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Thursday at the Greenhouse at the Cove
San Antonio Express News
by Hector Saldaña
An important figure in the birth of Outlaw Country Music, Talley was touted by legendary record producers John Hammond and Jerry Wexler in his early days in the 1970s. His songs from that time, ''Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?'' ''Give My Love to Marie'' and ''Dixie Blue,'' which mixed country, bluegrass, blues and renegade balladry, showed a range that veered from Ray Wilie Hubbard, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson to a gentler Glen Campbell and young John Denver approach. ''I write about people. As long as they don't go out of style, I guess my music won't go out of style,'' said Talley in a 1978 TV special. Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson and Moby have recorded his songs. A rare treat in an intimate setting.
10 Country Albums Rolling Stone Loved in the 1970s You Never Heard
We praised them 40 years ago — and you should listen to them today!
James Talley, 'Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love'
A brilliant Nashville gambit: James Talley bartered his carpentry skills for studio time, and got some of the town's best session musicians to donate their skills. He pressed a small run of the resulting album before a major label picked it up, and it proved to be an old-school classic, kicking off a four-decade career that also saw him playing guitar with B.B. King and being covered by Moby.
What We Said Then: ''Talley is obviously steeped in the rural tradition. He owes a great deal to Jimmie Rodgers and the Oklahoma-Texas string bands of the Thirties and Forties. . .he does a good job of evoking the era when unique string bands like the Doughboys would set up on a flatbed truck, hand out biscuits, and play all afternoon in the sun. It's a musical and cultural simplicity that's been missing from country music and, in a sense, harkens back to Depression music.'' — Chet Flippo, RS 196 (September 25th, 1975)
RED RIVER MEMORIES: JAMES TALLEY'S OLD AMERICA
Good Friends Beer & Records - Chapel Hill, NC
January 5, 2014
by Ben Clack
Occupying sonic territory somewhere between Bob Wills and John Prine, James Talley has carved out a career unfettered by the Nashville machine, releasing relatively undiscovered records that speak of the American experience in the way only an Okie dust bowl born son of a Nuclear Plant technician can.
Born in Tulsa, OK in late 1943, he lived for a bit in Washington state but ultimately settled in New Mexico. While in school Talley trained as a fine artist before packing up for Nashville in 1968, at the encouragement of a passing through town Pete Seeger. Kicked around in Nashville, where he paid the bills as a Dept. of Human Services caseworker, he found shelter in trips to New York City seeking the mentorship of the legendary John Hammond Sr. (who launched the careers of Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Arthur Russell among many others).
Initially Talley was rejected by Columbia Records, then was signed to the doomed Atlantic Records Nashville before ultimately landing on Capitol Records, where he created the four albums which define his career- a body of work staunchly at odds with nearly everything else occurring in the popular music of the era. Combining an effortless ability to breathe life into the characters that inhabited his narrative world of song, with a musicality immersed in classic soul, country and the fiddles-on-fire Western swing of the aforementioned Wills, Talley created a canon of song that spoke of the old America: a world of vast landscapes and small towns, an agrarian fantasy connected through the hum and glow of radio tubes.
''Many a dream is dead and gone like the cowboy and his song, since I loved you on that old Red River shore''
- James Talley ''Red River Memory''
I first came across the stone classic Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love in a pile of donated radio promo LPs and jukebox 45s at a Habitat for Humanity Restore. Grabbing the record for one dollar on the merit of the minimalist design and name alone, I had no idea what I was bringing home. Within the first 30 seconds of the first track ''W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys'' I felt a feverish, possessive sort of excitement.
Conceptually as daring as his former Atlantic labelmate Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger (also released in 1975, although Got No Bread... was recorded in 1973) Got No Bread... is a sparkling companion to Nelson's masterwork. It's equally as full of cowboys and open spaces as it is full of the bliss of companionship and the ideal of family. Most remarkably on ''To Get Back Home'' he states something of an ethos in a high tenor: ''You know its hard to get back home, to see things die that you once loved so'', lamenting the loss of love and the passing of a generation.
Talley followed Got No Bread... with Tryin' Like the Devil and Blackjack Choir, each of which are works of beauty equal to their predecessor. Both possess varied musicality (Tubas! Dobros! Pedal Steel!) and a high warble dotting the character sketches with the dirt and dust of the world weary. In 1977 he released his final work for Capitol, Ain't It Something, incorporating elements of New Orleans second line into the well articulated western swing, honky tonk and folk influences that defined his sound. Well ahead of his time once again, Talley presaged honky tonk moving on into new forms.
The 1980s found Talley releasing two seldom heard albums on the German Bear Family label, culminating in the release of Road to Torreon, a book of photography of New Mexican villages, featuring songs recorded and conceived before the writing and recording of Got No Bread....
In 1999 Talley started up his own label, Cimarron Records, that saw to the loving restoration of his catalog. Nearly all of his recorded work is available on CD from Talley directly, and most of the Capitol records are deep in the stacks of record stores worldwide, waiting to be found, often for less than $15. He is still active in Nashville, has performed twice at the White House for Jimmy Carter and in recent years has seen his work covered by artists as diverse as Moby and Johnny Cash.
In an era of long-tail economics and in light of the recent reissue campaigns of the Nashville noir of Mickey Newbury, James Talley's most important work is waiting patiently for rediscovery. It's Red River memories, and crickets outside the door; imminently relatable and part of the great American thing.
James Talley in Concert
Tacoma Public Library, Tacoma, WA
November 26, 2012
James Talley in concert
Monday, November 26 @ 7 p.m.
Olympic Room, Main Library
James Talley is an Oklahoma born folk-country-blues singer/songwriter, whose career now spans over forty years. His name has been mentioned alongside Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan, and praised for the quality of his songwriting and his wise, expressive voice. Noted author and music critic, Peter Guralnick has said of James' work, ''There are few singer-songwriters who could produce a collection of such magnitude coupled at the same time with such lightness, beauty, and all-out social conscience. Woody Guthrie never wrote a more direct or affecting song than ''Richland, Washington''; Bruce Springsteen never wrote a more powerful one than ''Tryin' Like the Devil.''
James performed twice at The White House for President Jimmy Carter, and at the Smithsonian Institution, and in other concert venues around the United States and in Europe. B.B. King played guitar on James third album, Blackjack Choir, in 1976, marking the first time the legendary bluesman had ever recorded in Nashville. Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, Alan Jackson, Hazel Dickens, the late Gene Clark, and most recently Moby, among others, have recorded his songs.
Music author David McGee has called James Talley's work startlingly original. Legendary music producer, Jerry Wexler, who remained friends with James until his death, said, ''You remain for me one of America's greatest songwriters.'' CMT columnist, Chet Flippo, called him ''one of the best singer-songwriters to ever come out of Nashville.'' Learn more about James at www.JamesTalley.com
James Talley at The Blue Door
Blue Door - Oklahoma City
October 23, 2012
by Greg Johnson
James Talley has always been a working class hero songwriter, meaning he never has stopped writing about real people and their struggles and hopes. I am a real fan and few writers have had as much an impact on country music in the seventies as has James - he is that good - His classic debut ''Got No Bread No Milk No Money'' and the followup ''Tryin Like The Devil'' are considered modern folk/country classics and more recently ''Nashville City Blues,'' ''The Road To Torreon'' and ''Woody Guthrie Songs Of My Oklahoma Home'' position Talley as one of the best songwriters working today. In 1999 I wrote in Oklahoma Today that James Talley is one of the most important recording artists in Oklahoma history and that hasn't changed.
Heartsong - James Talley
Nuts About Country.com
by George Peden
“I have always seen myself as an artist, not just an entertainer. I am more comfortable in blue jeans and a flannel shirt than in rhinestones and sequins.“ James Talley from his liner notes.
There is a quality to the music of James Talley. It’s a quiet and honest style. It comes with a lyrical veneer, which rightly has Talley tagged as an Americana pioneer. It’s a style, perfected over a time span counted in decades rather than years. For the fans, and there are many, Talley continues his simple and observational look at life, love, God and the American way with his latest, Heartsong. And, just like his earlier and heralded back catalogue, it doesn’t disappoint. The reason is simple enough. The album has a heart and it has soul.
“I am first and foremost a writer,” says this Oklahoma born troubadour. And across this album – his first new project in 10 years – his 16 life-soaked tracks lend positive fact to the claim. There’s no Nashville conveyor belt urgency to the writing here; rather, Tally does as he’s always done – he delivers music that is blessed as being inspirational and intuitive.
As he tells in his liner notes, “My inspiration has always come from the people, from their lives, their struggles – of which there are many… it’s often late in our lives before we truly learn what is really important and of value.”
To précis this album: It’s comes finely crafted with Talley’s rich and emotive baritone, pulled together into a prized and listenable piece of work. But the richer reward for the discerning listener will rest in repeated playing, as it’s there the music, the writing, the shade and toning, and Talley’s keen ear and eye of what really matters comes revealed.
“They Can’t Kill Love” is a catalogue of human efforts to change the will of man, but as Talley shares, love may be tested but it can’t be discarded. It’s much like the universal family truth: “When Mamma Ain’t Happy” then nobody is happy. The fiddle-rich tale of the good life when your mother is beaming highlights, again, the clean and sharp playing of the well-chosen and seasoned players in the band.
Tally has been making music, deep, spirited and ponderous since 1975. That lyrical trademark is evident again here. “Are They Really Different?” is a paused and tempered tune. It looks at the universal possibilities that people everywhere share the passions, hopes and dreams that bond the human spirit.
But to analyse Talley’s Heartsong, track by track, is wasted respect to this fine and talented performer. My take, my feel, my view on the lyrical storytelling is exactly that – my take. You need your own experience. When you listen to tracks like the keen and atmospheric “Santa Fe Blues”, or the bluesy “Cold Blooded Killers”, with it’s tale of significant deceit and treachery, or the ache of a love lost on “When It Was A Love Affair” you hear a talent with a message. It’s a message not so much for the masses, but rather for individuals prepared to listen.
Tally’s music, like his well-told tunes, is stylish and individual. If you want open and honest music that will take the test of time, if you want an artist, not just a performer, look to Heartsong and James Talley. A deserved double thumbs up from me. It is out now on Cimarron Records.
50 Underestimated Masterpieces
Rolling Stone - Germany
by Wolfgang Doebeling
Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love: Only the complete title of the album does justice to the warmth, the wisdom and the inner beauty the listener is presented with so richly. On the surface James Talley's Country-Folk-Blues is just that, marvelously played by great musicians like fiddle player Johnny Gimble, but there is more to it; deep respect for nature, social concern, and a sense for justice. Talley sings for the little farmer, the working man, the day laborer ... Jimmy Carter, invited the philanthropist from Oklahoma to the White House. Find comfort in ''Red River Memory'' and revel in images and thoughts.
Reviews - From France
Le Cry du Coyote
by Bernard Boyat
JAMES TALLEY : The Journey - The Second Voyage En peu de temps, James Talley, un des rares auteurs/ compositeurs basés à Nashville sans compromission commerciale, nous a gratifi és de 2 nouveaux superbes CD. L!un enregistré en public en Italie, où il se produit souvent (pourquoi pas chez nous ?) Nashville et Floresville, Texas, et mêle nouveaux titres de gros calibre (Hear that lonesome whistle blow, de la bonne Country enlevée) à des succès confi rmés comme la très mélodieuse ballade Country Folk Calico Gypsy, extraite du 1er LP de 1975, qui se trouvait en bonne place dans la discothèque de Jimmy Carter, ce qui lui valut des invitations à chanter à la Maison Blanche et d''être mentionné dans le bouquin Lost Highway de Peter Guralnick. Et lorsqu''on constate à quel point son vocal de baryton est chaud, qu''il a le chic pour concocter des mélodies moelleuses et trousser des textes poétiques, comme Tom Russell savait le faire avant de prendre la grosse tête, on se dit qu''il est un peu passé à côté d''une belle carrière. Mais, aurait-il conservé son authenticité ? Eternel débat. A son habitude, James mélange Country Folk et Blues, un peu comme son modèle Woody Guthrie, pour de très belles ballades, dont certaines (Someone who loves you, Deep Country Blues, Little Egypt land) sont vraiment superbes et, chose moins fréquente chez lui, une bonne pincée de morceaux plus musclés : le Country Rock léger Open all night, le plus appuyé Down on the corner et les Country Rockin'' lues Forty hours et Nashville City Blues. (BB) Cimarron CIM 1013
JAMES TALLEY : Heartsong - Depuis huit ans, James se complaisait surtout à reprendre ses classiques en public, à compiler d''anciens albums ou à enregistrer un album hommage (à Guthrie). Le voilà, enfi n, avec de nouvelles compos, toujours dans les mêmes veines musicales et inspiratrices, entre chansons d''amour (le medium North Dakota girl et les superbes ballades I will come to you et Song for Shiloh, dédié à son chien), commentaire social (les ballades They can!t kill love et Are they really different, Santa Fe Blues, superbes celles-là, Whiskey and beer, bluesy, ou le Country Rock The girls from Kelowna), politique (le Blues lent Cold blooded killers, une charge contre l''industrie de l''armement et les hommes politiques qui déclanchent des confl its sous de fallacieux prétextes) ou religieux (The most infl uential teacher, très antifondamentaliste). Et, musicalement, ce CD comporte une surprise inattendue avec un When mama ain!t happy, un Hillbilly Bop comme Guthrie savait aussi en faire. Peut-être qu''il nous en mettra plus sur le prochain album et qu''il ne faudra pas attendre huit ans pour entendre de nouvelles compositions… (BB) Cimarron CIM 1014
James Talley - Journey — The Second Voyage
ICON - New Hope, PA
by Tom Wilk
James Talley’s Journey — The Second Voyage serves as a sequel of sorts to Journey, his 2004 live album recorded on his tour of Italy. Like its predecessor, The Second Voyage mixes in songs from his entire career along with five new tunes. Talley’s best songs retain a timelessness and relevancy. “Forty Hours,” a tale of working-class blues that dates from the mid-1970s, sounds just as current during the economic turmoil of 2009. “A working man just can’t make ends meet,” he declares over a bluesy, country beat. “Give My Love to Marie” is an eloquent tribute to a coal miner dying of black lung disease and shows Talley’s empathy for society’s downtrodden. “There’s millions in the ground but not a penny for me,” he ruefully observes.
Among his newer songs, “Hear That Lonesome Whistle” is a buoyant train song that recalls Johnny Cash at his creative peak. “Streets of Babylon” is a memorable lament for the soldiers killed in America’s latest
wars and serves as a follow-up to “I Saw The Buildings,” his take on the Sept. 11 attacks that appeared on Journey. Journey — The Second Voyage is a trip worth taking with a first-rate singer/songwriter.
James Talley: Heartsong and Journey: The Second Voyage
James Talley has been one of my favourite singr-songwriters since his major label debut back in 1975. Long one of Nashville's most independent and commercially uncompromising artists, James has gained control of his entire catalogue and reissued it all as custom CDs or downloads via his website www.jamestalley.com. He's also gone that route for this pair of superb new albums.
HEARTSONG is a 62 minute set of studio recordings that includes 15 new songs and a re-recording of ''She's The One,'' a beautiful love song that James first recorded back in the '70s. As on many of his other albums, James includes several songs that deal with big issues. ''Cold Blooded Killers,'' for example, is a devastating indictment of the arms industry and of political leaders who make war on false pretenses. The images in ''Santa Fe Blues' touch on several issues: migrant workers, the winds of war and, particularly, the history of Native Americans of the Southwest. In a wistful ''Are They Really Different,'' James reaches out to embrace the common humanity of people of other cultures from around the world. Among the other highlights are ''North Dakota Girl,'' in which he recalls a lost love and the place she came from, and ''The Girls from Kelowna,'' a working class train song set in British Columbia.
James released a live album in 2004 called JOURNEY that documented a superb concert he gave over in Italy. JOURNEY:THE SECOND VOYAGE is a sequal to that set and includes more songs from the Italian concert as well as a few more recorded last year in Texas with the same musicians. Like the first JOURNEY, this SECOND VOYAGE includes a mix of excellent new songs and numbers drawn from throughout his career. The new material includes a great train song, ''Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow,'' and ''Streets of Babylon,'' a song about the new Iraq War. Talley classics that live again on this CD include ''Give My Love To Marie,'' a heartbreaking farewell from a miner dying of black lung disease, and ''Nashville City Blues,'' his defiant middle finger salute to the mainstream country music industry.
Both of these albums are highly recommended.
Prime Time - New Hope, Pennsylvania
by Tom Wilk
Heartsong, the first album of new songs in eight years from James Talley, is a welcome return for the Nashville-based singer/songwriter. Talley’s songs come straight from the heart and are without pretense, be they straightforward love songs like “North Dakota Girl” and “I Will Come to You” or the social commentary of “They Can’t Kill Love” and “Are They Really Different.”
Since the 1975 release of Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, his debut
album, Talley has been a populist songwriter in the mold of Woody Guthrie, one of his primary influences. He remains an artist who sees the world through working-class eyes as heard on “Santa Fe Blues” and “Whiskey and Beer.” Talley’s musical approach has not changed. It’s a mixture of folk, blues and country delivered in a straightforward vocal style. His supple baritone is able to convey hints of repressed anger on “The Most Influential Teacher,” a song directed at religious fundamentalists of all stripes, or the heartfelt sentimentality of “Song for Shiloh,” a moving elegy for his dog.
Heartsong and Journey: The Second Voyage
July 17, 2008
by Mike Regenstreif
James Talley, arguably Nashville’s finest country singer-songwriter, and certainly one of its most commercially uncompromising, has resurfaced with a pair of superb new albums: a studio set and a live concert recording. Heartsong’s 15 new songs include Cold Blooded Killers, an indictment of the arms industry and political leaders who make war on false pretenses, and The Girls from Kelowna, a working class train song set in B.C. The live album, Journey: The Second Voyage, mixes excellent new material like Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow with classic numbers like Calico Gypsy reprised from Talley’s major label debut in 1975. The fiercely independent Talley has released these two new albums, as well as his entire back catalogue, via www.jamestalley.com in either downloadable or CD formats.
Talley blends country, blues
Sunday, February 24, 2008
by Jack W. Hill
Singer-songwriter James Talley is proud and tickled to credit a career detour into real estate with being the salvation of his musical career.
Talley, a cult hero who has never had a show in Arkansas, will perform on Friday for Buffalo River Concerts in Yellville and on Saturday at the Lyric Theater in Harrison.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in New Mexico, Talley was widely hailed when he released his debut album, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love, in 1975. The album became a favorite in President Carter’s White House, which led to a couple of Talley shows there as he continued with a string of albums that melded folk and blues sounds so successfully that he was praised by music writers Greil Marcus, Robert Hilburn, Nat Hentoff, Chet Flippo and Peter Guralnick, who wrote of Talley in his book Lost Highway.
There were three more albums in the 1970s: Tryin’ Like the Devil, Blackjack Choir and Ain’t It Something.
“Back when my contract with Capitol Records ran out, I made what was probably the worst mistake of my career,” Talley recalls, “and I took some bad advice and got out of that contract. When you’re young, you’re more likely to be fo- cused on the artistic aspects of the music business, and you can find yourself in the hands of someone who tells you to do something and you do it.
“Two months after I left Capitol, this guy abandoned me, and when that happened, my career went downwards, like stairsteps. First I had to quit hiring a band; then the dates got fewer and fewer; then the booking agent said for me to call him when I got another record deal.”
After floundering for a couple of years, Talley knew that with a wife and two kids, he needed to make a living somehow. Real estate didn’t exactly beckon, but circumstances combined to provide an answer to his dilemma.
“A guy in the construction business approached me, and since that’s one of the things you can do with a fine arts degree, I listened,” Talley says. “It turned out he was also in real estate, and he wanted to take time off so he could go on trips in the summer with the Boy Scouts, so I took on some of his work.
“As I wrote in the liner notes for one of my albums, Nashville City Blues, I felt kind of low to go from playing at the White House to having my name and phone number on signs in people’s front yards.”
In the midst of his low period, he drew comfort from friends who told him that he had “accomplished more than 90 percent of the dreamers that came to Nashville.”
For 15 years or so, Talley was out of performing, and when he finally agreed to do a small show or two, the response was, he says, incredible.
“I’ve been with the real estate thing for 25 years now, and other musicians have come up to me and say they envy me for the way I’ve made a living,” Talley says. “I finally made enough that I was able to get the rights to my early albums back from Capitol. It only took me nine years and two trips to meet with different presidents of the label.
“Like everywhere else, real estate is slow as death right now, what with the economy and the mortgage crunch, but when it was better, we sold investments and apartments, and we built our future ‘sitting-on-the-porch’ home out in New Mexico, that we might eventually get to. Right now, we just rent it out.”
One of Talley’s proudest moments was convincing B.B. King to play on a song Talley wrote, “Bluesman,” which turned out to be the first time King had done any recording in Nashville.
“We sent him a cassette of the rhythm track and he was delighted to come in and play,” Talley says. “He was so gracious, and about five years ago he was in town, signing copies of his autobiography. My wife, Jan, and I went through the line and bought a copy to be signed, and when we got up there, he looked at me, got up, spread his arms out wide and gave me a huge hug.
“He told the person at the store, ‘This is James Talley, he was the first one to mix the blues and country music. It was a wonderful moment, since he not only recognized me, but he remembered my name. And I’d gone from a beard and a lot of hair way back when to a small mustache now.”
Four years ago, Talley wrote an essay titled “The Future of Music in Our Time,” in which he wondered what would become of musicians and labels and shows. Talley had just gotten news of the impending closing of No Depression magazine, in which he had advertised whenever he released a new album or re-released an old one.
“We’re all sinking in this business, together,” he predicts. “It’s getting harder and harder to make any money in music. If we can’t sell the product, we can’t advertise. And it costs about $15,000 to record an album the right way, and another $25,000 to release it properly, so that’s $40,000 right there.
“It’s a recipe for disaster if putting them out costs you money. So I may just put songs up on my Web site and sell them as downloads or offer them as custom CDs, without the essays and photographs and liner notes, which we used to like in the old LP days.
“The need for music in people’s lives will never go away, but how it will be distributed is changing very fast and radically.”
Long Road Finally Leads Back Home
January 18, 2008
by Aurelio Sanchez
James Talley still doesn't take himself too seriously, though his footprint is a big one in country music. He's performed with blues legend B.B. King. He's had his songs recorded by Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Johnny Paycheck and Gene Clark.
His first album, recorded in 1975— with perhaps the longest title ever: ''Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love''— was voted by Rolling Stone as one of the essential albums of the 1970s. The album last year received widespread critical acclaim with its 30th anniversary reissue.
He performed twice at the White House for President Jimmy Carter.
