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New Music: Patty Griffin Records Lost Karen Dalton Song

<em>Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton</em> comes out May 26.
Courtesy of the artist
Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton comes out May 26.

Karen Dalton's career was built on covering the songs of others. Patty Griffin writes songs that others famously cover. Both artists are considered masters of their respective crafts by their peers, but neither is a household name. Each has a voice that sounds like it couldn't possibly be made by the person making it.

The latest bond between these two artists a generation apart is that Griffin is among a dozen women who have taken on a cache of unrecorded Karen Dalton songs, two decades after their writer's death. "All That Shines Is Not Truth" is Griffin's offering to Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs By Karen Dalton, a collection of songs Dalton wrote and never recorded — or, in some cases, shared at all — before she died in 1993. A few of the songs in this collection came with ideas for tablature. Many didn't, and contributors like Lucinda Williams, Sharon Van Etten and Marissa Nadler were given carte blanche.

Griffin took hers, a dark poem about the difference between beauty and perfection, and aimed it at the back row of pews. She recorded "All That Shines" in an Austin church, filling both the structure and the song to the brim with swooping gospel vocals, piano and organ. This song is in a low register for Griffin's soprano, which seems like a nod to her source material. Dalton's world-weary voice and devastatingly intimate delivery are her legacy, particularly as they related to and hinted at her troubled personal life. The dips might be Dalton's, but the soar is all Griffin's.

The question of authorship in regard to Karen Dalton has always been complicated. She released two albums in her lifetime, neither of which contained any original material — at least nothing Dalton wrote herself. Her blend of folk and blues was indeed original, and she sang words she didn't write so convincingly that pushing the point of who created what seems slightly blasphemous. And now we're hearing her own words, sung by voices that aren't hers, in melodies she wouldn't recognize. Remembering Mountains is a patchwork quilt of collaboration, and, missing a pattern to go from, the stitches will never match seamlessly. But it's also a fantastic act of faith that art can survive and bloom, even when its makers can't.

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Katie Presley