Award-winning country music/Americana artist Lacy J. Dalton celebrated two anniversaries and a debut in 2019: first, her 40th anniversary in country music; second, the 40th anniversary of her groundbreaking Top 10 debut single, “Crazy Blue Eyes,” and third, the long-awaited release of new music: her four-song EP, Scarecrow. Released in January, by summer the disc had reached No. 1 on the Indie Radio charts.
She was born Jill Lynne Byrem in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. She grew up with a passion for music, began playing guitar and writing songs, and eventually made her way to the West Coast. She landed in Santa Cruz and joined her first band, Office, performing under her married name of Jill Croston.
By the time she reached Nashville in the late 1970s, she was the widowed mother of a young son and had paid her dues singing in clubs and working as a truck-stop waitress. The legendary Nashville producer Billy Sherrill heard her demo, and at his recommendation, she changed her name. As Lacy J. Dalton, she was signed by Columbia Records in 1979. “Crazy Blue Eyes,” the first single from her self-titled label debut, was an immediate success — the first of many — and won her the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Female Vocalist award.
More hits followed. Among them: “Takin’ It Easy,” “Everybody Makes Mistakes,” “Hillbilly Girl with the Blues,” “Hard Times,” “Black Coffee,” and noted songwriter Thom Schuyler’s “16th Avenue,” a tribute to Music Row and the musicians who move there in pursuit of their dreams. It was voted one of Country’s Top 100 Songs ever by Billboard. With radio and chart success came more awards: Grammy nominations and three back-to-back Bay Area Music Awards for Best Country-Folk Recordings in 1979, 1980, and 1981. She toured incessantly, opening for Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and collaborating on recordings with a who’s who of artists.
However, as Music Row began shifting, and the rebirth of traditional country music gave way to more contemporary, pop-oriented sounds, so too went budgets, promotion, and label priorities. Dalton, by then signed to Capitol, found herself — and many of her colleagues — being moved aside in lieu of younger talents who were considered more “marketable” by A&R departments and top brass.
“The recording companies didn’t promote us because they were trying to compete with whatever the next label had out,” she says. “We were pulled off the charts. They thought we were too old to promote. I have a hard time listening to some of the commercial records I made during that time, because they had me sing higher and they put a lot of [effects] on my voice and the music. Some of them are nice, but there are four or five albums I made that no one ever got to hear, because the budgets went to new artists. It was, ‘Let’s clear out all these old dinosaurs and promote younger people, to get younger people to listen.’ It’s totally understandable, but if you were a victim of it, it wasn’t pretty.”
Taking control of her career, she relocated to Nevada and became an independent artist, launching her own Song Dog Records. She released Wild Horse Crossing in 1999, followed by The Last Wild Place Anthology, which reached No. 1 on the World Independent Chart and the American Western Music Chart. In 2010, she released a tribute to Hank Williams Sr. entitled Here’s To Hank.
Of late, there have been more awards. In March 2017, she was inducted into the North American Country Music Association International Hall of Fame, and in 2018, she was nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Award. Earlier this year, she received several awards from the board of Strictly Country Magazine and the Spirit Awards, including the President’s Choice for best well-written music for Boundless Skies and the prestigious Pete Huttlinger Award for Music Excellence for The Last Wild Place Anthology.
Dalton is continuously working on new material and maintains a busy touring schedule, but she still finds time to work with charitable organizations. She oversees the Let ’em Run Foundation, a nonprofit she co-founded in 1999, which is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and rehoming America’s wild horses and burros. Beginning in 2015, with her longtime guitarist Dale Poune, she spent three years with the William James Arts in Corrections program at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California. Together, they taught basic songwriting skills and techniques, music theory, and guitar to Level 4 inmates. The classes culminated with the inmates recording those songs and performing them before an audience of prison and non-prison personnel.
When it was time to record Scarecrow, Dalton packed her Takamine and Boulder Creek guitars, a collection of intensely personal songs, and the gritty, smoky voice that can still bring tears to listeners’ eyes, returned to California, and surrounded herself with upper echelon musicians: bassist John Avila, drummer David Raven, and guitarist Ira Ingber, who produced the EP.
Although the songs may be new to listeners, the project began years ago when Dalton began writing the title track, following the painful end of her second marriage. “It took a pound of flesh to write ‘Scarecrow,’” she says, “and once it was written, I couldn’t sing it. It took me until two or three years ago to be able to perform the song.”
Forty years since her country music debut, Lacy J. Dalton can still hold her own — and more — alongside the artists who have followed in her footsteps and for whom she helped pave the way. As difficult as it was for her to write and perform “Scarecrow,” she hopes that the song, and the EP, will be as therapeutic for listeners as it ultimately was for its creator. “The older I get, and the more experience I have, the more I trust my own instincts,” she says. “I really trust that ‘Scarecrow’ is the kind of song that’s going to help people who had that kind of experience and who think that they may be the only person in the world who’s ever felt like that. This is why I do music: I do it to heal. Music is a wonderful tool. It brings us together, it connect us, and that’s why I keep doing it.”
— Alison Richter