Yet, the 64-year-old singer-songwriter, who grew up in Albuquerque, still feels that he needs to write a personal letter to a newspaper editor: ''You may not know much about me as a singer-songwriter, but there is more information than most people would probably care to know on my Web site.''
In a phone interview, the Oklahoma-born Talley, in a slow and easy drawl, said of his self-effacing pitch for publicity, ''I don't think you can take yourself too seriously; as an artist you just try to make your own little footprint.''
Talley has been making footprints all over country music for more than four decades, but you'd need an experienced tracker to find them.
Told once by Pete Seeger to write about the places and people he knew and cared about, Talley did it, though what he had to say wasn't always what the industry wanted to hear.
As a Bernalillo County welfare worker straight out of college, he learned about poverty on the eastern slopes of the Manzanos, in mountain villages like Chilili and Torreon. One of his first collections was called ''The Road to Torreon,'' a portfolio of songs about Hispanic life.
Armed with a fine arts degree from the University of New Mexico in the late 1960s, Talley found he could get only ''working man'' jobs, like being a carpenter, a horse wrangler, or a real estate broker.
Already a devotee of Woody Guthrie, partly because of his mother's family's roots growing up as tenant farmers in Oklahoma, Talley found in his own experiences a reverence for country music's roots, in the tradition of Guthrie, Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers.
It gave him a connection to the working class and a determination to do his music his way. His songs reflect parts of different styles: country, blues, rock, swing and even Tejano music.
''The two major influences in my music came from my family's roots in Oklahoma and the Depression, and the time I spent growing up in New Mexico,'' Talley said. ''I just write about life and what I see around me; I listen to what people say and I write it down.''
Talley came with his family to New Mexico as a fourth-grader. He went to McKinley Junior High and Sandia High School, and remembers when they were sparkling new schools. He learned guitar and became interested in music.
He went to UNM thinking he wanted to be a journalist or a painter, but he changed to music when he found he could write songs.
''I tell people that writing songs is a lot like painting except you're using different tools,'' he said. ''All of my songs are like paintings.''
In Nashville, where he's lived for 40 years, he's forged a successful career in commercial real estate. Disillusioned with major record labels, Talley started his own label, Cimarron Records, in the 1990s. He continues to perform when he can.
Though he's been back to Albuquerque occasionally to visit friends, this will be his first performance here since the late 1970s, when he was an artist for Capital Records. He recently got a second house in Abiquiu.
''I'm thrilled about coming back to perform in Albuquerque,'' he said.
James Talley - Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot of Love
About.com - Country Music
by Kathy Coleman
Pure, perfect Americana from the ''dawn'' of the idea of Americana as its own genre, a 30th Anniversary re-issue that's genuine, timeless, and terrific. There's no need to think of this as ''old'' music, or consider it was originally recorded in the mid-70's - it's good. Enjoy it. Savor it. Love it. Americana has been around for some 80 years, but some of these guys perfected it around this time, and James Talley was there to help show ‘em how.
Occasionally I get introduced to someone I should have known for years. It's always a surprise and a great delight to find music that's new to me that's this good; that it came out in 1975 annoys me slightly simply because I never heard it before, and I should have. A performer this influential on all the other music I love should have come to my attention sooner.
Like the others who came from this time, such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Graham Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, etc., etc., James Talley is a vibrant, unique, and incredible voice. This is music that needs to be heard, just like other obscure ''country- rock/Americana'' albums from the mid-70's, like Michael Martin Murphy's ''Cosmic Cowboy'' and the trio of albums put out by Michael Nesmith & the First National Band. Talley's music is vibrant, full of life and gusto, rich and real. From the heart music, it's both humorous and touching, performed with Talley's strong vocals and played with consummate skill by a collection of terrific musicians (including John Hiatt on guitar).
But it's just the start of what has been a long and amazing career. Talley has taken on various jobs, but his music has been appreciated by millions. He's had songs recorded by Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, and Moby, to name a very few. He's performed at the White House. His life has been fascinating, and he illustrates only a bit of it in his autobiographical essay. All in all, this is plainly a fine album.
Singing the Songs of the Working Man
High Plains Reader - Grand Forks, ND
October 17, 2007
by Janie Franz
Oklahoma born, James Talley has been writing and singing songs about working people for nearly forty years. He will make a rare North Dakota appearance in Grand Forks, Thursday, October 18, to perform at the Empire Theatre. His performance is part of a community celebration, commemorating the fiftieth birthday of the Northern Valley Labor Council.
The folky, country-blues singer/songwriter got his start in Nashville in the 1970s when he was mentored by the late John Hammond, Sr. Hammond, a recording executive at Columbia Records in New York, who bolstered the careers of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen, connected Talley with Capital Records in Nashville.
He recorded four albums in the 1970s for Capitol Records. Though his relationship with that major label turned sour–and he’ll gladly tell you the details–and he eventually formed his own record company, Cimmaron Records, Talley was able to perform twice for President Jimmy Carter at The White House. He also appeared at the Smithsonian Institution and in other concert venues around the United States and in Europe. B.B. King played guitar on Talley’s third album, “Blackjack Choir,” in 1976, marking the first time the legendary bluesman had ever recorded in Nashville. Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, Alan Jackson, Hazel Dickens, the late Gene Clark, and most recently Moby, among others, have recorded Talley’s songs.
Talley’s critically acclaimed first album, “Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love,” was originally released by Capitol records in 1975. It was reissued in a 30th Anniversary edition last year on Talley’s Cimmaron label.
Talley has recorded country blues, songs of hard living, and even a tribute to Woody Guthrie in “Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home” (1999). Some of Talley’s material was released in Europe and was quickly picked up. That spurred a tour through Italy in 2002 where selections of his concerts were recorded live for the “Journey” (2004) CD.
One of Talley’s exceptional works is the boxed edition of “The Road To Torreon” (1992). It is a full-length CD that is enhanced by a book of heartrending photographs. Both the album and the photos were in reaction to the poverty that Talley witnessed when he worked in New Mexico as a social worker. Like John Prine, Talley was able to paint telling portraits of the lives of the people living in small Hispanic villages in the state.
“The Road to Torreon is very popular in Europe, especially in Italy for some reason,” says Talley. “The Italians just loved that album, and everybody knew about it when I was over there. They requested songs from it that I haven’t played in years.” Talley’s “La Rosa Montana,” from that album, is featured on “The Journey.” It is a haunting ballad delivered with Talley’s soft western lilt that has a Willie Nelson quality.
Talley strives to say something and tell a story. “I really try to stay away from polemics. I don’t want to tell people what to think,” he says. “But if you can paint a picture and cause them to think for themselves, that’s the best that you can do. That’s what I try to do in my work is to give somebody something to think about.”
But he also wants to give his listeners a good balance between serious works and something lighter. “You’ve got to give people a release,” Talley says. “I wrote a ditty about the old cliche, ‘When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.’...Every now and then you have to have a ditty to break the pace.”
Yet, Talley takes his writing life very seriously. “If you’re a painter that’s 64 years old and you went into a gallery and saw a retrospective of all of the things you’ve painted, it’s the same thing as looking at my catalog of songs on all those CDs. That’s my gallery,” he says. “That’s were you see my vision the same as you would see a painter’s vision. It’s whether you are an artist or whether you’re just an entertainer. Art can be entertaining, but entertainment is not always art.” Talley adds, “I think our dreams are what enable us to face the rigors of reality. I think everyone has got to have something that they love doing. It doesn’t matter whether they make any money at it or not.”
Certainly, James Talley enjoys what he’s doing. “I’m just constantly writing,” he admits. He even has a new album ready to release. “There’s one in the can, and I’m working on some new stuff. I’m always working on something.”
Tally also continues to perform throughout the United States and Europe on a limited touring schedule, and his CDs receive airplay throughout the world. Last year, he appeared on NPR’s Mountain Stage and American Routes Radio.
Best Reissues of 2006
Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love - Top 10 Reissues of 2006
An Interview with James Talley
American Routes Radio with Nick Spitzer
July 8, 2006
Listen (Real Audio)
JAMES TALLEY talks with Spencer Leigh
Country Music People - United Kingdom
by Spencer Leigh
PDF File of Article
If you could take a degree in country music, I could imagine an examination question: “James Talley – what went wrong?” Just over 30 years ago, the Oklahoma singer/songwriter released his first album, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love. The songs were by no means as clumsy as the title and the quiet and intimate album received excellent reviews. There was, however, no hit single from the LP. James Talley made three more albums for Capitol - the more robust Tryin’ Like The Devil (1976), the bluesy Blackjack Choir (1977) and the socially aware Ain’t It Somethin’ (1977) – and again it was critical plaudits, but limited sales.
Nevertheless, Talley’s sincere and earnest songwriting has been recognised by his fellow musicians. B.B.King played on Bluesman and both Johnny Cash and Alan Jackson have recorded his marvellous picture of pre-war country show, W.Lee O’Daniel And The Light Crust Dough Boys. Talley writes:
“I got no troubles, I’m feelin’ no pain,
I got moonshine whisky down in my veins,
So let the Light Crust Dough Boys and ol’ Pappy Dan
Play us a song we’ll never forget.”
After that, there was nothing until 1985. Bear Family then released American Originals and followed it four years later with Love Songs And The Blues. In 1992, they issued Talley’s first collection of songs, a concept album with stunning presentation about Hispanic life in New Mexico, The Road To Torreon, and followed it with James Talley: Live. All the Capitol and Bear Family albums have been reissued on Talley’s own Cimarron label and they have been followed by a look at his roots with Woody Guthrie And The Songs Of My Oklahoma Home (1999), Nashville City Blues (2000) and Touchstones (2002).
I realise I am writing about someone whose work may be unknown to you, and, if so, I would recommend you to his website, www.jamestalley.com, as you can hear extracts from everything and, in many instances, the complete songs. You can order CDs direct from James, autographed if you want.
The live album, Journey (2004), is as close to a greatest hits collection as you can find. In actuality, there aren’t any greatest hits, but listening to these songs, I wonder why not. Several of the songs appear commercial enough, so is it just bad luck? Did James Talley mix too many styles as there are country, blues, western swing and rock influences there, but then again, that worked successfully for The Band. In short, James Talley: what went wrong? And who better to answer the question than James Talley himself.
Spencer: Can we start by finding out about your background and asking if it was a musical family?
James: I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1943, but I lived in a little town south east of Tulsa. My parents were working people. My father had a wonderful tenor voice and he could play guitar and would sing Jimmie Rodgers songs. He loved country music and Bob Wills was his hero. Bob Wills had played at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa when he and my mom were courting.
Spencer: Have you a favourite record by Bob Wills?
James: Well, I have several – San Antonio Rose, Take Me Back To Tulsa, Stay All Night – I could list a whole lot more. He was a wonderful bandleader who was capable of drawing out the very best in his musicians. I have just been down in Austin at a seminar, organised by Johnny Gimble, who played with Bob Wills. When we were looking for a fiddle player to play on my first album, my bass player said, “Why don’t we call Johnny Gimble?” I didn’t know him and he said, “Well, he played with Bob Wills”, and I said, “Call Johnny Gimble.” Johnny was talking about Wills at this seminar and he would be a wonderful interview for you sometime.
Spencer: You recorded a tribute album to Woody Guthrie, so had you known those songs from a young age?
James: My father was always singing Oklahoma Hills but I didn’t know that Woody had written it at the time. When I was in high school, the folk movement started and the Kingston Trio came out with a lot of records. A lot of their songs were by Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. They struck a chord with me, probably because of all the stories that my family had told me about the Great Depression in Oklahoma. I have always written from the heart and that is what Woody did himself. He saw a lot of injustice and the 1930s was a very tumultuous time. Capitalism was failing the people, and a lot of people were trying to find other solutions such as Communism and Socialism. Guthrie was chronicling what he saw.
Spencer: And he wrote so poetically - “In the misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray”.
James: Yeah, Arlo’s really fond of that line - it is a very poetic description. Woody’s songs get to the heart of things. They are so powerful in their simplicity and their incisiveness. I got my first guitar in high school when I was 15 and I started playing Woody’s songs. I was in Los Angeles at graduate school in 1965/6, and I picked up a book by Robert Shelton about Woody and called Born To Win. I said to myself that there were things that needed to be written about today, and so I started writing. In 1967, Pete Seeger came to the University of New Mexico to do a concert and one of my graduate English professors asked Pete if he would listen to my songs. Pete said, “Obviously you have some talent, but don’t try to write songs as if you live in New York City. You’re here in the south-west in Albuquerque, so write songs about the things that you’ve seen. Write about your family and your friends and your part of the country, and the rest of it will take care of itself.” I have always followed that advice and have passed it on to many young songwriters.
Spencer: Did studying English also help you to write the songs?
James: I was an English minor and a fine arts major, so I specialised in painting and drawing and art history. It’s just that I went in another direction after I got out of school. They are all connected. It is important to be an observer and look at things visually and that is what I’ve tried to do in my songs. But to answer your question, an education helps. Kristofferson studied William Blake and he became a really poetic writer. He wasn’t some hack writing something for the radio. He wrote some very gorgeous songs and, in a similar way, I think that the training and the outlook that I had as an artist has helped a lot. It gives you a broader perspective to draw on.
Spencer: How did you get your recording contract?
James: That’s a long story. I had written a group of songs based on Pete Seeger’s advice that eventually became the album, The Road To Torreon. That was an album about the Hispanic people in New Mexico whom I was working with as a welfare case worker, which is a job you can get with a degree in fine arts! John Hammond Sr was a monolith in the music business: he started with Bessie Smith in the 1930s, and then with Billie Holiday and Count Basie and Benny Goodman and then he was the one who championed Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin. He had ears and it was quite easy to get to see him at Columbia in New York. I played him my songs and he wanted to sign me, but the president Clive Davis had to agree. I met with Davis and his entourage in Memphis and here I was with my little Martin guitar, fingerpicking songs about poor Chicanos. The big acts at the time were Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago, big power bands with lots of horns, and it must have been like the dark side of the moon to these people. Clive Davis turned me down and John Hammond was upset. He sent me to Jerry Wexler, who wanted to sign me to Atlantic Records. He asked me how much money I was making and he told me that he would pay me more and that I could write songs for a year.
Spencer: But you didn’t record an album for Atlantic?
James: Atlantic had an office in Nashville but they didn’t have it together. Jerry was going through a divorce and his life was upside down and consequently, a lot of the record company was upside down. He had signed Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, Troy Seals and me. Jerry made a couple of albums with Willie but they didn’t do the job for him and he went to Columbia. I could see the Atlantic thing was coming to an end. I recorded an album on spec, which meant that the musicians played with the hope of getting paid at some point. I finished the album and my contract came to an end. I had a finished album and it was a very unusual album for Nashville. It was far too acoustic and it was a conceptual album like the Beatles would make.
Spencer: What did you do with it?
James: I was pounding nails as a carpenter for a couple of years and a Canadian, Frank Jones, who was the head of the country music division for Capitol, was moving back to Nashville from Los Angeles, and I had been asked to work on his house. Another carpenter told Frank that he should hear my record as it was really good. Frank, who was incredibly nice, said he’d love to and he was surprised by how good it was. We finished the job and that was that. Then, every morning when Frank got up, he would hear Red River Memory being played on the radio, and another station was playing Give Him Another Bottle as he drove to work. He called me and asked me how I was doing. I told him that I had done about all I could from the trunk of my car. He told me to come in and talk about it. I offered him a real good deal. I just wanted $5,000 to pay the musicians: actually, it wasn’t quite enough as I had to borrow $500 from my mother to pay the taxes. The Vice-President of Sales for Capitol in California said, “How can this record be any good when we didn’t pay anything for it?”
Spencer: That album was Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love and there’s a goodtime instrumental on the album, Big Taters In The Sandy Land.
James: That was the last thing we recorded. I had read a Carl Sandburg poem about an old time fiddlers’ contest and he said that the No.l song was Turkey In The Straw and the No.2 was Sweet Potatoes Grow In Sandy Land. I asked Johnny Gimble if he knew this song and he said, “No, but I know a song called Big Taters In The Sandy Land!” and I asked him to play it. We threaded the tape up real fast and Doyle Grisham played a little rhythm. Johnny said, “Okay, the machine’s going and here’s Big Taters In The Sandy Land.” It was totally impromptu and as someone missed a chord change, we faded it at the end of Side 1 and faded it back in on Side 2. Johnny finishes with an “Aaaah!”, and I couldn’t have planned it better.
Spencer: When I first heard your records, I thought of Mickey Newbury, who also merges blues and country.
James: That’s okay by me! Mickey Newbury was a great inspiration and a dear friend. I saw that he was someone who could write country songs that had something to say and it’s funny you should mention the blues because Jerry Wexler said, “Every time I hear you and Willie sing, I feel like I’m hearing somebody singing the blues.” Mickey Newbury was very creative, and I couldn’t figure out why Kristofferson became the star and Mickey didn’t as Mickey could sing circles around Kris. Mickey lived his whole life as a songwriter and the planets never lined up for him. A lot of it has to do with exposure. Look at when Jimmy Buffett went on tour with the Eagles. They were at the top of their game and filling Shea Stadium like the Beatles. If you play in front of an audience like that and have something to offer, there are going to be millions of people by the end of the tour who will know who you are. Recently, Merle Haggard was complaining that he wasn’t going to make as much money by touring with Bob Dylan as he did by himself. I said, “Merle, you’re crazy if you don’t do the tour as it’s going to open up your music to a whole new audience.”
Spencer: And what about your own touring?
James: I was touring as much as I could but I’ve never had a powerful booking agent to put me into situations where you are opening in front of people who can draw a lot of folk. I did tours with J. D. Souther and Randy Newman and a couple of dates with Ry Cooder and Jonathan Edwards. I’ve just seen Jonathan at the Folk Alliance and we hadn’t played together in 30 years. He still sounds great. Mostly, I’ve been like Mickey and Townes and Steve Young, just slugging it out in little clubs. I was on tour with Gene Clark of the Byrds out in California. He heard Give My Love To Marie and said he was going to record it on his next album, and he did it too. There haven’t been too many covers but Johnny Paycheck did New York Town.
Spencer: The second album, Tryin’ Like the Devil, came very quickly.
James: Yeah, we cut the second album so fast after Capitol released the first one. Frank Jones believed in me and my vision and he gave me creative control over all of my albums. I didn’t have a producer telling me that we will do it this way or that, and I could use the musicians I wanted. I had written a lot of songs the year I was with Jerry Wexler and so I had a backlog of material.
Spencer: Is there a problem when you are writing about people you know in that you can’t really add anything fictional?
James: Well, you can to a point, but the strongest songs come from real life. You can take some liberties. I wrote Sometimes I Think About Suzanne on the second album for Capitol and every time I play that song, people ask, “Who is Suzanne?” There wasn’t anybody named Suzanne. I needed a two syllable name so I couldn’t use Beth or Elizabeth. I had never dated anybody named Suzanne but it’s a pretty name and I used it in the song.
Spencer: And that was immediately followed by Blackjack Choir.
James: I had written a group of songs about the South and I had worked with African-Americans. I had worked with a rat control programme in Nashville, another job you can get with a degree in the fine arts. I worked with Henry Murphy from Hattiesburg, Mississippi and he had a degree in political science from Tennessee State University, which was an all black college at the time. Henry and I became real good friends and he had a 1956 black Ford Crown-Victoria with a chrome strip that went over the hood. He had an old radio in the car and the speaker didn’t work. He put in a speaker with a couple of wires that hung out from underneath the dashboard and it was on that speaker about 1968 that I heard B.B. King’s Why I Sing The Blues. It was such a powerful song and I wrote Magnolia Boy for Henry as he told me that his grandfather called him ‘Magnolia Boy’. The magnolia flower is white, but his grandfather said, “Yes, but the magnolia flower is also very sweet like you are, my boy.”
James: I recorded the songs and someone said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get B.B. King to play lead guitar on Bluesman?” We sent B.B. the rhythm track and asked him if he would be willing to play lead guitar. Much to our surprise, he agreed to do it. What a wonderful experience that was. We took him out to the airport after the performance and he ordered two dinners –a plate of spaghetti and a big plate of tacos – and he ate them all. He is an amazing guy and I hadn’t seen him in years but when he had his autobiography out, my wife and I thought we would get a copy signed. We were in this long line of people to get B.B. to sign their books and when we got to the table, he instantly recognised me. He wrapped his arms around me and started telling the lady from the book company that I brought the blues to country music. He was talking about the session as if it were yesterday. It was a wonderful moment and it is indicative of the man that he would remember that after all that time.
Spencer: And that in turn was quickly followed by the fourth Capitol album, Ain’t It Somethin’.
James: Well, we had lots of material as I was writing a lot and I love to write: I wish I had more time to write right now. We recorded Ain’t It Somethin’ in June 1977 and that’s when I hooked up with Marty Grebb on saxophone, who played for years with Bonnie Raitt. He is still a dear friend and Tommy Cogbill, who played with Elvis, played bass, but he died shortly after from a cerebral haemorrhage. It was a wonderful experience to play with these guys. We were on a roll with the songs and I still had absolute control over the album with nobody telling me what to do. We were trying to make great music, rather than something that was commercial.
Spencer: The Bear Family album, James Talley Live, shows that you also had a great live band. That was recorded in the 70s but not released at the time.
James: Those were just board tapes that I had with the band off the sound system and they were recorded on cassettes. The shows turned out pretty well and we decided to make an album of it. There was no remixing as it was just what was on the two-track. Considering the circumstances under which they were recorded, it came off pretty well.
Spencer: You comment on the Cimarron reissue that the Bear Family CD was released “without licence” and yet you were clearly involved with it.
James: All of the Bear Family albums have been released without licence. Richard Weize came over to Nashville when I had nothing going on and nobody was interested in releasing anything. I told him that he could release my albums but I never got a contract. The problem is that I have never received any money from Bear Family. It became obvious to me that there was no future in releasing anything further with Bear Family as I might never get a dime for it.
Spencer: That’s a shame as they make such a good job with the presentation.
James: Oh, they do a quality product. They released an absolutely gorgeous version of The Road To Torreon in a box set with a book and the photographs. It was everything John Hammond envisioned in the 70s, so artistically, I have no qualms at all.
Spencer: You were so productive on Capitol and then I lost track of you. Nothing was released and it was like you had disappeared.
