respond to that?
“They do appreciate it. What’s really amazing, I’ll get country people and they want to hear the old hits, and I still do the old hits, a lot of times I’ll do a medley of them…So they’re satisfied by hearing what they really want to hear. I hate going to a concert to hear somebody who’s changed so totally, so you can’t hear your favorite songs. I think that’s disappointing, so I always try to do some of that stuff.”
“I do a certain kind of show. Sometimes I play with Bill and his band in California, and they play to a different audience than a country audience. They’re really Edge of the West, and that’s the name that they have, and that’s really who they are… When I play with them I’ll still play a few of the hits that are really authentic to me, ones that I’ve written, like “Everybody Makes Mistakes,” or “Baby Blue Eyes.” I’ll play some of those and then I’ll play some other music that I’m enjoying so much playing now. Much of it is very much West Coast influenced. Those are the shows I enjoy playing most.
“When my country fans come to hear that, I introduce them to that other music, but I intersperse enough country music that they enjoy the whole show. They’ll say ‘We really love the wanderer,’ or ‘Listen to the Wind,’ or ‘Love your song ‘There’s No Place to Call Home.’” It’s not so far away from country music that it’s not recognizable, as some kind of rootsy thing. A lot of times country people will like it.”
Little boy Blue
What are the influences on her more recent writing? Looking back, looking forward, or what’s happening today?
“They come from a long background in folk music. I have a lot of influences on my music that started in the long past like Karen Dalton, Freddie Neil, Bob Dylan, the women who sang back then, Judy Collins, Joan Baez. When I left the country nest I was born in, that was the music I gravitated to… and oddly, some of the largest hits I’ve had like “16th Avenue,” is really a folk song. It was voted one of the 100 best country songs of all time by Billboard Magazine, but in fact, it, and the writer of it, Tom Schuyler, are pretty decent folk singers.”
What about experiences, someone you knew, somewhere you went, your car…?
“Someone told me early on write about what you know, don’t write about what you don’t know. The better you know yourself the more successful you feel as a person. You may not be all that happy with yourself, but it’s kind of fun to bust yourself in a song, to catch yourself in a game you’re playing with yourself.
“People like Mark Knoepfler, I love his work, and I love the kind of folk stuff that he comes up with … And I love the stuff from the writers in the New Riders of the Purple Sage, like “Last Lonely Eagle,” and “Me and My Uncle,” and “Friend of the Devil,” I do those songs in my show.”
And what does she do in her spare time?
“I teach songwriting in a 20-to-life prison in Susanville, Californa. They have one of the worst reputations. The guys have been there since they’ve been 16 years old and they’re probably 28 to 48 now, and they’ve been incarcerated their entire lives. They’ve had no programs since the ‘80s and they like to rap and they like hop hop, and so I’m hearing a lot of that, and I’m assisting in writing a lot of that, where that came from… I remember the old field hollers…”
Lyrics that were the field hollers, “which the black workers in the cotton fields would chant to keep themselves in time and to keep them picking cotton in the fastest way possible… and to keep their minds active. And it seems to me that whether or not anyone wants to admit it, that’s really the roots of rap. They (the inmates) don’t even like it when I say that, when I tell them that.”
“How different is it?”
“Well it’s way different,” they say.
Lacy explains: “Well the rhythms are much more complicated, and different now. And the rhythms are way more sophisticated now, that these guys rap to… It’s amazing what those men – they are very tuned into music – they can have a lot of music, they can have a lot of television, they’re much more sophisticated than you would ever imagine in a 20-to-life prison.”
“So there are a lot of different influences coming into my music all the time in different ways. And I’ve started listening to alternative rock because I’m really enjoying some of the vocalizations I hear, like the Avett Brothers…and there’s a lot of ethnic music from other countries… Arabic music knocks me out, the Arabic scales… I heard an Arabic band up in Humboldt, they were marrying bluegrass to Arabic music, and it was the most exciting music I’ve ever heard in my life so far, these kids were playing on paint cans… and ropes tied to washtub basins and they were great. It was not amateur, it was wonderful. There were cymbals and mandolins and even banjoes but playing Arabic scales in a bluegrass setting. It seemed like there were 50 percent of each type of music and the rhythms were incredibly compelling.”
