Country music survivor Lacy J. Dalton’s good-humored resilience remains intact

By Bliss Bowen

Lacy J. Dalton recorded a new album in L.A. last August

Emerging into the country mainstream in 1979, Lacy J. Dalton occupied a unique niche amidst a rapidly changing musical landscape. Not until a decade later did she release an album called “Survivor,” but its titular theme has defined her career and will likely imbue her performance at McCabe’s Guitar Shop this Sunday.

Born Jill Byrem in Pennsylvania in 1946, Dalton was a Bob Dylan- and Hank Williams-loving folk singer and guitarist who was already a veteran entertainer when her self-titled 1979 debut landed her in Billboard’s Top 10 country albums chart and earned her a Top New Female Vocalist award from the Academy of Country Music.

Her natural grit and soulful style somewhat resembled outlaw country queen Sammi Smith, but in the early ’80s Dalton’s taste for rock, blues, bluegrass and classic pop material also attracted audiences of slicker “Urban Cowboy” fare. Although she wrote a number of her own songs (notably her debut single, “Crazy Blue Eyes”), Thom Schuyler’s tribute to aspiring songwriters, “16th Avenue,” became her signature song and one of that era’s biggest country hits.

Many fans did not realize Dalton had developed her vocal chops singing in a psych-rock band and at truckstops while waiting tables, nor that her husband had died in the wake of a freak accident and she was consequently raising their son alone. (Fewer still knew that during the Northern Californian’s hungry years in the late 1960s, she and her husband leased a house on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and rented out rooms; one of their housemates was Cheech Marin.)

Touring hard and releasing almost an album a year throughout the 1980s, Dalton presaged Wynonna Judd’s bluesy style and the late-’80s New Traditionalist wave. That turned out to be a problem for an act with a label (Columbia) that had parted ways with her producer (Billy Sherrill) and did not understand how to effectively market an earthy, older female artist who had never glammed up her music or her image for crossover appeal. By the mid-’90s she was recording for indie labels, as she does today. Since founding the nonprofit Let ’Em Run Foundation in 1999, Dalton has been dividing her time between advocating for wild horses and burros, teaching songwriting in prisons, and performing at country nightclubs and casino showrooms throughout Nevada and the West.

These days, her hair is shorter, her alto deeper, and her vibrato a bit more robust. The conversational phrasing she learned from folk singer Karen Dalton (no relation) remains as confident as her guitar playing, and her good-humored resilience remains intact, as evidenced by new song titles like “Life’s About Now” and “It Takes an Earthquake Sometimes.” So does Dalton’s career-long knack for inhabiting songs as if describing her own life.

For the past decade she has been solidly accompanied by guitarist/mandolinist Dale Poune, who will join her at McCabe’s. They’ll be performing songs from her forthcoming EP “Scarecrow,” recorded in L.A. in August with producer Ira Ingber and his eclectic rock ensemble jackiO (which also features bassist John Avila, guitarist Steve Bartek and drummer Dave Raven), and scheduled for release Jan. 25. jackiO will also be on Sunday’s bill, along with special guest Quincy Coleman.

Lacy J. Dalton headlines an 8 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 20) show at McCabe’s, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $26.50. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit mccabes.com.

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