James: I had lost my manager in California. I was a fledgling act and he couldn’t live off what he was making from me. I had done a number of shows with Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker. Jerry Jeff had a well-oiled machine going and his management approached me. I thought I would agree. The Ain’t It Somethin’ LP came out and this manager said that Capitol wasn’t doing a good job. I was young and naïve and I didn’t realise that the real motivation was that my Capitol contract called for me to produce all my own albums, and there was no money for a producer. It was fairly economical for Capitol and he looked at my contract and decided that he could feather his nest by getting me another deal, and he had got Guy a big deal at Warner Brothers with a $500,000 advance. I put my trust in this guy and when he went to Capitol and got my release, they said, “No, we want him to go in the studio in January and record another album.” He said, “We don’t want to record any more albums for you.” I was young and I didn’t question this, and it was the worst decision of my career because two months after that, I couldn’t even get him on the telephone. He had derailed my career and abandoned me. He wasn’t able to get the deal he wanted and he screwed things up so bad at Capitol that I couldn’t go back. They had put a lot of effort into it and out of spite, they deleted my whole catalogue so by 1979, you couldn’t buy any of my records. I contacted Capitol about 12 years later, and I went through four different presidents and nine more years of negotiations before I could get the rights to reissue them myself. If they had been for sale, I might have had four platinum albums by now and I wouldn’t be in the real estate business. As it is, I have been in real estate for 23 years and finally I’ve learnt something about negotiating contracts!
Spencer: Did you mind being selling properties?
James: I was devastated at first. I couldn’t believe it. I had been written up in every magazine and every newspaper. - People, Time, New York Times, you name it – and suddenly, I am broke and have got my name and home phone number on signs in people’s front yards. I had a friend who had a store which sold cooking utensils and gourmet coffee and I was selling gourmet coffee for him one Christmas and using my van to deliver things to his stores. The president of the CMA bought some coffee from me and it was humiliating but I had no choice as I had to support my family. I was like Woody Guthrie as he was a sign painter and various other things. It wasn’t until I became successful enough in the real estate business and was selling commercial property that I had the income to invest in the music. The music is still a losing proposition and I am still in real estate. I do one thing to make a living, and I do the other to make it worth living.
Spencer: You came back with American Originals in 1985.
James: Yes, but I consider that I came back in the States when I released the Woody Guthrie album in 2000. In 1985, yes, I released American Originals but all of those Bear Family releases were only released in Europe. They did no promotion at all in the United States. I did some promotion with a friend, but I didn’t have enough copies to do a thorough job in terms of mailing them to radio stations. Most of the Bear Family things got their attention in Europe.
Spencer: Has the subject matter of your songs changed?
James: I write about what I see in my culture, what I see in America. There are some new songs on the Journey album including a song about Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and another about 9/11, I Saw The Buildings, and I don’t think my perspective on life has changed. We put an interview album with the thirtieth anniversary album of Got No Bread, and a friend who was listening to it said, “You’re saying the same things today as you said 30 years ago.” I hope I’ve grown but I don’t think my core values have changed. I didn’t start out as a liberal and shift over into some kind of arch-conservatism like some people.
Spencer: How did you approach writing about 9/11?
James: We all know how it happened, but what was the underlying motivation that caused this to happen? What is the feeling of people after it happened? It was difficult to get my mind around it. I don’t write protest songs or polemics and I just try to tell a story. I don’t think I’m superior to anybody else and if I have a criticism with the folk movement, it is the attitude that we are just a little bit smarter than you and we make fun of this, that and the other. I don’t feel that way. It is like I said in the chorus of I Saw The Buildings, “The mystery holds, which no one knows, and our hopes and dreams sustain us”. Here we are in the 21st century and even though nobody knows what happens when we die, we are killing each other over different versions of the afterlife.
Spencer: Are you performing much these days?
James: It goes in spurts. Three weeks ago I was out in California and two weeks ago I was in Iowa and last week I was down in Texas. I don’t have an agent and if it is a place I want to go or if it makes sense, I will take the booking. The one thing I don’t want to do is to lose money performing. If I am going to lose money, I would rather lose it on the records as they are lasting documents of what I do. I would love to perform in the UK as I know from emails to the website that I have a lot of fans there, but I have never had anyone who could put anything together.
Spencer: You’ve been unlucky in that you haven’t had that one big song that has been covered by 50 artists.
James: Right. Steve Young had Seven Bridges Road which the Eagles recorded and he can live on that for the rest of his life! I saw Danny O’Keefe at the Folk Alliance recently and he is a wonderful craftsman and I really admire his writing. He wrote Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues, which is a milestone song for him. There are probably some in my catalogue that could have been like that, and both Alan Jackson and Johnny Cash recorded W. Lee O’Daniel And The Light Crust Dough Boys.
Spencer: How did they come to record the song?
James: Steve Popovich, who was with Columbia Records for a long time, came down here as head of Polygram to sign Johnny Cash. He heard the song and loved it and arranged for Cash to hear it. I’ve always felt a great kinship to Cash’s recordings and if Johnny had been able to hear them, I think that there are a lot of my songs that he would have loved. We both come from a poor background with a deep sense of a folk tradition, and a lot of his early recordings are just folk songs. Alan Jackson had an album produced by Stan Cornelius, and I don’t know whether Stan played him my version or Johnny Cash’s version but Alan added a verse to it. He didn’t ask for my permission: he just changed it. I’m not too much of a stickler on things like that, but I don’t think that he strengthened the song.
Spencer: Well, I must let you get off and sell some properties.
James: Thank you. I really appreciate Country Music People’s interest in my work.
James Talley: Review - Got No Bread ...
Originally released in 1975, this CD preceded the term Americana, but it fits nicely within it. This anniversary reissue includes extensive reminiscence written by Talley about his early years, including the original release of this CD. It's a welcome bonus for a new audience who might never have felt a dirt road underfoot.
Talley's songs are full of Saturday nights, Sunday suits, honky-tonks and sweethearts. Those are the good times. Allusions to a harder reality seem incidental and add a bittersweet flavor to the mood. Johnny Gimble on fiddle and mandolin, Doyle Grisham on guitar and dobro, Rick Durrett on piano, and a host of other musicians and singers join Talley in creating a sond resonant of rural Oklahoma. The second CD is a half-hour interview with Talley from the 1975 Capitol Records release. It's a nicely done package elevated to significant musical history.
Perseverance has been a hallmark of singer-songwriter James Talley's career.
Prime Time - New Hope, Pennsylvania
by Tom Wilk
Perseverance has been a hallmark of singer-songwriter James Talley's career. It's helped him enjoy the peaks - performing twice at the White House for Jimmy Carter - and survive the valleys - playing before an audience of four in Albany, N.Y. "That was my record low for turnout," he recalled in a recent phone interview from Nashville.
Now he gets to celebrate one of the high points with the 30th anniversary reissue of "Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love" (Cimarron Records), his debut album. The reissue includes the original album on one CD and a bonus interview from 1975 on a second CD.
It's an album that has stood the test of time, from the country swing of "W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys" to the reverie of "Red River Memory" and the amorous "No Opener Needed." Talley combines the directness lyricisim of Hank Williams and lyricism with the production aesthetic and ensemble playing of the early albums by The Band.
A native of Oklahoma, Talley sees the world through working-class eyes in his songwriting, drawing inspiration from fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie. Talley acknowledged a debt to the legendary folksinger in "Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma," his 1999 album.
Talley's songs - such as "Tryin' Like The Devil" and "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?" - were influenced by his earlier jobs as a welfare caseworker, carpenter and horse wrangler. He finds common ground with the subjects of his songs. "My life's like a lot of people's. We have the same hopes, dreams and disappointments." At 62, he's following an unconventional path, juggling careers in commercial-investment real estate and music. Talley left Capitol Records after releasing four albums in the 1970s. He found it difficult to make a living in music without a record label and got involved in real estate in the Nashville area in the early 1980s. "You meet every type of person in the real estate business, including some greedy sons of bitches," Talley said.
His success in real estate allowed him to continue to write songs and perform in concert. He launched Cimarron Records, his own label, in the late 1990s, using his earnings from his day job. He sells albums on his own Web site - www.jamestalley.com - and knows he still has an audience for his music. "I've gotten orders from all over the world: Oakland, CA, England, Italy, Germany, France," he said.
In fact, he found his fan base in Italy was strong enough that he recorded "Journey," a live album, there in 2002. Talley was touched by the experience as the audiences knew his songs from the first notes he and his band played. "People were singing along in English," he recalled, still marveling at the memory.
While he's not a household name, Talley has seen a wide range of artists, including Moby and Johnny Cash, record his songs. Moby reworkerd Talley's song "She's The One," from his "Tryin' Like The Devil" album and released it as "Evening Rain" in 2003 on the movie soundtrack "Daredevil." "It was unbelievable," Talley said. "Moby buys a lot of old albums and he heard my song." Cash's recording of "W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys" carried special meaning for Talley. "The first song I learned to play on the guitar was Leadbelly's "I Got Stripes" by Johnny Cash," he said.
Music remains a passion and he still has goals. "I'm working on new songs that I hope to record later in the year. I also want to reissue my other three Capitol albums."
James Talley's 'Got No Bread': Got No Complaints
The Washington Post
April 23, 2006
by Bill Friskics-Warren
This spring marks the 30th anniversary of "Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love," the debut of singer-songwriter James Talley. Just reissued with bonus material, the album stands as a monument to heart, modesty and nuance. It also just might be the one country album made in the last 30 years that's loved by people who don't especially care for country music, notably rock critics.
When "Got No Bread" first came out, it wasn't the press in Nashville that heralded it as a classic but a chorus of rock scribes led by Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick and Robert Christgau. Talley says that executives at Capitol Records, his Nashville label, didn't suspect they had anything special on their hands until raves started pouring in from the East Coast.
An unvarnished wonder steeped in the music of Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills and Merle Haggard, Talley's record sounded nothing like what was coming from the Nashville hit mill at the time. Today people consider the music alternative-country, and it's no wonder: Talley's latter-day audience consists of fans of Steve Earle and Gillian Welch, not Kenny Chesney and Jo Dee Messina.
Even when "Got No Bread" came out -- a time when pop stars like Olivia Newton-John and John Denver were cleaning up at the country awards shows -- the album sounded a note of judgment about how far country music had strayed from its rural, working-class roots. Not that those roots weren't exposed enough in American life. The nation was in the throes of a recession, with gas rationing and long lines at the pumps. The war in Vietnam had ended a year or so before the record's release. Poor and blue-collar families across the country were mourning casualties, both living and dead.
"Give him another bottle, let him ease his mind," Talley sings to the locomotive rhythms of "Give Him Another Bottle," hoisting a glass for hard-hit people everywhere. When drinking wasn't enough to chase away the blues on a Saturday night, there was always dancing, just as Talley's folks used to do back in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, an experience that he vividly brings to life in "W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Doughboys."
The rest of the time, people just hunkered down and counted their blessings. Extolling his wife's virtues in the album's title track, Talley sings: "Yeah, she is quite a woman/And you know I don't like to brag/But she can squeeze my dinner/Out of an old dishrag/And when it comes to lovin'/Let me tell you she's all right."
Talley isn't indulging in nostalgia or making any of this up. He hails from the same resilient Okie stock as Guthrie and Haggard. When he made this album, Talley, who was working for the county department of animal control and moonlighting as a janitor, had to barter for the studio time and hire his pickers on spec.
Today he sells real estate to feed his dream, funding a new album or reissuing an old one whenever he saves enough in commissions to swing it. He now sings a different blues, that of a troubadour in a music business with no use for unadorned melodies and honesty. Nevertheless, given the ever-widening gap between haves and have-nots in this country -- indeed, throughout the world -- Talley's old blues are still relevant, prophetic even.
James Talley: Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love
The Austin Chronicle
March 10, 2006
by Margaret Moser
James Talley's name may not ring any bells, but in the olden days, the Nashville singer-songwriter was rootsy before the phrase was hip, a talent that saw him perform for President Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977.
His latest, [30th Anniversary reissue of] Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love, is a comfortable patchwork of songs from 1975-2005, stitching together his acclaimed 1975 Capitol album Got No Bread and a radio interview from the same year.
The Oklahoma native's deft songwriting and unfettered ear for slice-of-life Americana ring sharp and clear now as then. Songs such as "Red River Reprise," "Blue Eyed Ruth and My Sunday Suit," and "Calico Gypsy" are as sharp as covers like Johnny Gimble's "Big Taters in the Sandy Land." Talley's workingman's ethic is ever-present, a philosophy inextricably sunk deep into his story-songs ("W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys," "Meehan, Oklahoma"), and so multifaceted that he's been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Gene Clark, and Moby. Produced by Talley and Steve Mendell, Got No Bread is a timeless collection, tall as Tennessee mountains and twice as strong.
Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love
March 3, 2006
by Bruce Sylvester
Upon Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love’s 1975 release, it was called a musical counterpart to film director Peter Bogdanovich’s Last Picture Show and noted for having one of the longest titles in memory. Anachronistic in theme and sound, it embraced simplicity at a time when simplicity wasn’t cool.
Starting with its swinging opener, a salute to Texas bandleader turned governor W. Lee O’Daniels, it was a romanticized look back to the Depression Era southwest. Bob Wills’ fiddler Johnny Gimble heightened the authentic feel by reprising his “Big Taters In The Sandy Land.” As Talley brought his warm tenor to two quiet renditions of “Red River Valley” (one called “Red River Memory”), the whole album felt like a memory with populist writers John Steinbeck and Merle Haggard among Talley’s inspirations as a populist writer. Critics lauded Got No Bread’s artistic vision and tasteful production ... For its 30th anniversary, Talley retrieves it from Capitol for reissue on his own label, Cimarron.
Review: Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love
by John Morthland
James Talley's debut sounds as revelatory now as it did then . With family roots in Oklahoma, Talley writes simple, straighforward, folk 'n' western workingman songs that embrace and extend the Woody Guthrie tradition. But they're not protest songs. They celebrate love and family and hardwon pleasures ... His voice is straight from the Dust Bowl, his melodies are built to last, with some sizzling hot fiddle from Johnny Gimble. Talley is sometimes sentimental but never precious or cloying, sometimes nostalgic but never starry-eyed ... this quietly proud album evokes a time and place and a way of life like very little other music before or since.
MUSIC: Staying Power
The Nashville Scene
March 2, 2006
by Roy Kaston
James Talley’s newly reissued debut album sounds as classic today as it did three decades ago
James Talley was 29 when he recorded his debut album in 1973. The title summed up his station. He had been a songwriter for Atlantic under producer Jerry Wexler, but mostly worked as a carpenter to support his family. He had never set foot in a radio station; the country music he loved most was fused with familial memories of Oklahoma, Washington and New Mexico—shack porch string-bands and barn dance Western swing. Pete Seeger had told him to write about the world he knew, and so he did. The sound and spirit of the album that resulted, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot of Love, wasn’t nostalgic; Tally’s western memories were more real and rich with promise than his Music City home.
With the exception of legendary fiddle player Johnny Gimble, the 20 musicians who gathered for the Got No Bread sessions were mostly unknown (including a young John Hiatt) and they played on spec. Talley bartered for the studio time. The sound couldn’t be less hurried. The string arrangements glowed, as if answering countrypolitan’s excesses, and the spaces between lines contained lifetimes. “Take me from destruction, the anger and the pain,” Talley sang on the final song. His voice and words seemed to make the present and the future—from the aftermath of Vietnam to uncertain house payments—go away.
The cover of the album featured a black-and-white photo that could have been taken by a camera placed on a brick and set to automatic. Talley smiles as he leans against a cinder block store (“Talley’s Grocer” the sign says, but there was no relation), his arm around a very pregnant Jan Talley, their son Reuben James playing before scrub grass and a truck tire. Capitol, Talley’s record label, wasn’t releasing this kind of country. No one was. The album sold around 5,000 copies before being deleted in 1979.
That wasn’t a surprise, but the response from three of the counterculture’s best rock-oriented critics at the time, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau and Peter Gurlanick, was. Talley had never met or even heard of these young writers, and his debut bore no pop or rock traces, yet Marcus responded to the depth of emotion, while Christgau captured the album’s commercial context, or lack thereof: “[T]o market it as ‘country’ is to miss how perspicaciously it looks beyond such categories.”
Thirty years on, the album’s lack of pretension or artifice remains its key. “Pure” is the word most often used to describe it, but the music restores meaning to that sanctimonious plaudit. The swing is so subtle you could miss it; likewise the wit of Talley’s songwriting and the warmth of his tenor. The album’s influence is quiet but significant. Steve Earle’s Train a Comin’ and John Hiatt’s Slow Turning owe the record a palpable debt.
“When Jan and I were first married, we didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of,” Talley recalls. “I probably went to the refrigerator one night, saw that we had no bread and no milk and no money to buy any. But we did have love.” And music, which after decades locked in Capitol’s vaults, still sounds like the most unexpected, generous gift.
Review: James Talley - Got No Bread
LE CRI DU COYOTE - France
by Bernard Boyat
Et voilà le nouvel opus de l'ami James, toujours dans le même signe acoustique qui mêle ragtime, folk, bluegrass et country. On retrouve aussi de belles ballades comme Red River melody ou Mehan, Oklahoma, un peu folk, le médium Calico gypsy et la superbe ballade Take me to the country. Côté titres plus enlevés, entre hillbilly bop et bluegrass, on a W Lee O'Daniel & Light Crust Doughboys et Blue-eyed Ruth and my Sunday suit. Il est dommage que, de ce côté de l'Atlantique, on l'oublie un peu lorsqu'on pense aux chanteurs / compositeurs, alors que les noms de Guy Clark ou de Billy Joe Shaver viennent plus facilement à l'esprit. Voilà quelqu'un que l'on pourrait songer à faire venir chez nous.
Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love
FASEN - Italy
Un disco che risale a trent'anni fa eppure è attuale ancora oggi. Ecco come lo presenta lo stesso James Talley: "Quando andai a Nashville, credo di essere stato molto realistico. Non mi aspettavo che qualcuno saltasse e gridasse e ballasse con le mie canzoni. Comunque, la prima settimana che ero lì provai a fare girare un nastro. Non conoscevo nessuno e non sapevo niente delle regole. Prima di tutto non sapevo cosa fosse una canzone commerciale, perch´ ho sempre considerato la musica come un modo per esprimere se stessi. Non riuscivo a realizzare che ci fossero così poche, misere categorie nella country music commerciale. Per me il songwriting è sempre stato una cosa personale e solitaria. Non sono mai stato a mio agio neanche a pensarlo come se fosse una collaborazione con qualcuno figurarsi se ho mai pensato che potesse essere il tipico lavoro dalle otto alle cinque, come una catena di montaggio". Non è cambiato molto, ma James Talley allora trovò un accordo con uno studio che gli offrì delle ore di registrazione in cambio del lavoro di carpenteria e tornò ad incidere le sue canzoni. Lui ci mise tutti gli ultimi soldi che aveva e pagò i musicisti che suonano in Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love e lo stampa in un migliaio di copie, tutte distribuite alle radio e alle etichette discografiche. L'idea, secondo lo stesso James Talley, era cercare di farsi notare ed infatti una copia del disco finì alla Capitol Records. Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love divenne una realtà e la sua storia è rivisitata oggi in questa bellissima riedizione comprensiva di un intero compact disc dove lo stesso James Talley racconta la sua gestazione e un pò tutta la sua storia.
Spin Factor: Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money 30th Anniversary Edition
Nashville City Paper
February 28, 2006
by Ron Wynn
It took nearly two years after its completion before James Talley was able to get his landmark album Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Love released in 1975. The LP’s storytelling impact and musical excellence immediately set it apart from almost anything else issued at the time in pop or country circles.
Now available once again in a 30th anniversary edition, Talley’s wry observations, urgent lead vocals, and epic descriptions and narratives in such songs “Calico Gypsy,” “Mehan, Oklahoma,” “Red River Memory” and “No Opener Needed” still have plenty of edge and relevance, and reflect the skills of a completely unique performer and free soul whose music never fit into any thematic or musical straightjacket.
This set also contains a highly informative and entertaining interview with Talley conducted by then WKDA program director Mike Hanes that nicely illuminates his personality, idiosyncrasies and skills.
Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money ...
Barnes & Noble.com
February 27, 2006
by David McGee
One of the defining documents of what became the Americana movement nearly twenty years after its initial release in 1975, James Talley's debut album, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money But We Sure Got A Lot of Love, is getting a proper reissue on its 30th birthday.
It is buttressed by a stirring, Talley-penned essay on the life's journey that forged him as an artist, as well as a bonus disc containing an unabridged interview with the artist that was originally issued as a promo-only disc to radio stations prior to the album's release. It's an impressive package honoring a landmark work by a still-vital artist who continues to conduct his career with an uncompromising vision of himself, his music and his message.
Mainstream country was in the first throes of the Outlaw movement in 1975, and though Talley was never lumped in with Willie, Waylon and the boys, he possessed (and still does) the same reverence for the music's deepest roots, its link with the working class, and an unswerving self-assurance when it came to presenting his music his way.
The music lives on the shoulders of giants, such as Woody Guthrie (both in the populist sentiments of the folk-ish, strutting title song and in the clever nursery rhyme wordplay of "Daddy's Song"), Bob Wills (in the spirited western swing of "W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Doughboys") and any number of classic country tunesmiths whose influence is evident in tender, beautifully crafted, soulfully rendered love songs such as "Take Me To the Country" (with an aching pedal steel line every bit as sensitive and nuanced as Talley's heartfelt vocal), and the honky tonk hearbreaker, "No Opener Needed" (check it out, Willie Nelson). This is where the soul of a man resides. Bear witness.
Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition
East Bay Express
February 22, 2006
by J. Poet
In the early '70s, young songwriter James Talley arrived in Nashville with a vision that combined folk, country, blues, and swing, not to mention a lyrical sensibility reflecting the best aspects of Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. Industry big-shots weren't interested, though, so he recorded this debut on his own, promising to pay the pickers and crooners -- including John Hiatt, Doyle Grisham, and other names big and small -- when and if he got a deal. He did, but despite three subsequent records with Capitol, it's this indie that lingers, now reissued on Talley's own imprint, Cimarron. Got No Bread was Americana before Americana was invented; he has a soft, timeless tenor, and the backing musicians are masterfully understated. The title track is one of the greatest blue-collar love songs ever written, "Red River Memory" brings tears to your eyes with its understated melancholy, "No Opener Needed" is honky-tonk with a heart, and the swing tunes are effortless and free, just as they should be.
Guide Review - Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money ...
by Kathy Coleman
Occasionally I get introduced to someone I should have known for years. It's always a surprise and a great delight to find music that's new to me that's this good; that it came out in 1975 annoys me slightly simply because I never heard it before, and I should have. A performer this influential on all the other music I love should have come to my attention sooner.
Like the others who came from this time, such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Graham Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, etc., etc., James Talley is a vibrant, unique, and incredible voice. Talley's music is full of life and gusto, rich and real. From the heart music, it's both humorous and touching, performed with Talley's strong vocals and played with consummate skill by a collection of terrific musicians (including John Hiatt on guitar).