About new music?
“There’s so much young new music that is hybrid that when you hear it live it makes your hair stand on end… It’s derivative, but not just cookie-cutter… You hear a lot of hybrid music in the Bay Area that you’ll never hear anywhere else… I don’t know if there’s any way for bands who play that kind of music to get exposure in a big level yet, but I think it will come … But they’re making a living and they’re enjoying their music and the joy in their music is infectious and explosive, and that’s what music needs to be…
“I’d love to learn the Arabic scales and have that in some of my music…the half-tones and quarter-tones oh gosh it’s exciting…”
What’s in store on her Next Album?
Ed. Note: In 2016, Billboard Magazine added Americana/Folk to their Albums charts, with a focus on “ that creatively fertile middle ground generally considered to bridge country and rock: organic, roots and acoustic-based groups and solo singer-songwriters (with greater consideration than before for chart eligibility given to acts leaning more Americana than folk).” Jed Hilly, Americana Music Association executive director, commented, “This is important. It establishes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the importance of Americana music in our industry and [its] relevance in the ever-changing artistic landscape.”
“There are stations out here, KPIG and another station in Grass Valley, they are proponents of music that does do some hybrid stuff, Hank Williams Jr. next to Bonnie Raitt next to David Grissom played next to Wylie and the Wild West played next to reggae music played next to blues, and the kind of people who do this kind of music are very eclectic.” It’s a crossover theme mixing the last 75 years of music from country to folk, rock to reggae and more.
“Everything really powerful to me… a lot of the most exciting things happen on one coast or another and drift inward to the center of the country. It seems like the really exciting stuff is imported in the coastal areas and drifts…. I’m partial to the Bay Area stuff, and all the stuff that came out of there in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s.
“A lot of the really powerful country music I like came from Texas and the West Coast, that Bakersfield scene, and they were influenced by different things. Austin is American … that’s where you get the jazz influences of swing and Willie Nelson… Wonderful!”
Adding more to the mix:
“Dick Dale, father of surf music, and how he came up with surf music. He was in Texas playing rock and roll and started listening to mariachi bands, and he started doing that on the guitar and doing it in rock and he went to the West Coast and people heard what he did. He knows right where he got those influences.”
“Back to David Frizzell and Leftie Frizzell, the sound that Merle Haggard made really popular, that’s a precious thing and I don’t know how long we’re even going to have people who can do that kind of vocalization… or if anybody finds it compelling?
“Music is a spiritual medium. I mean real music. You can’t make it, I mean I’m not talking about who makes the most money, I’m not talking about any of that. I’m talking about when you’re seeking some kind of emotional connection. That’s what real music is, if you can’t connect with your heart, then it’s probably not doing its job. When it becomes a more material thing than it is a spiritual thing, it loses. You may make a lot of money, and maybe that’s good and if it brings anybody joy there’s worth to it, but when I wanna hear somebody I want to hear somebody real. I want to hear somebody who’s really been there and has something to say to me. Like Kris Kristofferson, a couple of his songs have changed my life forever, “Why Me, Lord,” was one of ‘em… and the other was a song that I got to record, that went like this (sings).
“And then his second verse…I’ll do the second verse because it’s just as exquisite as the first..”
And there is your interview. I couldn’t say it any better than that…
Congratulations, again, Lacy and thank you very much!
Lacy J Dalton, b. Oct 13, 1946… (born Jill Lynne Byrem), in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, began her singing career in 1978 as Jill Croston, with Harbor Records. She signed with Columbia Records in 1980.
The Country Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will take place at the “Country Tonight Theater” in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The phone numbers are 800-792-4308 and 865-453-2003.
About the interviewer:
Mike Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.