But it's just the start of what has been a long and amazing career. Talley has taken on various jobs, but his music has been appreciated by millions. He's had songs recorded by Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, and Moby, to name a very few. He's performed at the White House. His life has been fascinating, and he illustrates only a bit of it in his autobiographical essay.
All in all, this is plainly a fine album. Pure, perfect Americana from the "dawn" of the idea of Americana as its own genre, a 30th Anniversary re-issue that's genuine, timeless, and terrific. There's no need to think of this as "old" music, or consider it was originally recorded in the mid-70's - it's good. Enjoy it. Savor it. Love it. Americana has been around for some 80 years, but some of these guys perfected it around this time, and James Talley was there to help show ‘em how.
All Music Guide
by Ronnie D. Lankford
While James Talley probably never qualified as an Outlaw in the mid-'70s, his rootsy country sound was closer to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings than say Larry Gatlin. Even then, Talley was never an easy artist to pigeonhole, and it's hard to imagine an artist as idiosyncratic recording for Capital today. Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love was Talley's debut, and make no mistake about it: it's real country, with fiddles, dobro, and mandolin.
The arrangements are -- compared to today's country standards -- spare, with small variants custom-made for each song. Lyrically, Got No Bread is an ode to another place and time, an album that never forgets country music's working class origins and rural roots.
Got No Bread is filled with original songs and great playing, and will be a real treat for anyone who appreciates the authentic sounds of honest-to-god country.
Got No Bread, Got No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love – 30th Anniversary Edition
Country Stars On-Line - Australia
by George Peden
If music is your passion, and I’m not talking hats, hair and navels or the twang of the latest CMT wannabee, I’m talking real, heartfelt and revealing music that’s strung with vision, depth and humanity, then, if your answer is yes, remember this name: James Talley. The sensitive troubadour is celebrating the re-issue of Got No Bread… on Cimarron Records. It marks the 30th anniversary of the original release. At the time, it was an album that claimed wide critical interest for its lyrical honesty and life-worn observations. It deserves the title of classic album; one listen and you’ll easily hear why. And despite the time travel, it still holds strong.
Now repackaged into a two-CD set, it’s a collector’s gem. Talley is a crafted songwriter, who despite a rich catalogue, remains just off the radar. Yet his work and his history, as well proven by this release, show that good music, like fine wine, ages well. Before getting to the music, you’re encouraged to listen to the second disc. It’s a one-hour radio interview where Talley, in a modest and self-effacing style, shares a bit about himself, his life and his driving passion, the music. It’s an honest piece of audio that sets the mood for this now-dated but highly rewarding debut. Also, check the liner booklet with its engaging essay, dated photos and song lyrics. It offers a historic context that’s both interesting and revealing.
The history of the album is a story in itself. The Oklahoma-born Talley believed strongly in the value of his songs. Arriving in Nashville in ‘68, as he shares on the album with not even a phone number to call, the singer and songwriter with a degree in fine arts set about a recording contract. Undeterred when it didn’t come as expected, he did the next best thing -- he made his own record. Hiring a band of top session players, and armed with 12 crafted and rural-shaped tunes, Talley invested some of the dollars he made as a daytime health and welfare worker and produced 1000 copies. The album attracted fans and wide and varied favorable reviews. Capitol Records eventually picked up the album. Time has proven it was a wise decision.
Talley’s style is simple, honest and no-frills. He writes from his heart. He takes his inspiration from life. He taps into the social, the rural, the forgotten, and a myriad of other humanitarian matters and issues, circumstances and situations that hallmark a gifted and creative writer.
When asked about his particular gift, Talley has said: “I’m not a missionary. I’m just someone that tells stories about our culture and tries to put them together in a craftsman-like fashion.”
Well, there’s no doubt. He succeeds. On an album laced with swing, shades of Guthrie, blues and country, he shares rich tales of lost love, the everyday existence of ordinary lives, all peppered with sharp social observation. It shows someone who’s spent the time to look, reflect, and, then when the picture’s captured and understood, meld it into music.
“These songs,” tells Talley,” have brought me some of my greatest joys in life as well as some of the greatest sorrows. They are my dreams, my creations, my children. To this day, I still believe in the power of these dreams. Dreams are our light, dreams are the impossible, dreams are our desire and our longing. Dreams are reaching for something beyond, something around the bend and over the hill. They propel us into the future. They sustain us and give us hope. I still have many dreams left to dream…and many songs left to sing.“
James Talley is a musical poet, a visionary and a lyricist with a honed heart. His double-CD, which hits the shelves on February 21, proves it. His varied and rich back catalogue confirms it.
James Talley - Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot Of Love
Ilpopolodel Blues On Line - Italy
by Salvatore Esposito
After years of legal battle with Capitol Records, finally Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love, James Talley’s masterpiece is on sale again on cd. At the time of the first release music journalists like Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick wrote very enthusiastic rewiews about this album.
James Talley è sicuramente uno dei songwriter americani meno noti al grande pubblico eppure le sue canzoni rappresentano la coscienza collettiva dell’America delle periferie, quasi fosse il naturale continuatore dell’opera di Woody Guthrie, a cui ha dedicato un intero disco nel 1999. L’Oklaoma, la sua terra d’origine, diventa lo specchio di una intera nazione, e dalle sue canzoni emerge un’onestà intellettuale raramente riscontrabile in altri cantautori. Eppure la sua storia è uguale a quella dei tanti “Alias Bob Dylan” degli anni settanta, ovvero un successo bruciante agli inizi e una altrettanto rapida scomparsa dalle scene. Ciò ha fatto si che la sua giungesse ad un pubblico ristrettissimo che tuttavia annovera tra i suoi estimatori gente come Greil Marcus e Peter Guralnick che all’epoca della pubblicazione nel 1975, lodarono Got No Bread..., il suo album di debutto. Proprio Got No Bread…, dopo una battaglia legale con la Capitol durata trent’anni, finalmente è stato ristampato in cd in occasione del suo trentennale e ciò ha permesso finalmente ad un pubblico più ampio di ascoltare questo piccolo capolavoro dimenticato. La storia racconta che questo disco fu inciso nel 1973, quando James Talley era solo un muratore con una famiglia da mantenere, e che ad aiutarlo ci fosse solo un gruppo di amici pagati pochissimo tra cui spicca un giovane John Hiatt alla chitarra acustica. Pubblicato il disco a spese proprie, Talley si limitò vendere il disco solamente ai suoi concerti, quando un giorno si trovò per caso a riparare un guasto a casa di un manager della Capitol. Cambiò tutto ma solo momentaneamente come racconta sia lo Talley stesso nell’intervista con Mike Hanes della WKDA di Nashville inclusa come bonus disc sia Chet Filippo nelle liner notes. Più che la storia dietro al disco, ciò che affascina davvero è l’ascolto, nella musica di Talley, si respira il country più puro e rurale, quello che viene dritto da Jimmie Rogers e Hank Williams ma anche il folk di Woody Guthrie, e a dimostrarlo sono la ballata W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys , la filastrocca Daddy's Song ma soprattutto le struggenti note di Red River Memory, un affresco del sud degli States in musica. Di non minor valore sono anche la title-track, Mehan Oklahoma, e il toccante country gospel No Opener Needed, la cui potenza espressiva tocca per un attimo l’infinito. Got No Bread, è un disco da riscoprire necessariamente, sia per il valore storico, sia soprattutto per il suo valore poetico.
Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money
Third Coast Music
February 6, 2006
by John Conquest
Back in 1992, Cash Edwards mounted a campaign to get Folk Alliance to
hold its annual conference in Austin and asked me to write a letter of
support. Guess it didn’t do much good as it's taken 14 years for it to
happen. However, the 18th go-round will be centered at the downtown Hilton, with performances spread all over the place, and one thing’s for sure, between February 10th and 14th, there’ll be more acoustic guitars than you can shake a stick at in a town that doesn't exactly have a shortage at any time.
This year’s theme, in tribute to Townes Van Zandt, is ‘For The Sake Of The Song’ and, while Folk Alliance may not care for being characterized so narrowly, the most interesting thing about the conference is the way it’s become an annual rally for Americana singer-songwriters. Some will be better known, some will be better off, some may even be arguably better singers or songwriters, but it’s hard to imagine anyone at a gathering like this who has more stature than James Talley, who’ll perform twice during the event, and the following week release
the 30th Anniversary Edition of his very first album.
Born in Tulsa, OK, in 1943, but raised in the Pacific Northwest and New Mexico, Talley is, though not by design, a songwriter for whom music has long been a passion rather than any kind of career. Except for two brief periods, a year writing songs for Jerry Wexler during Atlantic’s abortive attempt to break into country and three years supported by Capitol royalty advances, he’s worked for a living, before and after his Atlantic stint, as a carpenter. In 1973, wanting to make an entire album, when the Nashville norm was to make singles which were then put on LPs padded with filler, he persuaded a group of musicians, including Johnny Gimble and a very young John Hiatt, who wandered into the studio and wound up playing acoustic lead guitar, to play for free in the hope of getting paid down the road.
Unable to get his foot in any Music Row door, Talley eventually pressed up 1000 LPs on his own Torreon label and was rewarded with local airplay but still no hint of a record deal. Then, in 1974, he was fixing up a house for Capitol’s country VP and they made a deal, part of his payment would be that the exec would listen to his album. He did, was impressed, and agreed to pick it up. Not knowing anything about the business side, Talley asked for $5000, peanuts even then, so he could pay the musicians (“I didn’t know to calculate Social Security payments. I had to borrow $500 from my mother in order to sell the album to Capitol”). When the rave reviews started coming in, Capitol’s sales VP wanted to know how it could be any good if they’d paid so little for it.
Three more albums followed, all to glowing reviews, before Talley made a fatal career decision. On the advice of his then manager, he left Capitol without having lined up another deal. Capitol deleted his albums, cutting off his income, and, as he’d quit mid-contract, owing another three albums, no one else was willing to take a chance on him. Worse yet, the manager abandoned him shortly thereafter and a promising music career ground to a halt. In the early 80s, the president of Bear Family sought him out and the German label released four of his independent productions between 1985 and 1994, but Talley never saw a penny out of the hand shake arrangement, so, after nine years of negotiations with Capitol, he won control of his masters and started his own label in 2000.
Though, of course, one would like to see someone like Talley make a decent living from his music, one could well argue that being cast into the outer darkness was not necessarily a bad thing for a writer whose subject matter was ordinary working people and songs that chronicled their lives. Even in the less frenzied 70s and 80s, it would still have been hard, had he become a Nashville star, for him to stay rooted, and having made four acknowledged masterpieces in four years, one has to wonder if he could have maintained that quality at that pace.
In short, perhaps the hiatus between Capitol and Bear Family was a perverse blessing in disguise, at least for the artist, if not the breadwinner. Talley says, “At the time it all collapsed it was really hard on me. In the late 70s, I’d been written up in every magazine and newspaper from coast to coast, recorded with BB King, performed twice at the White House for Jimmy Carter, and here I was with my name and home phone number on signs in people’s front yards.” They’re still on signs, only now as a successful Nashville realtor, a second career that from time to time provides a little extra money to record on his Cimarron label. “Now, at 62, I don’t have to beat myself to death on the road for a living. I can perform for my fans when it makes sense, and I continue to do that as much as I can, because it means so much to people—and that in turn means a great deal to me. They, the people, have always been my inspiration.” However, parallel careers means putting in long hours in two demanding professions. “My only regret,” says Talley, “if I have one, is that I don’t have more time to write, for that has always been my lifelong passion. But as my mother, who was raised on a tenant farm in Oklahoma, always told me, ‘In the game of life, you deal with the cards you are dealt and try to make something of it.’”
30 years ago, Talley’s debut was hailed as a future classic, and, holding up magnificently, it’s more than fulfilled that praise, but reviewers didn’t quite know what to make of this oddball, the consensus being that it was a great country album by a great folksinger. The problem was that Talley was about 20 years ahead of his time, today it would shoot straight into the Americana/roots charts, with nobody turning a hair. Got No was arguably the first Americana album, but I do have one criticism of it—the title’s too damned long.
A classic reissued
February 5, 2006
by Patrick Wilkins
This record, James Talley’s debut effort, originally appeared in 1975 and has now been remastered, and repackaged with an additional bonus disc containing an interview from the same era. Talley has provided songs for a whole host of big country names (Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Johnny Paycheck etc.), and listening to this record its easy to hear the appeal. Musically he has an easy relaxed dusty barroom style, nicely unpolished and free of studio additives. A mix of influences comes though, some classic Hank Williams here, some wistful Woodie Guthrie there, and a certain timeless melancholic twang throughout. This is not a Nashville sort of country, but much more rural, and backwoods than that. There are welcome interruptions from the blues, zydeco, western swing and bluegrass camps. Let alone now, this record must have sounded old fashioned when it was released, when you consider it was made at the same time as punk was about ready to go to the delivery room. Lyrically, as well as musically, nostalgia seems to be the key, with many references to the simple pleasures of less complicated times. There’s lots of ‘picture shows’ to go to, cruising on a Saturday night to do, moonshine whiskey to drink, and girls to chase like ‘blue eyed Ruth’ and ‘sweet Rose’. There’s also, back on the Okie trail, boarded up shops, and trains that don’t run anymore. This emphasises Talley’s Oklahoma roots, and therefore an obvious relationship to Guthrie, and also his attachment to the everyday issues of the small town world. A record that offers an uncomplicated and straightforward antidote to the excessive gloss of so much modern country.
James Talley has passed the test of time
Denver Post Blog House - Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money ...
January 26, 2006
by Gil Asakawa
The best music – the kind that can stand that clichéd ol’ test of time – has a way of resonating as deeply and fully today as it did back when it was first recorded.
That’s what comes to mind when I listen to “Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love,” the debut album by singer-songwriter James Talley. The album was released way back in 1975, but it sounds as fresh and relevant as it did back then – and as a bonus, it sounds downright hip today, even though it was something of an anomaly back then.
Never heard of James Talley? Don’t feel bad, most music fans haven’t.
He never had a “hit” in the Top 40 sense, and his oeuvre has always waltzed along the genre-busting “Americana” line… even though the term “Americana” didn’t even exist back 30 years ago. So unless you’re a fanatic of fine songwriting performed with a twang (in Talley’s case, it’s more of a slight, genteel Okie drawl) and backed up with acoustic guitars, a bit of steel, the occasional fiddle and tasteful intrusions of electric guitar, you may have never come across this guy’s name.
But once upon a time, he was all that and a bag of chips in the music industry buzz brigade. Rolling Stone magazine was where I first heard of him, when reviewer Chet Flippo raved about “Got No Bread…” And for good reason – the album came out of nowhere, with a stripped-down, rootsy sound that flied in the face of Nashville’s then-overproduced, string-laden pop pap. Talley had more in common with the rebel roots-rockers forming their genre in the Austin music scene than the industrious song-peddlers of Nashville, where he had moved.
Talley’s musical mates may have been Waylon, Willie, Joe Ely and later, Lyle Lovett – Texans all – but his own roots were deep in the heart of American’s heartland, in the folksongs and common-folk observations of Woody Guthrie.
“Go No Bread…” (why the hell did he use such a long title, anyway?) was a collection of songs that resonated with Guthrie-esque wisdom and American scope (hence the fit with “Americana” today). It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, and a whole lot of folk music, with his stories of plain people and their problems presented with Talley’s sometimes droll, sometimes pretty, always wise, understated vocals.
The debut album led to three more released by Capitol Records during the 1970s, including his best-known, “Tryin’ Like the Devil” from ’76, a whole bunch of hype from rock critics tired of the increasingly homogenized FM radio rock, and two invitations to the Jimmy Carter White House.
Over the decades since then, Talley’s music has resurfaced for those of us who’ve followed his career like sleuths tracking a lifelong case. When the major-label music biz discarded him like yesterday’s news, he made his living selling real estate in Nashville (which he still does).
But he continued writing and recording, and at various times there’s been renewed interest in his work (the German Bear Family label heroically re-released his music in the ‘80s). He released at least one more classic – a collaboration with a photographer, of songs and photos chroncicling the poor Hispanic communities of northern New Mexico, titled “The Road to Torreón.”
He recorded a live album, and then an album of his favorite songs. He’s kept in touch with his small but devoted fan base, and has a dozen CDs to his credit, which he subsidizes with his real-estate earnings.
But it had been a long time since I’d sat down and listened to that first taste of Talley. He just re-released “Got No Bread…” in a special two-CD package (the second CD is a curio, a digitized version of a promotional-release-only album that was released by Capitol Records with the first album, in which a Nashville DJ interviewed Talley about the music), to celebrate the album’s 30th anniversary. The set also has extended liner notes with a very nicely written, sweet tribute to Talley’s Okie family roots (by way of Washington and New Mexico), and a retelling of the making of “Got No Bread….”
Pop in the first CD for the real teasure.
The songs are rich and smooth, and in many ways a roadmap for the generation of “Americana” (there’s that word again) songwriters who’ve walked the same path as Talley since 1975. Which is to say, it’s a gentle breeze of fresh air that has about as much chance of being played on corporate radio today as it did back then.
Who needs radio? The music feels good, and it’s worth seeking out, whether or not it gets played on your local Clear Channel affiliate.
Gil Asakawa is the superintendent of the Bloghouse, and in a previous life got paid to listen to music and mouth off about it.
James Talley's Touchstones and Journey
January 10, 2006
by Eelco Schilder
[Translated from German] Almost thirty years are gone since his first LP, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love, was published. Now two CD's are for sale on the Cimarron label - one from 2002, Touchstones, and his most recent CD, Journey (2004). Both CD's contain songs from his rich musical past.
Touchstones is focussed on his work from the mid seventies and contains pure country and blues presented in a traditional way. Journey also has a few songs from the earlier mentioned period, but focuses more on the years that follow. This CD is a live recording from 2002 in Italy and the CD's do have some of the same songs on them. The live CD is a bit more powerful, but both cd's are comparable in style. This is a pure artist who brings the blues and country in a hard to find natural way.
Got no Bread, No Milk, No Money, But we Sure Got a Lot of Love (30th Anniversary)
Roots Highway - Italy
January 3, 2006
by Fabio Cerbone
James Talley è un uomo di una generosità infinita, oltre ad essere purtroppo una delle voci più sconosciute del songwriting americano. È stato e continua ad essere una coscienza viva dell'America più periferica e sincera, un artista che è partito dalla gente, la common people del suo povero Oklahoma e li ha voluto mettere radici, parlando delle loro vite e di un mondo in antitesi ai lustrini del music business. Con quest'ultimo ha avuto sempre poco da spartire, lo ha sofferto sin dall'inizio e ne ha pagato le conseguenze in carriera, come molti colleghi vissuti nel cuore degli anni '70: ci sono infatti voluti trent'anni perché riuscisse a trovare un accordo con la Capitol records, pubblicando su licenza i nastri del suo mitizzato esordio (Greil Marcus e Peter Guralnick spesero al tempo parole di elogio). Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love celebra il trentennale per mezzo di una sacrosanta ristampa: un disco che ancora sprigiona una bellezza commovente, perché semplice e diretto come le storie che vuole fotografare. Woodie Guthrie, punto di riferimento indiscusso per Talley (gli dedicò un bellissimo tributo qualche anno fa), e così Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams e Bob Dylan soffiano alle spalle di un country rurale e festoso, racchiuso nella saga poplare di W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys, nella filastrocca "infantile" di Daddy's Song, così come nella title track e in Mehan, Oklahoma, un delizioso ballonzolare d'altri tempi. È tutto il disco ad essere sospeso nel tempo: le struggenti melodie di Red River Memory e To Get Back Home, l'aria sudista e il corale country-gospel di No Opener Needed, sono canzoni che appartengono ad un'epoca indefinita. Il "populist traditionalism" di Talley, così come lo definisce David McGee, è stato il prodromo di quel sentire musicale che oggi in molti definiscono Americana. Giustamente Talley sottolinea come nel 1975 non si sentisse lontanamente l'esigenza di un tale termine: la sua era e resta country music purissima, con quelle inflessioni tra folk, blues e radici southern che sempre più avrebbero caratterizzato i lavori a venire. Con pochi soldi in tasca, un lavoro da carpentiere ed una giovane famiglia da sfamare (in copertina la moglie in cinta e il primo figlio), James Talley produsse e registrò il disco da solo nel 1973 a Nashville: chiamò qualche amico (tra gli altri Doyle Grisham, Johnny Gimble, Rick Durrett, Jerry McKuen e un giovanissimo John Hiatt alla chitarra acustica) offrì scarsi compensi e incerta gloria futura, ma tutti lo seguirono ciecamente. Passò un anno, vendendo i dischi per conto proprio (eravamo nel 75 e internet non esisteva nemmeno nel mondo dei sogni), poi finì a fare riparazioni nella casa di Frank Jones, managaer della Capitol. Da quel momento inizia una storia tutta da scoprire, in parte riassunta nel prezioso libretto che accompagna la ristampa, con nota introduttiva di Chet Filippo e tutti i testi acclusi e nel curioso cd aggiunto, l'intervista promozionale che Talley fece nel 1975 con Mike Hanes, direttore dei programmi della stazione WKDA di Nashville. Se avrete la pazienza di seguirlo, lo sentirete raccontare la sua vita e il suo modo di intendere l'arte e la musica: un Don Chisciotte contro i mulini a vento, merce sempre più rara di questi tempi
James Talley - Journey
Rambles - Cultural Arts Magazine
October 29, 2005
by Nicky Rossiter
James Talley's songs have been recorded by a list that reads like a "who's who" of great Americana music. He has had his share of hits with his own releases and now we get to hear a compilation of his magical musical offerings in a live setting over a couple of concerts in 2002.
"Bluesman" has a fantastic feel that will make you believe that you are there at a live concert with all the atmosphere conjured up by simple lyrics, laidback performance and professional backing.
Among the better-known tracks on offer we also get a few previously unreleased pieces. One of these is my favourite on the album. "My Cherokee Maiden" has all the ingredients for music magic; the beat, the picking and the melody allied to a sensitive simple lyric story are just right.
Get on the boots and check your shirt for "Tryin' Like the Devil" as you feel that you are cruising down the blacktop with the CD player blasting. He keeps us out in the wide-open spaces as "Sometimes I Think of Suzanne" draws us with its plaintive rendition into a lonely world of loss. Drawing on life yet again Talley tells us the story of "La Rosa Montana." Listen carefully and I dare you not to weep.
His love of the Native Americans is evident on tracks like "The Song for Chief Joseph" and "Somewhere on the Edge of the World." More recent American history is recalled on a previously unreleased track called "I Saw the Buildings." The tragedy of 9-11 is recalled but with a positive spin that people can recover from the worst happenings.
This is great album that gives us a variety of moods and insights while always entertaining. The insert gives us the lyrics as well an excellent short autobiography.
JAMES COUNTS THE TALLEY OF MUSIC ROW
www.nucountry.com - Australia
September 8, 2005
by Dave Dawson
"Now people let me tell you about this Nashville town/ 25 years I've watched the deal go down/ written every kind of song, sung every kind of tune/ been treated every kind of way, had every kind of blues/ aw, people, it's a cryin' shame/ I've got them Nashville city blues/ and I ain't leavin' this town, people, 'til I get paid." - Nashville City Blues
The first time I saw Oklahoma born singer-songwriter James Talley he was hanging out at an Eric Andersen concert at the Lone Star Café in New York City.
On the second occasion I was with a bunch of Australians chased from that venue by a waitress for not leaving a large enough tip at Talley's own gig. Both artists were accused of being Dylan prodigies but Talley's music was cut more from the Woody Guthrie cloth that Dylan wore on his sleeves. And Andersen is still one of the great country folk rock love song singers whose fine catalogue has soared through the years.
But let's go back to my live entrée to Talley's music in 1978. It was just a year after Talley played the inauguration concert for President Jimmy Carter who owned his 1975 debut LP, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love and successors Tryin' Like The Devil (1976) and Blackjack Choir (1977).
But despite enjoying presidential patronage akin to latter day White House warriors Shotgun Willie Nelson and Kinky Friedman this was not a career catalyst suffice to sustain stardom for Talley. Talley worked as a carpenter to finance his autobiographical debut album before he signed with Capitol - the 12-album veteran has financed his recent discs from his off stage real estate career. The wide acclaim for the singer's vivid vignettes about his rural roots was favourably compared to Woody Guthrie and featured in my letters from America but was not the Trojan horse needed to leap over radio moats.
Sure, Talley again made his name in Music City 22 years ago - not just as a singer but also as a real estate agent. So how did I know that - I saw his realtor signs on my last U.S. sojourn in 1988 and learned of his joint careers. Now, 17 years down the Lost Highway, Talley is reaping the benefits of exposing his music to new audiences at home, Europe and here in Australia.
Talley has released his new albums on his indie Cimarron label and also retrieved the rights to his embryonic discs that were swallowed up by the Capitol conglomerate and withered on the sales vine.
But Talley bit the bullet and emulated the late, great Doug Sahm and Ed Burleson and recorded album of songs, Touchstones, at Tommy Detamore's Cherry Ridge Studio in Floresville, Texas. That was where Sahm cut his final studio disc, The Return Of Wayne Douglas - it also meant James was a beneficiary of pedal steel of Detamore and fiddle, mandolin, bajo sexto by Bobby Flores. Touchstones was also enriched by guests Joe Ely on W Lee O'Daniel And The Light Crust Doughboys, accordion from Ponty Bone, bassist David Carroll, pianist Ron Huckaby, drummer Dan Dreeben and trumpeter Al Gomez.
But this time Talley is in charge of his destiny - he paid producer and piper and owns the music - culled from his early discs - on his 11th album.
NASHVILLE CITY BLUES
Nashville City Blues is too modern to be included but is relevant and maybe a reprise for one of his memorable early tunes Are They Gonna Makes Us Outlaws Again? "Yeah, people let me tell you about this Nashville town/ they've taken all the music and watered it all down/ they've taken its heart, they've taken its soul/ they wouldn't know old Hank if he came walking down the road/ people, it's a crying shame, old Hank had something to say."
Woody Guthrie So did Guthrie who inspired Talley from the sixties and belatedly triggered his album Woody Guthrie And Songs Of My Oklahoma Home recorded in 1994 and released in 1999? "My father was born two years before Guthrie, my mother two years after," Talley revealed. "They both came from that same Dust Bowl, bound-for-glory period. And I grew up with that - flour sacks stitched together for bed sheets, no running water. When you come out of that,
you really understand what Guthrie was all about."
Talley's disc, cut in four days at Stepbridge Studio in an old adobe house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, wasn't the first Guthrie tribute album but was more credible than others by artists with less empathy for the dust bowl legend. The 21 songs include Pretty Boy Floyd who won a name check in Talley's tune Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?
Belated release is not new for the former case-worker for New Mexico's Department Of Public Welfare who wrote most songs for his 1992 album, The Road To Torreon 24 years before its release. The album, released without licence by Bear Family, was accompanied by Cavalliere Ketchum's photos of Hispanic Mountain Families whom Talley worked with before invading Nashville in August, 1968.
James was born in Pryor and moved to Commerce, Oklahoma, hometown of baseball legend Micky Mantle, a few months after his birth. But towards the end of World War II they headed to Richland, Washington - source of the song of the same name about his father working in a plutonium plant.
That historic song [Richland, Washington] was one of 16 re-recorded for Touchstones and reinforces Guthrie influences. Talley blames exposure to plutonium for the death of his guitar-playing dad at the age of 57 - his mother, a retired schoolteacher, is now in her eighties.
"He made plutonium in Richland, Washington/ he bought our groceries, he paid our rent/ it was a pretty little town, that Richland, Washington/ where my daddy worked at the Hanford plant."
History repeats - the plutonium was used in "fat man" bombs dropped on Nagasaki in Japan. Talley says: "It's probably where my father ruined his health because when we moved to New Mexico they found a big tumour on one of his lungs nobody could identify." The singer, whose family later moved to Albuquerque in New Mexico, proved more than just master of salient satire.
Up From Georgia, Sometimes I Think About Suzanne, Not Even When It's Over and To Get Back Home are evocative love songs. Give My Love To Marie enables the singer to combine love and social comment and W Lee O'Daniel And The Light Crust Dough Boys is an ode to the famed, historic Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa. Although they date back 25 years they benefit from fresh Texas production and have stood the test of time.
LIVE FROM LONE STAR CAFÉ
Some appeared on his 1979 live album recorded at the Lone Star Café and the Great South East Music Hall in Atlanta. And to prove that Talley tempered his cynicism for the music industry with humour he finishes his live disc with the traditional tune, Take A Whiff On Me. Maybe to entice prospective buyers for river frontage he sings this refrain - 'two old maids a fishin' in the creek/ ain't caught a man since way last week.'
Talley is ecstatic about the reaction to the belated release of his material - long out of print - on CD on Cimarron.
Although he cut his debut album for just $5,000 from his carpentry earnings in 1975 its value appreciated over the years with a new generation discovering his music. Talley earned acclaim in the L A Times, Rolling Stone, Village Voice and a chapter by Peter Guralnick in his Lost Highway book. Now he is elated to be belatedly discovered by the No Depression flame-throwers and the cyber chappies and chappettes.
"The wonderful thing about resurrecting my music through my new Cimarron label, has been the discovery of twenty-five years of good will that exists out in the world," Talley told me from his Nashville home, "people I never knew personally before have been so very kind. In my darkest hours, friends of mine would assure me that good music would eventually find its way. The Internet is such a wonderful communication tool. The world is now a small place.
"We had the Woody and Nashville City Blues albums in the can, unreleased, for so long. I am trying to get Bear Family to stop issuing my work, as they have never paid me a dime for using any of it. Since I paid for all the production - musicians, studio time, tape, etc. - allowing them to continue releasing the music for free doesn't do me much good. And when we reissued the catalogue, I didn't want to have to compete with them."
"It will break your heart and it will knock you down/ the glitter and the glamour, it's a big-time game/ and people, the music, well it don't mean a thing/ it's all about the money that's made/ aw people it's a crying shame/ I got them Nashville city blues/ and I'm not leaving this town till I get paid."
And, if you buy enough, we might persuade Melbourne roots promoter Rob Hall to tour Talley in Australia - maybe they could buy some venues to showcase the best roots music. "Who knows, maybe my work will gain enough popularity there, so I can come and perform, before I get too old and decrepit to do it!", says Talley, "I appreciate your support so very much; you take care."
FIFTH GENERATION COUNTRY MUSIC
JAMES TALLEY AND CHET FLIPPO
"You know, I think we're now living in the fifth generation of country music," Talley recently told Nashville columnist and author Chet Flippo.
The first generation of country music started with the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and extended through Hank Williams in the 1940s and early 1950s. The music reflected its simple beginnings and rural roots.
"The second generation reflected the more urban taste of people like my mother," said Talley, "who grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and danced to Bob Wills at Cain's Academy in Tulsa. Wills was the transitional figure who added sophistication to the early string band sound with three fiddles and horn sections. The second-generation audience was proud that they were now living in town or in the city, they had come through the Great Depression and now they had a good job in the post WW II society and were moving to the cities and were no longer following a plow.
Country music moved more uptown with artists of that generation, like Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline and Ray Price. They represented the advent of what came to be called the 'Nashville Sound.' It had lusher string and vocal arrangements. It was smooth, not corny, and it reflected the newfound urban post WW II success of its audience. The second generation era continued in many forms, but to me it sort of ended with the production style of Billy Sherrill as it gave way to the third generation."
THIRD GENERATION COUNTRY
Talley identified the third generation in the 1970s as his generation. "We rebelled against the strings and the producers' control," he said. "We wanted to make our music as we felt it should be made - as we felt it. We were the artists, and we wanted control of our music and our lives. The record companies' job, as we saw it, was not to 'produce us' and tell us how to say what we had to say ... but to take what we had to say and sell that! Much like it was with the artists of the first generation, and we found kindred spirits in the artistic integrity of the first generation - Will the Circle Be Unbroken! It was a return to the simplicity of the first generation." Talley's generation brought steel guitars and fiddles and a traditional edge back to country. "That was what people like me, Steve Young, Doug Sahm, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, and Waylon and Willie were trying to do," Talley told Flippo.
"It was also the generation of the songwriter. Even though Hank wrote most of his material and Lefty wrote a lot of his, the artist then was the focus; not the fact that he was a songwriter. We were also of the Vietnam generation. We were hippies; we questioned authority and the status quo. We wanted to make country music the same way the Beatles made pop music. We wanted albums without filler, with meaningful, well-written material."
FOURTH GENERATION COUNTRY
The industry changed drastically after the recession in the 1980s, ushering in what became the fourth generation. Economic changes caused mergers and shutdowns in the record industry. After the album Wanted: The Outlaws introduced Nashville to the platinum-selling era, commercial expectations were higher for artists and record labels alike. The audience was also changing.
"Most of us third generation folks could not get arrested at record labels at that time," said Talley. "Willie and Waylon did survive, as they had strong enough footholds to weather the transition. Us third generation folks were too old. People like me had to find day jobs to feed our families. There was a new generation of listeners who had been raised on rock, and they wanted a rock sound."
Another important shift occurred as a result of the changing economies and new sales expectations. Manufactured stars and assembly line songs and production came to dominate Nashville. "In the early days of the first generation," said Talley.
"The labels went out in the field and sought out musicians that had a unique style and with something to say - Rodgers, the Carters, Bob Wills, Hank, Lefty Frizzell and the others. In the fourth generation of Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn, Alan Jackson and the rest, it was big business. The producers were making music based on marketing research and focus groups."
CD REVIEW 2004 - JOURNEY
"I saw the buildings fall from the sky/ I saw the people, I watched them die/ I saw it all on the morning news/ I saw what hate will do." - I Saw The Buildings - James Talley.
When James Talley cut half of his first live album at the now defunct Lone Star Café in Greenwich Village in 1979 he mastered a raw, organic country blues hybrid. Although Talley's disc was belatedly released 15 years later on Bear Family three songs were revamped for a new live disc Journey (Cimmaron), cut in Italy in 2002. One of them was his 1974 tribute to W Lee O'Daniel And The Light Crust Doughboys - on whom the singing Governor in O Brother Where Are Thou was reportedly based. And the famed Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa in his home state where Pappy O'Daniel, Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys reigned.
Although Talley chose that as entrée to his 12th album he also showcased five new songs. I Saw The Buildings is one of the most evocative parables to emerge from the carnage and rubble of his one time adoptive home on September 11, 2001. Talley, now 60, examines the effects of the grief - the vitriol of the victims and survivors - and the futility of the prolonged Palestine-Israel war.
"I saw the children of Palestine strap on their bombs/ I watched them die" and "I saw the young men of Jerusalem/ with their tanks and with their guns/ through the broken dreams they pursue."
Talley's strong suit is narratives plucked from ancient and modern history. Another new ode for an old hero victim is The Song Of Chief Joseph - a Nez Perce Indian chief who tried peace in wars over tribal lands seized by the U.S. government after the 1863 gold rush.
"I heard the thunder from the mountains/ I saw the blood there on the plain/ I feel a sorrow never ending/ among the tears, everlasting pain."
Chief Joseph, born in Wallowa Valley, Oregon, in 1840, reportedly died from a broken heart in 1904 long after a bloody surrender in 1877.
"Once this great land was my home/ where my people freely roamed/ now the world is torn apart, there is darkness."
It's not surprising Talley chose a live album, cut over three nights in Italy, to showcase such powerful new songs. Talley plays acoustic guitar in his band featuring famed bassist Dave Pomeroy, guitarist Mike Noble and drummer Greg Thomas. Talley's powerful vocals ignite Tryin' Like The Devil, Up From Georgia and Richland, Washington - a pathos primed eulogy to his father. And he lightens up with My Cherokee Maiden and celebratory Somewhere On The Edge Of The World.
Talley has had songs cut by late Johnnies - Cash and Paycheck - and superstar Alan Jackson but the latest was Moby who rewrote Talley's 34-year-old song She's The One as Evening Rain for Ben Affleck's 2003 movie Daredevil.
James' extensive liner notes reveal like Texan superstar George Strait, he has two blue heelers - Shiloh and Cheyenne.
Barnes & Noble
by David McGee
This live disc from country singer-songwriter James Talley was recorded live in three Italian cities in October 2002. Journey's song selection features nine Talley evergreens and five powerful new songs, tracing the arc Talley's career has taken, musically and spiritually. Picking a resonant acoustic guitar and backed by a tight trio, Talley offers up a buoyant, western swing reading of "W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Doughboys," followed by his poignant "Bluesman" done at a slower tempo than the studio session, accentuating both the attraction of and the loneliness at the core of the titular character's lifestyle. "Bluesman" exemplifies the deep well of humanity at the center of Talley's portraits, which are as keenly observed and as empathetic as Dorothea Lange's Depression-era photographs, perhaps never more so than on "Richland, Washington," his stark, solo reflection on the price his father paid working for years in a plutonium factory. The new songs include the haunting, heartbreaking "That Old Magic"; "The Song of Chief Joseph," a story-song about the trials of the wise Nez Perce chieftain; the ethereal, mystic "Somewhere on the Edge of the World," an evocation of the greatest of all Sioux warriors, Crazy Horse; and a sensible, and extremely moving, comment on the events of and surrounding 9/11 in "I Saw the Buildings," which examines terror and hatred -- and their legacies -- from a global perspective. To take this Journey with James Talley is to have your heart touched, your soul enriched, and your conscience stirred.
Americana Star Shines Bright on His Italian Journey
November 30, 2004
by J. Poet
James Talley's music owes as much to Woody Guthrie as it does to Hank Williams, and draws on the same wellspring of American folk, blues and Country Music that made their work so powerful.
For years, Talley has been called an artist "ahead of his time," although a more proper designation for his music might be timeless. His early albums for Capitol Records Nashville, including Blackjack Choir and Tryin' Like the Devil garnered raves for their combination of Texas swing, Country blues and roots rock – a blend now dubbed Americana – but they never translated into album sales. After four albums for Capitol, Talley was working in a Nashville coffee specialty shop.
"I came from a poor family of Okies," Talley said philosophically. "There's no trust fund in my past, present or future and I was used to doing for myself, just like every other working man in this country."
Talley eventually went to school for a real estate license, but never stopped making music. Today his real estate business supports his family and his label, Cimarron Records.
"I'm in this for the music, not the money," Talley said from his Nashville office at the end of another long day bouncing between the real estate and music businesses. "You only live one time and you have to follow your dream no matter how hard it may be to make it come true.
"I fund [the albums] out of songwriting royalties and real estate commissions. I work most days till 10 or 11, but I'm my own boss and arrange my hours to accommodate the music. Got No Bread, No Milk, and No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love [Talley's first album] was an indie project before Capitol picked it up, so having my own label brings me full circle."
In the last few years Talley got an unexpected boost from two unlikely sources. Moby covered Talley's "Evening Rain" and put it on the Daredevil soundtrack, and his friend Jono Manson returned from Europe with the news that Talley had a large following in Italy. The result is Journey, a live album recently released on Cimarron Records.
"I released four albums in the mid '80s on Bear Family Records – Love Songs and The Blues, Road to Torreon, Live and American Original. I never saw a dime, but they created enough interest in Europe for Capitol to re-release a few of the early ones. In 2002, Jono hooked up with promoters in Sarzana who wanted to do a live album and set up a small tour. I contacted Dave Pomeroy [bass,] Mike Noble [electric guitar] and Gregg Thomas [drums] and we went.
"When we got over there, I was amazed. We played in Sarzana, Gallarte and Chiari and hundreds of people showed up calling out song titles and singing along in English. I was blown away. At the end of the concerts I said, 'I'll stand up and shake hands with all of you on the way out of the church.' One couple told me 'We've been waiting 25 years to hear you play.' It was humbling."
And somewhat puzzling.
"There's no official Italian release," Talley explained. "Although I do have a distributor over there, which has obviously been good for me. The interesting thing is that Country Music has a worldwide market. This record [Journey] is being played all over Western Europe in Poland, Serbia, Austria, Holland and lots of little lone ranger stations. We get airplay in Australia and New Zealand, which was not possible a few years ago. With e-mail, a radio station in Uruguay can send a playlist and I can send them a thank you note. I can stay in touch with them on a personal level and they can stay in touch with me. We've developed a list of 400 stations outside the United States that we service.
"In the U.S., we work the college and community radio stations – the stations so small the conglomerates don't want to buy 'em up. On Americana radio, they can play any cut they like off an album."
As owner of a small record label, does Talley have any opinions about downloading and e-commerce? "I'd like people to come to my Web site, but I don't know if that qualifies as e-commerce. If you're a big act, downloading hurts you, but I think serious collectors like the real thing. That's why I put a lot of time and money into my CD packages - I put lyrics, essays and photos in 'em. Most downloading is driven by peer group pressure. Kids carry their CDs around in a sack, or their purse, it's disposable to them. Serious collectors have the same mentality as people who buy hardbound books.
"It's always hard to run a small business, but what's the price of a dream? Van Gough painted his whole life and never sold a painting. Did that make what he did less valid? If you're an artist, you're an artist, so I'll keep working hard as long as I can."
August 2, 2004
by Stephanie Haselman
James Talley’s story can easily be considered a tragic one. It’s full of bad decisions, a failed music career, and obscurity that resulted in a back catalog erased from Capitol Records. All is, however, in the eye of the beholder and while it may not be a story full of money and success, he is not a man that has been altogether forgotten. After a highly successful decade, the seventies ended disappointingly for Talley. Due to bad business advice he made the decision to leave Capitol Records at the height of his career. In response, the label deleted his back catalog, four albums in total.
He went on to become successful in Nashville real estate although in his heart he remained devoted to his art and music. After all, as Talley states in the album’s liner notes, “Working people, not professional musicians, made much of the most heartfelt and inspiring music. It also keeps you humble and builds character. If you can withstand the hard times, it makes the good times that much sweeter; and you finally do begin to understand that maybe you really are an artist, and not some marketing fabrication of the music business.”
The liner notes to Journey include a documented career history told by Talley himself. It is both the touching story of a man with a heart for music and the business that wouldn’t give him a second chance. It is as much a commentary on the music business as it is the artist relaying the hard lessons he learned along the way. I must admit it is a powerful read and a story that every musician should know.
Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Gene Clark, Johnny Paycheck and Moby have since recorded his songs. The classic Talley penned song, Evening Rain, was recorded by Moby for the soundtrack to Daredevil. It was written thirty-four years ago.
Talley remains a singer/songwriter with a devoted cult following both here and in Italy, which is where he recorded the songs for Journey to a series of live audiences. Included on the fourteen-track collection are five new songs. But the rest are classic Talley, now being sung to a new generation who is discovering him on their own without the aid of a monster record label to show them the way.
Whether there is a back-story or not, these songs stand on their own as some of the most poignant, significant songs put to tape. He says, “…what really matters is that these songs speak for themselves.” And they do. These are folk/country songs the way they used to be, honest, humble, eternally relevant and socially conscious. I have to say, they just don’t write them like that anymore. Many of these songs are so beautiful they stopped me in my tracks throughout the several listens that lead up to this article. Tracks such as Sometimes I Think About Suzanne and Up From Georgia are moving love songs that could melt the heart of the hardest music critic. Several more tracks are important reflections on social concerns such as one of the new songs, La Rosa Montana, about the plight of the Hispanic culture of New Mexico. There is also the tragic The Song of Chief Joseph, a heartbreaking song sung from his point of view. Each song is important and shows that Talley’s relevance today is as strong as it was thirty years ago.
His voice vaguely resembles that of country legend Willie Nelson but Talley’s influence is singularly his own. It makes no difference whether or not you are a fan of modern country music. It, in fact, will help you not to be as these songs are timeless in a way that no music coming out of Nashville today can be. This album is certainly a must have for fans of the seventies Austin scene as well as those who relish the songs of country music’s rebels from today and yesterday. If we can’t have the original albums, we can at least have this wonderful collection. It is the voice of a songwriter who, after thirty years, still has his “soul intact”. You can hear his humility and inspiration reverberating through not only the words of his songs, but through Talley himself, a songwriter who, despite his circumstances, never lost his vision.
by Bill Littleton
Of the relatively few performers genuinely qualified to sing "I did it my way," we should never leave James Talley out of that group, whether he ever chooses to sing it or not. He attained momentum in the '70s to a level sufficient for Rosalyn Carter to refer to him as her favorite singer, then, seemingly overnight, those of us in Nashville mostly saw his name on real estate signs, interrupted from time to time with word about an appearance here or there or a European tour. Later came news that he had acquired his old Capitol catalogue and the release of new music as well. This CD is all of the above -- songs new and old, delivered in a group of live performances in Italy. Furthermore, the booklet contains an essay in which he tells "what happened" that shifted his name from marquees to real estate signs; the music stands up wonderfully without knowing the details, but awareness does have an enhancement effect on appreciation. I'd rather you get those details from him, so we'll concentrate on the music. The concerts are performed through the auspices of MusicVillage, Sarzanna, Italy; James is accompanied by Dave Pomeroy, Mike Noble, and Greg Thomas, on bass, electric guitar, and drums, respectively, in addition to his own acoustic guitar. He has worked with these musicians over various periods, so there is no hint of a pickup band syndrome, with Pomeroy characteristically pulling off some effects that definitely get a musician's attention without sidetracking the songs. While the performances are flawless, the heart of it all lies in the songs. Longtime fans like Mrs. Carter and me can take comfort in the quietly disturbing messages of such old friends as "Richmond, Washington" and "Tryin' Like The Devil;" we also have new adventures here -- dramatically leading that parade is "I Saw The Buildings," a painful cry from the 9/11 situation that brings its own historical perspective to the table. This important music is from an unquestionably important performer.
James Talley - Journey
Roots Highway - Italy
by Davide Albini
Mi chiedevo da tempo che fine avesse fatto questo progetto dal vivo di James Talley: all'indomani del suo ultimo tour italiano infatti ne avevo ricevuta una copia. James aveva manifestato l'intezione di registrare le serate e ricavarne un live per dimostrare il suo affetto verso il pubblico, rigenerato dopo anni di bisticci contrattuali, di sfortune e di scelte che lo avevano collocato fuori del mercato. Finalmente quel disco, tra le millle difficoltà dell'autoproduzione, trova posto nel catalogo del songwriter dell'Oklahoma, sempre pubblicato per la sua piccola e indipendente Cimarron records. Journey ci onora tutti dunque, raccontando le serate sui palchi italiani dell'ottobre 2002, catturato tra Chiari, Gallarete e Sarzana con l'ausilio di Jono Manson e Simone Grassi come ingegneri del suono. C'è persino un introduzione completamente Made in Italy di Franco Mazzotti dell'ADMR di Chiari che si schiarisce la gola e lancia il suo inconfondibile urlo di presentazione, ormai una costante dei concerti nella cittadina bresciana. Talley ha sempre avuto un feeling particolare con l'Europa e l'Italia in particolare, dove le amicizie e gli attestati di stima non gli sono mai mancati. Purtroppo è una costante di molti songwriters americani, praticamente ignorati in patria: non a caso, per pubblicare lo splendido The Road To Torreon qualche anno fa James è dovuto rifugirasi in Germania, alla Bear family (che poi gli ha giocato un bello scherzo con i diritti...ma questa è un'altra storia). Journey è un ottimo live, anche se il consiglio per chi volesse accostarsi alla musica di Talley è di rivolgersi alla bella raccolta Touchstones di due anni fa. La band assemblata per questo tour, con il grande Dave Pomeroy al basso, Mike Noble alla chitarra e Greg Thomas alla batteria, è di prima qualità, tutti vecchi amici di James e si sente. Cinque gli inediti, tra cui si fanno notare il country gentile di My Cherokee Maiden ed una bellissima The Song of Chief Joseph, dedicata ad un grande capo indiano e alla sua lotta impari contro l'uomo bianco. Molti poi i classici degli anni settanta in repertorio: la mitica Bluesman (sul vecchio Lp orginale suonata con BB King), Tryin' Like The Devil, W.Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys, Sometimes I Think About Suzanne e infine la splendida border ballad La Rosa Montana. Suono cristallino, ottima registrazione, la voce gentile e calda di Talley in primo piano che viaggia a ritroso alla ricerca delle sue radici, tra folk songs e country-rock. Un disco fatto col cuore da un artista come ne sono rimasti pochi in giro
James Talley Presented by Lucky Oceans
The Planet - Australian Radio
July 6, 2004
by Lucky Oceans
A fine arts graduate, he's been a rat controller, carpenter, and Presidential favourite. Oklahoma-born, Nashville-resident songster, James Talley performed at Jimmy Carter's inauguration. Another notable admirer was John Hammond Senior - the man who "discovered" Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan & Bruce Springsteen. Now a successful real estate agent, Talley remains a foe of rampant capitalism & a great songwriter. Music failed to provide his livelihood but is still central to his life. At 60 Talley continues to write excellent songs & is a potent performer of one of America's finer songbooks. "Journey" has songs old & new, performed with an excellent little band, "live" in Italy. It won't remind you of a real estate manual! Imagine instead a latter-day, Woody Guthrie, but more melodious & perhaps more shrewdly observant of (& comfortable with) actual, so-called "ordinary" people.
July 4, 2004
by Jack W. Hill
If music is your calling, but your music won't pay the bills, you can always go into real estate. It worked for singer songwriter James Talley, who seemed to have everything going for him some 30 years ago at a time when fans were coming to appreciate such talents as John Prine, Jimmy Buffett, Steve Goodman, Jackson Browne and the like.
Talley put out a series of fine albums that some of us heard about and appreciated. I have to admit that I bought his 1975 album because I liked the name he slapped on it - Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love. It proved to be worth the investment, as did the follow-up releases, Tryin ' Like the Devil, Blackjack Choir and Ain't It Somethin'.
When Talley seemed to vanish, there was no Internet back then to check and see what had become of him. We now learn that bad career advice had led him to leave Capitol Records, which had invested so much in him that they retaliated by deleting his four albums, which sent his career on a downward trajectory. However, Bear Records in Germany released four more Talley albums in the 1980s and ' 90s.
The commercial real estate business apparently kept Talley in groceries, and he made enough extra money to keep recording his songs from time to time. His newest release, Journey, on Cimarron Records, came about when fellow musician Jono Manson hooked him up with fans in Italy who arranged for him to do several shows there and recorded them besides, in the towns of Sarzana, Gallarte and Chiari.
Like the name suggests, Journey is a trip through Talley's work, with five new songs and nine old ones, all of them original, and all of them wondrous works that deserve greater exposure. For those who have never heard of Talley, he sounds a bit like Willie Nelson at times, and writes songs that are as evocative as those of Tom Russell, Mickey Newbury and, yes, Woody Guthrie (whom Talley salutes on a tribute album, Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home).
An Oklahoma native who went to college in New Mexico and now lives in Nashville, Tenn., Talley has an appreciation for the wonders of history and geography. He starts the new CD off with "W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys," a tale of a Tulsa musician in the Bob Wills vein. He also sings of a Cherokee maiden; Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians; Richland, Wash., and its plutonium past; and recent events, such as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
His love songs (" That Old Magic, "" Sometimes I Think About Suzanne," "When I Need Some Love" and "Up From Georgia") are nicely done and memorable, and Talley closes the album with" We're All One Family, " a folk singer's plea for understanding and harmony. Written in 1985, the song's sentiments are still admirable, even in today's world.
Talley may not have made his fortune from music, but he will still be remembered by those who seek out musicians out of the mainstream, who have things to say that are worth hearing.
Talley has the kind of sound that would be perfect in the state's coffeehouse venues - especially for those of us who have wanted to see him since that 1975 album. Grade: A
by Pete Gow
’What you leave behind is the record of your journey here on Earth’
Recorded Live in Sarzanna, Gallarate, and Chiari, Italy in October 2002, Journey represents a kind of in concert Best Of by one of the most important and seminal song writers that fans of country music have never heard of. The personal and professional journey of Talley is as important a story to working musicians as the recording itself documents. Even an abridged biography of the man Nat Hentoff describes as 'A singer- composer of singular talent and integrity', makes for a sad indictment on in-traversable chasm between the words Music and Industry. Signed to Capital in the seventies with four albums under his belt, Talley was ill advised to leave the company in pursuit of a better deal. No deal came, Capital, through spite deleted his albums leaving him with no money, no music to sell and ultimately no income. So the man whose songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Gene Clark and even Moby (told you it was a sad story!) and who played at Jimmy Carters inauguration now sells real estate in Nashville and releases his music sporadically through his own Cimarron records. He is however, happy, philosophically satisfied and has his soul in tact.
Talley is what would now be a Country Music Outlaw of the Old School. His songs of Native American Indians (My Cherokee Maiden, The Song for Chief Joseph) suggest Johnny Cash, Honky Tonkin' rockers like 'Tryin' like the Devil’ are vintage Waylon, tales of home spun poverty and the family bonds created through poor times (Richland, Washington) could be Merle Haggard circa 'Hungry Eyes'. Finally his vocal style, particularly his diction and phrasing is pure Willie Nelson.
On 'Journey' Talley's songs are given voice by Mike Noble (guitar), Dave Pomeroy (bass) and Gregg Thomas (drums). All three have played, at various times, over the years with their bandleader, and this really shows. The understanding between them is in evidence song after song. They have an uncanny empathy with the material and their place within the arrangements. That said, these are no cameos, Noble, followed by Pomeroy step out of the shadows to deliver solos in Bluesman that could stand toe to toe with their original interpreter, one BB King.
Talley is an important figure in Country music. He is not an obvious presence but has steadily earned his status, with a quiet dignity, unquestionable work ethic and no little amount of talent for constructing simple songs that appeal to listeners and fellow song writers alike. The real sad aspect of this Journey is that we do not say James Talley, Guy Clark, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and then draw breath.
Montreal Gazette - Canada
June 17, 2004
by Mike Regenstreif
Since the 1970s, James Talley has been one of Nashville’s best, and most commercially uncompromising, songwriters. Despite covers by artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Moby, Talley has always been his own best interpreter, which he demonstrates again on this superb live album, almost evenly divided between Talley classics and new material like I Saw the Buildings, an extended meditation on 9/11, and on desperation and hope in the contemporary world. Two other new songs, Song of Chief Joseph, and Somewhere On the Edge of the World, are movingly written from Native American historical perspectives. Among Talley’s older songs are the working class anthem Tryin’ Like the Devil, Sometimes I Think About Suzanne, a rambler’s bittersweet memory of a love left behind, and Richland, Washington, a poignant tribute to his father who died prematurely after working in a nuclear facility.
by Steve Rosenfeld
After more than three decades, American folk singer-songwriter James Talley has released a career retrospective, a live CD taken from a recent European tour. Talley grew up in Oklahoma and knows the people, places and lives that inspired working-class artists like Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck. He has always sung poignant songs about America's underdogs, and at age 60 he adds a reflective voice to his reportiore.
* Journey - James Talley's latest CD is a live recording spanning his career with five new songs.
* "Song of Chief Joseph" - Talley has always had a place in is heart and music for Native Americans.
* "Somewhere On The Edge of the World" - This song was inspired by life and legend of Crazy Horse.
* "I Saw The Buildings" - James Talley says it is inevitable what happens when people argue about God.
May 27, 2004
by Chet Flippo
Watching the ACM Awards show reminded me of just how fleeting fame and success can be for some country artists and how lasting the good times can be for other stars. Artists on that show such as George Strait and Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire and Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson and Randy Travis and Ray Price will endure forever.
Watching the ACM show also was a graphic reminder of how disgracefully country's pioneers and elders are sometimes treated on these awards shows. The great Ray Price, who was given the ACM Pioneer Award before the show, was pictured only briefly sitting in the audience with his award on the floor by his feet. He was allowed no opportunity to speak. Half the artists on that show are not talented enough to carry Ray Price's guitar case for him. At last year's CMA Awards, Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Carl Smith was also given similar short shrift. He was pictured briefly sitting in the audience and allowed no opportunity to speak. Either these awards should be an integral point of these shows and presented with dignity, or they should be eliminated entirely from the proceedings. This sort of condescending treatment of country's valuable elders is shameful.
But to return to my point about career longevity, some of the younger artists from that ACM show will endure as well, but there were a number of faces on stage that will be forgotten in a few years. If not much sooner. Sometimes the talent isn't enough, nor the charisma, nor the drive. The timing may be wrong. The songs may be wrong. Or the management. Or the record promotion. Sometimes it's just the luck of the draw, or it's one unfortunate decision that can bring an end to a country career.
In James Talley's case, it was a combination of many factors, especially the latter one. Talley is probably the most talented singer and songwriter that you have never heard of. And there are reasons for that. But one reason I was thinking of him in regard to that show was that he has a new CD coming soon (June 15) that is more or less a reprise of his career.
Talley was first signed to Atlantic Records and then to Capitol Records in Nashville in the 1970s and released a string of brilliant albums of what can loosely be called songs of the working class, of ordinary men and women. President Jimmy Carter loved Talley's work and invited him to perform at his inauguration as well as at the White House several times. Music critics loved his work. I wrote about him in the pages of Rolling Stone. The Los Angeles Times devoted a full page to Talley. The man was and is a true poet of the people. His debut album Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love remains a favorite of mine today. B.B. King played on his third album. He has had his songs recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Moby and Alan Jackson. Despite all the critical acclaim he received, he did not sell all that well. I don't think Capitol knew what they had in Talley and certainly didn't know how to promote an artist who was being compared to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie -- two artists who had few champions in the hallways of Nashville record labels in the '70s. Additionally, his songs demanded to be listened to closely, which is not something that country radio embraces or advocates.
But what effectively ended his career was a bad business decision. His manager convinced him to leave Capitol Records -- while he still owed the label three more albums under terms of a seven-album contract. Angered, Capitol management promptly deleted his four albums from the label's catalog -- which was "Something in my youthful naiveté I had never anticipated," he writes in liner notes to his new album. Continues Talley, "In the years after I left Capitol, without their powerful marketing support or the albums remaining in print, my musical career crashed like a plane shot out of the sky."
His manager abandoned him. No other label would touch him. He was in record label limbo. To this day, his Capitol albums remain unavailable, except as custom issues on Talley's Web site. His Capitol exile happened in the late 1970s, which was before the advent of both CDs and the Internet and was therefore long before it became possible to record and sell your own CDs online.
After about five years of record label exile, he went into real estate and continues today as a respected Nashville realtor. In becoming a realtor, he wrote, he discovered that "the thing that is so hard to accept and understand when you are living through your dreams being crushed, is that there is really nothing wrong with working at another job apart from music. It's no disgrace. It's honest. In fact, that is the way it used to be. Working people, not professional musicians, made much of the world's most heartfelt and inspiring music." Along the way, he has continued to write and perform and has released a series of albums as a sideline, and his talent continues to shine.
The new album Journey (on his own Cimarron label) was recorded live in a series of four concerts in Italy, where Talley had only recently discovered he had a great many fans. It's made up of several of his touchstone songs from over the years, as well as five new songs.
Check out his Web site, jamestalley.com. It's a fascinating saga of the fascinating life of a country star who never quite caught up with stardom. Talley is also one of the better essayists I have read, and I'm looking forward to the addition of his blog/journal to his site.
All Music Guide
by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr.
James Talley is something of a contradiction, simultaneously refusing to water down his music for mainstream country while making a living selling real estate to the highest bidder. All a listener of Journey or other recent Talley albums needs to worry about, however, is the musical side of the equation. While Journey sounds like a career overview, it isn't. Talley's early albums on Capitol remain out of print. Journey, then, is the next best thing, a live album that features mostly old and a few brand new songs. The album was recorded on a tour in Italy, and Talley's joined by a crack band made up of Mike Noble, Dave Pomeroy, and Greg Thomas. The opener, "W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys," dates back to Talley's first album, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got Love, from 1975. Others -- "Tryin' Like the Devil" and the moody "Sometimes I Think About Suzanne" -- are drawn from 1976's Tryin' Like the Devil, and a couple of real jewels -- "Bluesman" and "Up from Georgia" -- are pulled from Blackjack Choir in 1977. Talley remains a fine vocalist, and the band is so tight that it's easy to forget that Journey is a live album. The new songs -- like "The Song of Chief Joseph" and "My Cherokee Maiden" -- also blend well with the classic material. Although Journey could never take the place of the earlier Capitol albums, it at least makes the material available to those unfamiliar with Talley's 30 years of fine work.
Roots Music Report
by Chad Wheat
To listen to James Talley’s album, Journey, is such a good experience. It makes you feel like you are right there in the audience of this live performance. Wonderfully performed and produced, this music is something that you would want to listen to more than once. The master of roots music is back and he is more than welcome.
Real Estate and Real Music
Dirty Linen: The Magazine for Folk and World Music
by Ed Silverman
For a guy who sells commercial real estate for a living, James Talley sure has a nice singing voice. If only, he laments, he could make a living from that voice.
For a while in the 1970s, he did. Four long-deleted releases on Capitol - Including the seminal Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money - established Talley as one of the bright, young singer/songwriting stars of his time. "Those were good years," he said, reca1ling an early string of good fortune. It began when he sent a tape to John Hammond, the legendary Columbia executive who signed Bob Dylan. A subsequent meeting in Hammond's New York office prompted him to introduce Talley to Jerry Wexler, who was planning a country division for Atlantic Records. But the idea tanked, and Talley found himself working as a carpenter in Nashville. Coincidentally, Talley was remodeling a home for Frank Jones, a Capitol executive, and passed along an album that he was selling out of the trunk of his car. Suddenly the sun, moon, and stars aligned - Jones liked what he heard and offered Talley $5,000. Although it was a small sum even by early 1970s standards, Talley jumped at it. "I thought it was a good deal. I didn't know anything about leasing masters. But it was well received. Greil Marcus gave it a very good review in The Village Voice," he recalled with a wistful pride. "And I remember the label's vice president of sales seeing that review and wondering how it could be any good if they didn't pay anything for it."
But by the early 1980s, a strategic miscue left Talley without a recording deal. His (at the time) manager suggested leaving Capitol, but without another deal in hand. The blunder tagged Talley as a difficult talent around Nashville, making it hard for him to get signed elsewhere. Skilled at landing on his feet - he'd also worked as a horse wrangler and social worker before getting into music full time - Talley drifted into real estate. "It was one of those mistakes you make only once in your lifetime, and you live it the rest of your life," he said. "My career spiraled after that. I had to let my band go, and I started touring with just my guitar. But I had children, two boys, to take care of, and so, by accident, I went into real estate."
But Talley never stopped writing songs. He later released a couple of albums in Europe, which earned him a following and encouraged him to revisit his past. Although he hasn't been widely heard on these shores for some 20 years, the Nashville broker is working hard to reclaim his old audience and find some new listeners, too. Toward that end, he's released three albums on his own Cimarron label over the past two years, including his newest, Touchstones, which, in a way, is also his oldest. Unlike so many other artists who are releasing reissues or repackaging their biggest hits, Talley took an unusual twist: He re-recorded many of his favorite tracks from his four Capitol albums.
Using some of the Austin musicians who helped the legendary Doug Sahm record his last album, Talley faithfully duplicated many of his classics, such as "Tryin' Like the Devil," "Sometimes, I Think About Suzanne," and "Calico Gypsy." The original spark, in fact, is even outdone on his new rendition of the rollicking "W. Lee O'Daniel and The Light Crust Dough Boys." Unfortunately, "Got No Bread, No Milk and No Money" doesn't appear. His early influences - Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams - shine through. And despite the intervening years, his heartfelt voice, always heavy with emotion, still hits the same highs and lows. The Oklahoma twang is still there, too. It's an interesting gambit, but worth the price of admission, partly because the original material was so strong, but also because Talley manages to pull off a feat that so many others couldn't duplicate. "I have the right to re-release them, but I don't have the money to re-release them all," he explained. "So I just picked some of the songs I liked. I thought maybe I could do a best-of to satisfy some people. And I wanted the artistic and sonic continuity you get from working with a group of musicians. I didn't think I could get that by issuing the old masters."
Although not a huge seller, Touchstones is gaining notice, showing up on Billboard's Americana charts. And with any luck, Talley will eventually re-release those early classics, all the while hoping to record still more new music.
"I don't know what category I fit into anymore. I gave up making music I could market a long time ago," he said matter-of-factly. "Call it alt-country. Call it roots. Call it folk. People can call it anything they want, as long as they can buy it, I'm happy. But for now, I'll be in real estate until 1 can make a living in the music business."
Comes With a Smile - UK
by Tom Sheriff
First and foremost, this is a straight and totally pure country record, differing little in style from most any male traditional country artist that you may have ever heard. But the names that James Talley’s music are ever likely to be compared to are only going to be good ones, such as Merle or Willie.
But it is Woody Guthrie who Talley is most commonly linked to, for his are songs concerning the burden of being, the plight of Average Joe and rising above the mire, as well as the obligatory country and blues themes of loneliness and lost loves. The dustbowl sentiment is best exemplified in the startling opening lines to Give My Love To Marie – “I’m a black lung miner from east Tennessee / I raised all my family on coal dust and beans”; grim stuff, and entirely typical of Talley’s socially conscious output. This is an old Talley song; this and fifteen others are dusted off, minimally rearranged, and performed with fresh vigour and personnel (in this case, an entirely Texan ensemble that includes Joe Ely and accordion giant Ponty Bone), much in the spirit of, say, John Prine’s gorgeous ‘Souvenirs’ project. (The originals are drawn from four albums released on Capitol between 1974 and 1977, when the average country singer-songwriter was bunging out a couple of albums a week - not that such heavy productivity had any detrimental effect to at least this man’s work).
Producer and guitarist maestro Tommy Detamore particularly shines, coaxing the band to gentle twangy wonder behind Talley’s soft, expressive voice, all captured at surely one of the more enticing rustic studio locations available, according to the booklet snapshot. Cherry Ridge Studio in Floresville, Texas, is a small white wooden building with porch out front, shaded by trees. A wheelbarrow leans against one, a small cement mixer and bucket sit close by, a few yards from a truck; an ordinary setting for extraordinary songs of ordinary folk.
Take Country Back (Vancouver, BC)
by AnnMarie Harrington
In the 1970's James Talley was signed to Capitol Records, put out 4 critically acclaimed albums, sang at Jimmy Carter's inauguration, became known as a Carter household favorite, and his first album "No Bread No Milk No Money" was named by Rolling Stone magazine in 1990 to its list of essential albums from the '70s.
So why isn't James Talley a well known country artist and household name? Unfortunately, due to bad breaks and bad advice, James could probably be a poster boy for everything that can go wrong with a promising recording career. Despite putting out 4 critically acclaimed albums- No Bread No Milk No Money, Tryin' Like The Devil, Blackjack Choir and Ain't It Something, and the media exposure from playing Carter's inauguration and the fact that he was a White House favorite, though he had some minor successes, James had yet to achieve his big breakthrough on the charts. Part of the reason was his music was something different than the regular Nashville fare of the day- his songs revolved more around the plight of the blue collar working man and social issues, a little closer in substance to what Shaver, Jennings, Nelson, Clark, Van Zandt, etc. were putting out at the time. The other part is, his manager felt that Capitol was not properly promoting his work, and talked him into leaving the label. James did so on his manager's advice- only to find he wasn't getting any other offers. He couldn't go back to Capitol as the people there weren't too happy about his walking away in the first place, which was viewed as a lack of loyalty, after they'd sunk a fair amount of money into his first 4 albums.
Even though James already held a degree in Fine Arts, and had worked for years during the late 60's as a caseworker for Social Services in Nashville, he went back to school again and earned a license in real estate to support his family and pay the bills. He didn't give up his music entirely though, and continued to write. During the '80s he recorded sporadic albums, American Originals, Love Songs And The Blues, and The Road To Torreon, which were put out by the Bear Family German label. In 1990, he decided to approach Capitol, figuring enough time and personnel changes had taken place, that any hard feelings would have been long forgotten. He did get interest from them, first in re-issuing his original Capitol catalog. Each time something looked like it was about to happen, there were more personnel changes and things kept getting put on hold. During this time, he's also recorded a new album of Woody Guthrie songs.
Five years after recording the Guthrie album, James finally decided things with Capitol were futile, and by this time he now had a brand new marketing tool- the internet. So he decided to start his own label, Cimarron, and in 2000, released Woody Guthrie And Songs Of My Oklahoma Home himself. The CD met with critical accolades and wound up on many a "best of" list. The next year he followed it up with yet another acclaimed effort, Nashville City Blues.
On his latest effort, James decided to go back and revisit the songs from his first 4 original Capitol recordings, hence comes it's title, Touchstones. Because so many people are (unfortunately) unfamiliar with these recordings, this was a wise move on his part to dig into his past, unearth these treasures and show the world what it missed out on the first time around.
James takes the best of the songs from his Capitol releases and re-recorded them, this time in San Antonio instead of Nashville, and is backed by ace musicians Bobby Flores, Tommy Detamore, Ponty Bone, Al Gomez, Ron Huckaby, David Caroll, Dan Dreeban and a cameo appearance by Joe Ely. Most of the songs don't stray from the originals, though there is an exception here and there. The track "Bluesman" was originally done as a rocker, and here it's transformed into a slow burn. As an interesting aside, on the original version, James got BB King to record the track with him (another very interesting story within itself)- making him the first country artist to record with BB, and the first time BB King recorded in Nashville. This reworked version is still blues to the hilt, but replacing BB's original guitar lines is a very seductive fiddle.
James can do excellent Western Swing tunes, as he proves on "W. Lee O'Daniel And The Light Crust Doughboys," his tip of the hat to the legendary bandleader, with Joe Ely featured on vocals, and "When The Fiddler Packs His Case." He gives a Tex-Mex flavor to the West Texas "Calico Gypsy," "Not Even When It's Over," and the reflective "What Will There Be For The Children," a song asking what legacy we will leave behind for the future.
James' ballads range from the beautiful- "Up From Georgia," which has been referred to by many as one of the prettiest country songs to come out of the modern country music era and "Deep Country Blues" with it's sweeping melody and has a feel to it similar to "I Get Along," which George Strait recorded on his first album. He goes for heartbreak on "Sometimes I Think Of Suzanne," a man mourning the love of his life that he lost through his own doing, and the innocence of courtship in ""To Get Back Home."
Perhaps James' strongest songs are those where he sings of the plight of the working man and touches on political issues, songs that would make both Woody Guthrie and Merle Haggard proud. "Tryin' Like The Devil" and "Forty Hours" are toe tapping honky tonkers, about the average workingman, just working their butts off day after day, trying to get ahead, and trying to be free. "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again" is a political skewering, where he begins to see why Pretty Boy Floyd did the things he did, when a hardworking man can't even make enough money to feed his family. "Give My Love To Marie" is a mournful lament from a man who's spent his life working in the mines, and is now dying of Black Lung disease.
"Richland, Washington" is an autobiographical song. Though James' and his parents hail from depression and WWII -era Oklahoma, when he was a child, his father took a job in Richland, Washington, working at the plutonium factory- which today is a nuclear waste dump. Back then the dangers weren't known, (or at least not disclosed by the government), and it was an idyllic life. However, some years later, his father developed a tumor on his lung which couldn't be diagnosed, as there were no doctors who'd ever seen anything like it. The tumor along with 1/2 his father's lung was removed. As time went on he developed other unexplained illnessess, and eventually died from them. James laments how his father never got the chance to live to see his grandchildren, and how they would never know their grandfather.
Considering all these songs are approaching 30 years old, not one of them sounds dated at all- well written, socially relevant songs seldom do. If anything, the only improvement may be that the years have seasoned James' vocals, and he sounds more like a man who's really lived these songs, than perhaps he did when they were originally recorded. After all, he is just an average workingman like the rest of us. He can't afford to tour with a family to support, but if you're ever in the market for real estate in Nashville, you just may run into James trying to make ends meet.
Even if you're not in the market for real estate, it's highly recommended you pick up this CD for some of the finest modern country music ever made, from one of the finest and still vital artists that so many country music fans had the misfortune of missing out on, nearly 30 years ago.
by Gil Asakawa
When James Talley originally recorded the 16 songs on his latest album “Touchstones,” he was just past 30 and earning recognition at a time when country music was searching for its soul. A former fine art student, academic and social worker, Talley was soulful, but never hit it big with the Nashville establishment. But in the course of four albums on Capitol from 1975-’77 (yes, he had that much pent-up talent), he proved his soul with song after song that spoke plainly and honestly about simple living, country folk, hard times and pure, aching love.
His albums were pared-down instrumentally and mostly kept to the folk side of country music, and exuded wisdom and worldliness unexpected from someone so young. Those four Capitol albums have only been re-released on CD in recent years by the German label Bear Family, and hard to find. And his recent indie recordings have had undeservedly low profiles.
So it’s a joy to hear Talley now, more than two decades later, dust off the best songs from his early work for a second spin.
Although it’s tempting to say the material has been Texas-fied (the recording was done in San Antonio with Texas sidemen including Ponty Bone and Joe Ely), the arrangements have mostly kept close to the originals. What’s different is that the wisdom and worldliness have caught up with the songs. Talley’s voice is lower, and more seasoned. There’s a feel of deliberateness that comes from experience – he isn’t just singing these words, he’s lived them. “Bluesman,” a rocker on 1977’s “Backjack Choir,” is a slow burn now – one of the few songs that have been overtly rearranged. The love expressed in “Up from Georgia” is still as keen but somehow sweeter. The pain of his most overtly political song, “Richland, Washington,” is even more haunting after 25 years of reflection.
“Touchstones” is no career filler, it’s an overview of talent that still deserves more attention than it got.
This may be James Talley's finest moment as he revisits and re-records 16 songs from his four Capitol Records albums 1975-77). James calls these "the core of my early song catalog ... my touchstones."
James ventured from Tennessee to San Antonio for the sessions so he could play with such hot Texas players as accordion legend Ponty Bone, the David Carroll/Dan Dreeban rhythm section, producer Tommy Detamore on electric and steel guitars and Bobby Flores on fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar and bajo sexto.
Talley's songs really are a rich lode, gems that encompass pure Country & Western, Western Swing, blues and heartfelt ballads. Most tell vivid stories with the feel of a man who has lived his songs and treasures them. James Talley never quite got the attention his excellent songwork deserves, but critics and devoted fans have sung his praise for over a quarter century. Here, reconsidering choice early work from a perspective of many years later, he is in peak form. Talley sings of the average man living from paycheck to paycheck, who takes life's knocks and must roll with them and keep swinging back. If you have never heard James Talley, start with Touchstones. For the rest of us, just kick back and enjoy. Touchstones is a keeper
Talley collection worth the wait
June 21, 2002
by Gene Triplett
OKLAHOMA-BORN James Talley had his name emblazoned across the covers of four critically acclaimed Capitol Records albums back in the late '70s.
He was hailed as the Next Big Deal in rootsy country music, compared to no less than Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Bob Wills and – in particular - Woody Guthrie, due to the populist slant of his more topical songs. Younger critics likened him to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the Band when raving about his folk-influenced songwriting.
He was even invited to perform in President Carter's White House - three times. Then he took some bad advice from Jerry Jeff Walker's manager, shucked his contract with Capitol on the promise of a "real" record deal, and effectively pulled the chain on a bright future in music.
Down and out in Music City, the young man from Mehan, OK, had to find a new way to make ends meet and feed his wife and two small boys.
Today, his name is emblazoned across For-Sale signs in neighborhoods all over Nashville.
Real estate wasn't his dream, but it kept the Talleys going, and now it's bankrolling the slow-but-sure comeback of one of our long-lost musical treasures.
He'll be coming back home tonight, unpacking a travel bag of story-songs old and new at the Blue Door, 2805 N. McKinley. Show starts at 9.
"I'm lookin' forward to it, I really am," he said from his Nashville real estate office last week. "I was back in Oklahoma in '99 with my mom for her high school reunion. She went to the Eureka Consolidated School up there between Stillwater and Glencoe, which doesn't exist anymore.
"The building's still there, because it was built out of formed concrete, so it’s kinda like a machine-gun bunker, you know? I guess it'll be there forever."
Much like that weed-grown structure, Talley's songs also have stood up to the years with their timeless scenarios of blue-collar toil and troubled love. His latest of three recent self-released albums, "Touchstones," is clear evidence of that, showcasing a mellow, Southern-twanged, sometimes blues-informed voice slightly reminiscent of the aforementioned Mr. Nelson, yet distinctly Talley's own.
It's a collection of the best tunes from his long-out-of-print Capitol recordings, re-recorded with producer-guitarist Tommy Detamore and several of the musicians who worked with the late alternative-country genius Doug Sahm on his final album, "The Return of Wayne Douglas."
Talley loved the sound of Sahm's record, and instead of re-releasing his old studio work, he opted to buff a new sheen on his compositions with the help of Sahm's compadres.
"You don't have the continuity of performance, the continuity of style, when you've got one old master that was recorded at this time in this studio with these players, and another one over here with this studio and these players," he explained.
"By going in with a whole team of really crack musicians and doing it as a concept, I just think we wound up with a much stronger album."
The result is an overview of his early work - every bit as passionate as the originals - that includes the fiddle-fired "Tryin' Like the Devil," the slow-dancing melancholy of "Bluesman" (originally recorded with B.B. King), the lively Western swing of 'W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys," which is filled with old-time Okie imagery, and "Richland, Washington," inspired by his daddy, who once worked in the harsh environs of a plutonium plant there.
It was his guitar-playing father and his love of Woody Guthrie's songs that inspired Talley to take up music in the first place. And Talley has worked a few hard jobs himself - carpenter, exterminator, horse-wrangler, welfare caseworker - finding fodder for his songs in the working-class people and the places he's known.
He likes to joke that you can do all kinds of jobs with a degree in fine arts, which he earned at the University of New Mexico.
Major-label recording artist was certainly one of his favorite lines of work, and to this day he can't explain why that artists' agent talked him into breaking his Capitol contract, then reneged on a promise to find him a better deal and manage his career.
"I couldn't get him on the phone," Talley says. "I haven't spoken to the guy in 25 years. I have ho idea what happened."
Word quickly got around to other labels that Talley was "hard to work with." "I was black and blue all over from bein' hit with 10-foot poles in Nashville. You don't leave a major record label until they're ready for you to leave, you know?"
He chalks it up to being young and naive and putting his trust in the wrong people. Since then, Talley has released a handful of live and studio albums on the German-based Bear Family label that proved costly rather than profitable. In 1990, he began a protracted and difficult negotiation process with Capitol to secure the rights to his early albums, finally winning that battle in 1999.
The agreement enabled him to release "Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home" - an album which had been languishing since 1994 due to the Capitol hassles - on his own Cimarron Records in January 2000. His first American-made album of new material, "Nashville City Blues" followed in July 2000.
Now, at 58, his latest album, "Touchstones," is sitting at No. 10 on the Americana charts. He manages to get out on the road with his guitar at least one weekend a month and occasionally stays out for two weeks when he can afford the time and money, taking Jan, his wife of 33 years, along with him.
The way Talley figures it, there's one person turning 50 every 8 seconds in the United States for the next 20 years. That's a lot of potential fans. And plenty of time to stage his comeback.
But he doesn't plan to close his office just yet.
"I'm still workin' a job," he chuckles. "I'm still in the real estate business. I've got right-brain, left-brain confusion goin' on here, I think."
Tonight at the Blue Door, the right half takes over.
Life Elevated to Art
by Thomas Conner
James Talley moved away from Oklahoma, but could never leave it behind. Like his hero, Woody Guthrie, singer-songwriter James Talley left Oklahoma when he was young but somehow never got it out of his system.
He's lived all over - Washington, California, New Mexico, Tennessee - but he's always had that Okie thing. It's a patience in his songwriting, a laid-back but still vigilant and poignant expression in his country-folk music. It's an understanding of the workingman – despite his 20 years in a white collar, selling commercial real estate in Nashville – and a living memory of the plight of the Dust Bowl Okies, a group that included his parents.
He's like Tom Paxton: he's gone on to greener countries, but he still drops those Green Country place names into his songs – his daddy's Oklahoma home in the tribute song "Richland, Washington," the Cain's Ballroom in another tribute song, "W Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys."
"I left the state when I was 3. I shouldn't have any real connection, but I do. It's in my blood, in my family history. It's still in my daily life," Talley said during a recent interview.
Talley's grandparents lived in the town of Mehan, south and east of Stillwater. That's their homestead featured on the cover of Talley's album "Songs of My Oklahoma Home," which finds Talley singing nearly two dozen Guthrie songs.
"Once raised into that kind of culture, it stays with you no matter where you go. My parents were Okies. All the people around us were Okies. Every summer, we'd drive out to Oklahoma and spend weeks with my grandparents in Mehan. My aunt Ruth is still there in Stillwater," he said.
"But the thing is - my father never quit talking about Oklahoma. He always wanted to move back. You'd talk to him for five minutes and know he was from Oklahoma, 'cause that's one of the first things he'd tell people. He was proud. He was going to buy a drug store in Ripley once, but it didn't pan out. My mother still talks about going back. She's 87, probably about ready to go into some kind of assisted care, but she still talks about moving back to Stillwater to be with all the girls she went to high school with. Who knows? She may do it yet."
Talley's concert this week is his own homecoming, his first Oklahoma concert in almost a quarter of a century. He last performed in Tulsa, at the Cain's, for a live broadcast on KVOO – what was then the first live broadcast that station had done in another quarter of a century, since Johnny Lee Wills had ended that tradition.
That was back when Talley was as close to mainstream fame as he ever got. He was signed to Capitol Records and was pumping out albums of rich meaningful country music. They're also the kind of albums that are now out of print, the kind that – like Willis Alan Ramsey's lone and classic debut – influenced countless musicians but suffered from misunderstanding within the marketing machinery.
Talley, despite his Nashville address is about as anti-Nashville as it gets. "Nashville never knew what to do with me. Not then, not now," he said. He stays because his day job's there. He’s got contacts, he doesn't want to just pick up and move on. But he recorded his Woody Guthrie record in Santa Fe and his latest, Touchstones, in San Antonio.
Touchstones is a greatest-hits album, of sorts. It rounds up songs from those Capitol albums in the '70s, but instead of presenting the old recordings in a haphazard string, Talley chose to re-record them with a single band.
"I had the rights, finally, and could have compiled an album from the masters, But years ago I bought a copy of Gordon Lightfoot's Gord's Gold. He went in and recorded a lot of songs he had done for the UA-Liberty label and some for Warner Bros. That album had continuity and flow to the ear that you can't get from compiling the old masters," Talley said. "That's what I was after, why I did it this way."
The process also allowed Talley to reexamine some of his own standards. "Well, the song 'Bluesman' was recorded in '76 with B.B. King, It was the first time B.B. had ever recorded in Nashville, and the first time he had just played a session lead in 20 years. The way we recorded it was as an up tempo blues shuffle with a horn section. One day a while back, I was sitting and playing in my office, just me and my guitar, and, well, it's hard to play an up tempo blues shuffle with just me and an acoustic guitar. So I started playing it in 6/8 time, a variation on waltz time, and it worked. I started playing live again because it was really powerful presenting it that way. So I recorded it that way this time around.
"It's delightful to find new ways to sing old songs. I mean, you go to a Dylan concert; he never does the same song the same way twice. Of course, some of my musicians accuse me of never playing a song the same way twice. That's just the Okie guitar method."
Touchstones features just that – songs Talley has come back to again and again. He's been amazed at how the personal memory of his father has resonated with some people. "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?" has been requested over and over for years, to his surprise.
"But that's how it's supposed to work," he said. "It's that whatever's in my heart is in your heart. There's a piece of me in you and you in me. That link is called our humanity. Other people hear about your hard times or things that make you laugh or cry or touched you and it also touches them. There's nothing as powerful as life elevated to art. Woody Guthrie did that He took reality and raised it to a level of art." He also said that songwriters should write only what they know about, advice Talley and thousands of folkies have taken to heart. Talley, though, heard that from one of Guthrie's contemporaries.
"Pete Seeger came through town back in '67, and he knew one of my old English professors who was still a friend of mine. The day after his concert at the university, he came over to my house.
"I'm sitting there shaking like a leaf with my Martin D-28 that I'd bought with my horse-wrangling wages, and I played him some of my songs. He said, ‘Obviously you've got passion, but don't try to write folk songs like you think people from New York City are writing them. Write about the things you know. Write about your family, the things around you every day, and the rest of it will take care of itself.’
"I immediately started my Road to Torreon album, and I followed that rule the rest of my life. I've never tried to write a commercial record or write songs that other people could record. I try to write songs that have something to say."
After many struggles, Talley is still ‘tryin’ like the devil
June 20, 2002
by George Lang
CRITICAL PRAISE DOESN'T PAY THE BILLS, AND all the plaudits of admiring reviewers do not guarantee a wide following. James Talley knows this all too well: In 1975, Village Voice music critic Greil Marcus wrote that his debut CD, "Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love," was “as finely tuned as that of a mid-Sixties Donovan album, and as unobtrusive as anything you might be hearing from Bob Dylan." Sadly, his renown never extended beyond a coterie of respectful reviewers.
At 58, Talley makes his living as a successful real estate agent in Nashville, but he continues to tell great stories with his music. This year, he revisited songs from his long out-of-print but transcendent Seventies output with "Touchstones," a collection of newly re-recorded songs from his first four albums. Talley, who will perform Friday at the Blue Door and Saturday at Borders Books and Music, said his simple country-folk songs maintained their quiet power as he gave them new life on the CD.
"These songs, guess, are timeless,” Talley said. "Otherwise, people wouldn't be responding to them 25 years later, you know what I'm saying? It doesn't feel a whole lot different to me to play them now than when I was 25 or whatever, simply because I don't feel much different than I did back then. I've still got the same passion for my music and my writing - I'm just not as young and pretty."
Back then, the Oklahoma-born Talley was a Los Angeles carpenter with a master's degree in fine arts. He was briefly signed to Atlantic and subsequently lost in the shuffle, and was carrying around pressed vinyl copies of "Got No Bread" in his trunk when he got a job remodeling Capitol Records President Frank Jones' home. Jones asked to hear the record, and soon signed the young songwriter to the label.
He recorded four acclaimed discs for Capitol - his second album, "Tryin' Like the Devil," was described by critic/author Peter Guralnick as "a hard-hitting record about the present day which will stand up to repeated listenings and changing trends." He performed at President Jim1!lY Carter's inaugural, but he never broke through. After signing with new representation, his manager convinced him to leave Capitol for a better deal, and it ended up being his downfall.
"I was young and naive, and when you're young and naive, you put your trust in people that, sometimes, maybe you shouldn't," Talley said. "Unfortunately, I hadn't been off the label more than a few months, and I couldn't get him on the telephone. I mean, the guy wouldn't return my calls. Of course, when the word went out around Nashville that I had walked away from a major label owing them three albums, I was black and blue allover from being hit by 10 foot poles."
He couldn't get a new deal, self-released discs were prohibitively expensive at the time, and concert agents only wanted to talk to him if he was signed to a label. Feeling that his career was over and desperate to feed his family, Talley soon found himself selling real estate. He became successful at his new job, but he never gave up on his talent.
More than a decade after his last Capitol album, "Ain't It Somethin'," representatives from the German folk label Bear Family Records approached him about recording again - a German disc jockey had been playing Talley's Seventies output, and a European following had emerged. He made a handshake deal, but Talley said his wife warned him not to do it.
"She said, 'You'll never see a dime from that guy,'" Talley said.
She was right. Talley said he has no idea how many copies his Bear Family records sold, because he never got a statement from the company. Even with critical praise for albums like 1992's "The Road to Torreon "a concept disc about Mexican-American families he met in the Seventies while serving as a social worker in New Mexico, no dimes were seen.
A few more years passed, and with the advent of e-commerce, Talley formed his own label, Cimarron Records, and began recording with a passion. His first disc was "Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home," a co11ection of Guthrie's best-loved compositions, which he fo11owed up with his first album of original work in a decade, "Nashville City Blues." He is now hoping to reconnect, and he hopes his songs resonate with audiences feeling as burnt by Nashville as he has been.
"There's things that we have in common in our humanity," he said. "When people hear the real thing, it moves them,"
James Talley more than happy to just 'make music'
San Antonio Express-News
June 5, 2002
by Jim Beal
He's been a social worker and a carpenter. He's now a real estate broker in Nashville, Tenn. And he's one of those singing songwriters who has a cult following. Talley would not mind if that cult numbered in the millions. But even if it doesn't, he shows no signs of letting up.
"I'm not trying to make songs for radio or for Proctor & Gamble, songs that sound like jingles that people will listen to until the next jingle comes along," Talley said recently from his Nashville home. "I make music."
Talley was born in Oklahoma. He grew up "in a family that moved all the time to make a living." Talley lived in Kentucky and Oklahoma and in Washington state a couple of times. He landed in Albuquerque in the fourth grade.
Knowing that, it's not at all strange that, after hearing and liking the sound of Doug Sahm's last album, "The Return of Wayne Douglas," Talley would opt to record in the Floresville studio where it was made, Tommy Detamore's Cherry Ridge Studio.
Talley recorded "Touchstones" with many of the people who recorded with Sahm: steel player Detamore, bassist David Carroll, drummer Dan Dreeben, fiddler Bobby Flores and pianist Ron Huckaby plus Al Gomez (trumpet), Ponty Bone (accordion) and Joe Ely (guest vocals).
"Bill Bentley, who's with Warner Bros. in Los Angeles, sent me a copy of Doug's album," Talley said. "When I heard the players I thought it was the perfect band to record with. Bobby Flores is a young Johnny Gimble. Tommy Detamore is a great steel player. I've always loved the music that's come out of Texas. Everybody gave 110 percent, energy and passion."
Energy and passion are two things that also mark Talley's songs. Beginning in 1975 he recorded and released four albums for the Capitol label. Part country, part folk, part blues, part rock 'n' roll, part swing, Talley's songs are the kind that eclectics love and that confuse marketers. Since '78, Talley's discs have been released on the German Bear Family label and on Talley's own Cimarron Records.
"Touchstones" features 16 classic Talley tunes from the major-label years. "I didn't have the money to get out four albums in one package, so the thought occurred to me to do a 'best of' collection,' for lack of better words," Talley said with a laugh. "I decided to re-record the songs because I wanted a flow and continuity I couldn't get if I pulled the songs off of old masters. Some of the songs are what the title says, touchstones. I've played them live for years. Anyone who knows my music, and I wish there were more of them, always asks for these songs."
When Talley decided to get serious about writing songs he took advice from one of the best. "In 1967, Pete Seeger came to Albuquerque to do a concert," he said. "After the concert he came over to listen to a few of my songs. I was as nervous as I could be. After I was done, Pete said, 'You have the energy and you have the passion. But look around and write about the things that are part of your life.'"
Influenced by Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Mickey Newbury, Jimmie Rodgers, Tom Paxton and Seeger, among others, Talley has long written about what he knows — working people, musicians, the blues, love and rambling. An ambitious project called "The Road to Torreon" was inspired by his work as a welfare caseworker in New Mexico.
"I'm probably the worst person in the world for pitching my own material," Talley said. "I'm not lacking in confidence but I don't have an easy time approaching someone and saying, 'Here, listen.' I'd love to have somebody like George Strait or somebody else who could sell records record my songs. But the problem is you can sign your life away to a publishing company and then the guy who likes your songs gets fired. There's a certain price you pay for independence, but I don't have a lot out there that I'm ashamed of."
That attitude, which dovetails with the attitudes of Texas musicians, might well be the reason "Touchstones" sounds great. "James didn't dictate exactly what he wanted me to play," said Gomez, a trumpet ace who can, and will, play Tejano, jazz, blues, classical and more. "He had some ideas, and it grew from there. I just wound up doing some harmonies on a couple of tunes and kind of thought Miles-meets-Nashville. James said he wanted a red clay, Southwest sunset kind of trumpet and it was cool."
Studio owner Detamore gets calls from as close as next door and as far away as Sweden, so Talley's call didn't come as a complete surprise.
"You never know who's going to call so I never try to force anything," Detamore said. "There weren't any charts, so we watched James like a hawk and followed him just like we did with Doug. We winged it on the basics and fleshed it out from there."
"There are a lot of great players in Nashville but you've got to wash all of that Nashville (expletive) out of their hair before you get to their essence," Talley added with another big laugh. "We're going to do some more music in San Antonio."
Bet on it. James Talley knows exactly what he can accomplish with that fine arts degree.
Original Outlaw Country music's James Talley is on the comeback trail
San Francisco Chronicle
May 23, 2002
by Derk Richardson
In 1976, the same year the album Wanted: The Outlaws, featuring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Jesse Colter, became country music's first million-selling LP, a lesser-known singer-songwriter, James Talley, released a single called "Are They Gonna Makes Outlaws Again?" The song came from Talley's second album, Tryin' Like the Devil, and nudged its way into the bottom tier of the country charts.
Such pop critics as Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau loved James Talley as much as any outlaw country artist who'd come down the pike. The 1984 edition of The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music noted, "If laudatory press clippings were gold, James Talley would have been a millionaire by the end of the 1970s."
Americans may love outlaws with hearts of gold, from Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" to Bob Dylan's "John Wesley Harding," but Talley's fortunes turned south before he could strike the mother lode. After recording two more albums for Capitol, acting on bad advice from his management, he severed his relationship with the label, and his promising career was derailed. But now, 25 years later, Talley is amassing a new file bursting with critical raves.
In 1999, spending some of the money he saved up selling Nashville real estate, Talley launched his own label, Cimarron Records. Over the past three years he has released three CDs, each every bit as compelling as his best '70s work. To the delight of longtime fans and, this unabashed partisan hopes, to the edification of a whole new audience, James Talley has returned as the sturdiest voice for outlaw country music.
"I'm sure there were plenty of periods when I felt like giving up on music," Talley said in a recent telephone interview from Nashville, where he lives with Jan, his wife of 33 years. "I just couldn't. It's just such a part of me. Otherwise, I wouldn't have worked as hard as I've worked and done all the stuff I've done."
"When I left the music business as a performer back in the '80s," he continues, "I was flat-ass broke, I had a family to feed and I happened by accident to get into real estate. I was looking for a profession where I didn't have to be at the same place at the same time doing the same thing every morning, and I would be working essentially for myself. I still had dreams.
"Now I can sit there with a calculator and crunch numbers with somebody who's got an MBA. I understand how money works -- financing, compounding, discounting, present values and future values and all this stuff I didn't know squat about. All that has been very beneficial to me in terms of understanding how business works, yet it's not what I want to do, and never has been. I didn't know I was going to be in the real estate business as long as I have. But if I hadn't succeeded in selling real estate, I wouldn't know anything about business and I wouldn't have had the money to record these albums."
A listener can glean the outlines of Talley's richly textured personal history from his recent CDs. On Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home he pays tribute to the state where he was born 58 years ago, and to the legendary troubadour who put music to the lives of sharecroppers, migrant workers and Dust Bowl refugees. On Nashville City Blues he addresses the trials and tribulations of trying to make an honest living and maintain one's integrity in a music capital that "wouldn't know old Hank if he came walkin' down the road." And on the new Touchstones, Talley reprises 16 of his most powerful songs from 1974 to 1977, freshly recorded in San Antonio with musicians who had played in the late Doug Sahm's last band.
Each album has its own sound, more or less acoustic, more or less bluesy. But all are steeped in Talley's trademark blend of bittersweet American folk and upbeat Western Swing. Taken together, they open windows on Talley's cultural and musical roots, his indomitable commitment to a populist point of view and his admirable resilience against all the odds a faceless music industry can stack against him.
"I think I got that from my mother," Talley says of his empathy for working people and his unflagging determination, "my mother and my father. My mother was a basically a tenant farmer's daughter and came up really, really hard in north-central Oklahoma. Everybody she knew was poor. During the Depression, it took her eight years to finish her degree at Oklahoma A&M, which is now Oklahoma State."
Talley's father used to sing Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers songs around the house, sharing his passion for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys as well. Meanwhile, the family moved from Tulsa to Washington State in search of work, and then, when James was eight years old, to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Although he played trumpet in the high school band and took up guitar at age 15, Talley didn't start taking songwriting seriously until he had finished his B.A. and pursued graduate studies at UCLA and the University of New Mexico. He remembers a critical turning point from 1967. Pete Seeger had come to UNM for a concert, and an English professor arranged for Talley to meet him.
"Here comes Pete walking down this dirt road with the dogs barking at his heels, just like a normal guy, not like an icon," Talley recalls. "He comes in and sprawls out on the floor and says, 'Play me a few songs.' I've got my new little Martin guitar that I bought that summer with some of the earnings from working as a horse wrangler up in northern New Mexico. I'm sitting there quaking like a leaf, and I play him about three songs, and he says, 'Well, you know, you've got some talent, but don't try to write folk songs like what's coming out of New York City. Write about your life, write about the things that you've seen, write about the Southwest -- the rest of it will take care of itself.'"
The next year, Talley moved to Nashville with a portfolio of songs about Hispanic-American life in the Southwest. Eventually, those songs would become The Road to Torreon, an album finally recorded in 1992 and released by Germany's Bear Family Records. But Music City executives, still smitten with the slick "countrypolitan" sound, didn't know what to do with Talley's salt-of-the-earth compositions.
In between fruitless interviews with such moguls as Clive Davis and an aborted contract with Atlantic Records (which closed its Nashville operation a year after signing him), Talley made ends meet with "the kind of jobs you can get with a degree in fine arts" -- as a public-welfare case worker, a supervisor in the city's rat-control program and a carpenter. Finally, in 1975 he bartered his carpentry for studio time, recorded his debut LP Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love and pressed 1,000 copies that he gave away out of the trunk of his car.
He spent his $600 tax refund to hire an independent radio promoter who managed to get some local airplay for the album and a single. Around the same time, Talley did some remodeling work on the house of the new head of Capitol Records in Nashville, and cultivated the relationship that led to Capitol purchasing Got No Bread and releasing the next three LPs.
That earnest and heartfelt body of work (which was reissued on CD in 1989 by Bear Family, without licensing from or remuneration to Talley, and which will eventually see the light of day on Talley's own label) ranks with the best in the American folk and country tradition. Anchoring his art on his real-life experiences, telling stories of "pot-bellied truckers drinking coffee, with a red-headed waitress named Louise," and "a black-lung miner from east Tennessee" who raised his family "on coal dust and beans," Tally combined the sensitivity to social justice of such coffeehouse and labor-movement folk musicians as Si Kahn and John McCutcheon with the songcraft of Merle Haggard and the true grit of Johnny Cash. (Cash, Johnny Paycheck and the late Gene Clark all recorded Talley's songs.)
Talley may have lost his major-label support after 1977's Ain't It Something, but he didn't lose his will to create. Still, a handful of hard-to-find Bear Family CDs from the '80s and '90s, including American Originals, Love Songs and the Blues and James Talley: Live, were all we got until Talley jump-started his career with the formation of Cimarron.
On his newest recordings, all his prodigious talents, including a honeyed voice that can make you cry when it sings "Sometimes I Think About Suzanne," "Up From Georgia," "Baby Needs Some Good Times," "What Will There Be for the Children?" or "If It Wasn't for the Blues," are gloriously intact.
"I'm just as passionate about it as I was when I was 25 years old," explains Talley, who was named Folk Artist of the Year 2000 on Amazon.com. "I write from the same place that I always have, from life, from people. It's the same approach I've had for 30 years. I just have my eyes and my ears open. I just listen to people talk."
As soon as he gets enough money together, Talley will record his next album, inspired by Chief Joseph and the Nez Piercé War of 1877, a subject that resonates with his own partial Native American heritage.
"I'm not really interested in running a record label," Talley says. "It's one thing to create the music, but once you finish the recording, the rest of it is tough as nails." Still, that's the course he's chosen because he can do just about anything an independent label could do for him, and as he sees it, the majors just don't have a clue about where their industry is heading.
"They paid Charles Koppelman $50 million to leave EMI/Capitol as chairman in 1997," he says in one of several rants about the sorry state of the music business. "What would they have paid him if he was doing a good job? It's insanity. How many acts could you have developed with that kind of money? Remember the old days, when they actually developed talent? Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was their 11th album. Hello? How many artists start out and sell a million copies first time out of the box? There'd be no Bob Dylan today if he'd been held to that. You can't run a creative entity the same way that you run General Electric.
"I just tell people, 'If you don't care enough about music to go through thick and thin and do whatever it is you have to do to keep doing it, it obviously doesn't mean that much to you,'" Talley concludes. "It's been a circuitous route with lots of pitfalls, but I've devoted my life to it. If your dreams mean something to you, you try to keep your them intact."
May 13, 2002
by Craig Havighurst
James Talley has one of the kindliest and one of the most honest voices you or I have ever heard. Only Doc Watson and precious few others sing country music with that same unforced, organic-as-the-green-grass feeling that truly transcends time or fashion.
Talley is probably the greatest interpreter of Woody Guthrie songs alive. But that's not what Talley will be remembered for most, because as a songwriter, he gives Guthrie a run for his Fascist-killing guitar.
Touchstones is a perfect introduction to Talley's way with a landscape. Compassionate portraits of the working and out-of-work are set to clear-water country arrangements. Plain-spoken rhapsodies of long-ago love drift on an acoustic breeze. Recollections of a great Texas dance band swing to punchy pedal steel and fiddle.
You'd never know these songs had 1970s copyrights on them if you didn't look them up, proving how malleable and timeless a great songsmith's work can be.
Montreal Gazette - Canada
May 2, 2002
by Mike Regenstreif
On Touchstones, James Talley has rerecorded 16 of his best songs from the 1970s. Rooted in country music with strains of blues, folk and western swing wafting through, these songs tell stories of working class people and their hopes and dreams. Talley’s vividly written characters include a miner dying of black lung disease, truck drivers and waitresses doing what they can to get by and the grown son of a nuclear plant worker who didn’t live to see his grandchildren.
While every one of these tracks is a gem, highlights include Talley’s western swing duet with Joe Ely on “W. Lee ’Daniel And The Light Crust Dough Boys,” a drifter’s reminiscence of lost love in “Sometimes I Think About Suzanne” and “Bluesman,” a loving tribute to the blues and the musicians who play them.
Talley Takes Career Into Own Hands With Cimarron Release
April 27, 2002
by Deborah Evans Price
NASHVILLE-One of the advantages of a long, fruitful career as an artist is having the opportunity to revive some of the gems often lost in back catalog. For singer/songwriter James Talley, his forthcoming release Touchstones sheds new light on the depth of the material he recorded for Capitol Records in the 1970s.
Newly recorded in San Antonio with Tommy Detamore (known for his work with the late Doug Sahm), Touchstones is being issued on Talley’s own Cimarron Records. The project finds him reviving some of his vintage country material.
“His songs sound like standards,” says John Larsen, PD/music director at Americana WYYB (the Phoenix) Nashville, which is already playing the Touchstones cut “Richland, Washington.” “It’s in the tradition of the old folk songs. I’m real pleased with the response he’s getting.”
Talley has a gift for bringing characters to life in his tunes. From the “Bluesman,” who has a million sad songs, to the miner raised on coal dust and beans in “Give My Love to Marie” to the father who supports his family working in a plutonium plant in the autobiographical “Richland, Washington,” Talley’s songs are populated with people who work hard and love harder. Listeners find themselves easily drawn into the portraits he paints.
“Music is supposed to move people; that’s what it’s for,” says Talley, who has had his songs cut by Johnny Cash and Johnny PayCheck, among others. “For the last 30 years, I haven’t done anything different. I’ve never tried to write a song because I thought it was something I could use in marketing; never thought about radio when I wrote a song, I just try to describe something that comes from the heart. If radio wants to play it, let them. God bless them.”
An Oklahoma native, Talley’s family moved to Washington and later to New Mexico, where he attended college. After doing graduate work at UCLA, he opted to move to Nashville and pursue a career as a songwriter. “I had all these songs that I had written about the Hispanic people that I was working with out there as a welfare caseworker, which is one of the jobs you can get with a degree in fine arts,” he says. “I would take [the songs] around Nashville, and people would say, ‘What the hell is this?’ People would say they were very well-written songs but didn’t know what they could do with them.”
He chose to take his songs to John Hammond in New York, known for his work with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Aretha Franklin. Hammond helped connect Talley with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, and he became part of a roster that included Willie Nelson and Troy Seals. “His Nashville operation didn’t work out, and he released Willie from his contract and didn’t renew my contract or Troy’s,” Talley recalls. “So, after my Atlantic situation, I went back to working as a carpenter, which is another thing you can do with a degree in fine arts.”
He wound up remodeling the house owned by Frank Jones, who headed Capitol at the time and became interested in the album Talley had recorded. “He offered me a deal of $5,000,” Talley says. “So, I sold my first album, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love. The first review that came out on it was in the Village Voice, and it said it was as good as anything the Band had done. All of a sudden Capitol was running around asking who this guy was. ‘How can this album be any good? We didn’t pay anything for it.’ One thing led to another, and I did four more albums for Capitol.”
Talley signed with a manager, who advised him to leave the label. Then, according to Talley, the manager’s support evaporated. “I reached a point in about 1982 where I was just absolutely flat-ass broke, and my family was suffering,” Talley says. “I had two little boys, and I had to do something. By accident, I wound up going into the real-estate business.”
Although he became a successful Nashville realtor, the music bug never left him. “The difference in the real-estate and the record businesses is that in the real-estate business, if you work hard and take care of your customers, you can make a living,” he explains. “In the record business, you can work hard, be talented, and just do everything you are supposed to do, and it’s still a crap shoot.
BACK IN THE SADDLE
The music biz may be a crap shoot, but it’s a hard game to resist, Talley got back in the fray in the mid-1980s, when Germany’s Bear Family Records released the first of four Talley projects, including a boxed set and a live collection.
Seeking to control his own destiny, Talley launched Cimarron Records in 1999 and has issued two critically acclaimed albums – Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home and Nashville City Blues. He also has his own publishing company, Hard Hits Music, and is preparing to switch affiliation from BMI to ASCAP.
After getting the rights back from Capitol for his earlier recordings, Talley decided to record Touch- stones. “I couldn’t afford to release four albums simultaneously,” he says, “but I figured if I could pull songs off those four albums and give the people a ‘best of’ those four albums, it would set the stage for a future release.” Talley wanted to record updated versions of the songs, so he enlisted Detamore after listening to Sahm’s last album, The Return of Wayne Douglas, which Detamore produced. “I was just really taken by the musicianship and the feel,” says Talley, who books and manages himself. “And even though my material is a lot different than Doug’s, I was just really knocked out by Bobby Flores’ fiddle playing and Tommy’s steel [guitar] playing and the rhythm section.”
Talley enjoyed the process of recording in San Antonio with Detamore and is proud of the results. “I got down there and had a wonderful time, and we had a lot of great moments together,” he says of the record, due April 23. “I was very pleased by the way it came off.”
Cimarron product is distributed through San Francisco-based City Hall Records, and Talley has hired veteran record promoter Bill Wence to promote singles to country and Americana radio.
“The album is well-done, and James has a feel you don’t hear much anymore,” Wence says. “In the ‘70s, I played piano with Tom T. Hall, and James has that kind of feel. You can understand exactly where he’s coming from. I don’t have to hear a song 10 or 15 times to know what he’s saying.” “I just write about life, about people and their lives,” Talley offers. “And as long as people don’t go out of style, I don’t think these songs will.”
April 23, 2002
by Jerome Clark
Talley sounds like the natural heir to Bob Wills, Woody Guthrie, Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Merle Haggard, without really sounding like any of them -- though if Guthrie had written it, the gorgeous, cryptic "Richland, Washington" would be judged among his masterpieces. Through his uncondescending sympathies with the struggles of working people, Talley's songs often have an at least implicit political subtext, without ever devolving into preachy protest anthems or "progressive" sloganeering. This is music for grown-ups living in the real world, which is to say that you can't be there without getting your heart, and maybe even your nose, broken. Like all great artists, Talley's hand is as sure as his eye is sharp and his ear is keen. His characters are recognizable human beings, not Popular Front cartoons. If Talley has no easy answers for them, he can celebrate their endurance. Talley is a storyteller supreme.
April 21, 2002
by Ellis Widner
One of America's best living songwriters.
Arts & Entertainment: Touchstones
April 21, 2002
by Nick Cristiano
You can think of Touchstones as James Talley's greatest hits - if he'd ever really had any. These 16 songs are culled from the four albums he recorded for Capitol in the '70s, when the Oklahoma-bred country-folk troubadour earned his reputation as a common man's poet, if a sadly under appreciated one.
These versions - newly recorded in Texas with a superb group of musicians - don't differ much musically from the originals. The difference lies mainly in the resonance that nearly 30 hard years have added to these great songs, and to the expressiveness of Talley's delivery. You can hear it in the up-tempo stuff like "To Get Back Home" ("You know it's hard to get back home/ And see things die that you once loved so") and the Guthrie-esque populism of "Forty Hours" and "Tryin' Like the Devil." But it's really evident in slower songs that were infused with the blues to begin with and now are even more so, such as "Bluesman" ("So many dreams unravel/ 'Neath the burden and the weight. . . .")
Through it all, you can hear the spirit that has made Talley persevere, through all the professional disappointments, and continue to produce outstanding music like 2000's Nashville City Blues.
April 18, 2002
by David Hill
Merle Haggard has at times been known as the Poet of the Common Man, but the title could just as easily apply to James Talley. A fine Nashville-based singer-songwriter with a gift for writing stirring portraits of working-class heroes, Talley has kicked around for years without getting the big break he deserves. In the 1970s he recorded four highly regarded albums for Capitol, none of which are currently in print. For the exquisitely beautiful Touchstones, Talley has culled 16 of his favorite songs from those albums and rerecorded them with a crack band of Texans, including guitarist Tommy Detamore (who co- produced) and fiddler Bobby Flores, both of whom worked with the late Doug Sahm. In a simple voice that sounds a bit like Tom T. Hall's, Talley sings about everyday people just barely getting by, like the "pot-bellied truckers drinkin' coffee / With a redheaded waitress named Louise" in "Tryin' Like the Devil," or the dying "black lung miner from East Tennessee" in "Give My Love to Marie." The gorgeous "Sometimes I Think About Suzanne" finds Talley reminiscing about a lost love--and wondering what might have been. Never mind that the album's 16 songs are all at least 25 years old--they're timeless.
James Talley - Touchstones
Roots Highway - Italy
by Marco Denti
C'è continuità nel coraggio con cui James Talley alimenta le sue canzoni. C'è la dignità di chi si presta all'arte senza necessariamente pensare di ricevere qualcosa in cambio, perché in trent'anni di carriera i suoi dischi non hanno mai visto la luce delle classifiche. Forse è meglio così perché è difficile pensare The Road To Torreon o quel piccolo capolavoro che è Woody Guthrie And Songs Of My Oklahoma Home tra Britney Spears e Madonna: con James Talley si scende nel profondo delle radici della cultura americana, e si tratta di qualcosa il cui prezzo è relativo. In particolare per Touchstones che è un album un po' speciale sia per James Talley sia per chi deve ancora scoprirlo: si tratta di una rivisitazione dei suoi principali standard, una specie di antologia di nuove interpretazioni, eseguite con una rock'n'roll band veramente a denominazione d'origine controllata. La spina dorsale è costituita dal gruppo di Doug Sahm, alla fisarmonica c'è Ponty Bone e, special guest in W. Lee O'Daniel And The Light Crust Dough Boys, c'è Joe Ely. Il resto è tutto frutto della generosità di James Talley: sedici canzoni che vanno da Tryin' Like The Devil a Bluesman (nella versione originale c'era B.B. King alla chitarra) da Deep Country Blues a Give My Love To Marie. Country & western d'autore e ballate che, pur recuperate da un misconosciuto passato, brillano incontaminate: Touchstones, come giustamente scrive Peter Guralnick nelle note introduttive, non è frutto della nostalgia, ma della passione di una vita.
Rock & Rap Confidential
by Dave Marsh
Recording in San Antonio under the inspiration of Doug Sahm, Talley finds heightened musical energy that gives him his best album. The hints here are not of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford but of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and that goes for the singing even more than the writing. Nor has his Okie populism abated: "What Will There Be For the Children," "Richland, Washington," and "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?" make that crystal clear.
All Music Guide
by Chris Nickson
James Talley is that rarest of things these days, a true country singer. Not New Country, not alt-country, but the real thing. He writes beautifully about real people and the problems of their everyday lives, and sings his songs in a voice that could belong to Willie Nelson's brother (indeed, "Not Even When It's Over" could have been written for Willie, so perfectly does it suit his style). He can go from the tender family ballad, like "Richland, Washington" or "Give My Love To Marie" to a wonderful little slice of history ("W. Lee O'Daniel And The Light Crust Doughboys") and make it all flow perfectly. A pretty stellar cast helps out, including accordionist Ponty Bone, and Texas singer Joe Ely, but it's always Talley who's at the heart of things, remarkable perhaps even more for the perception of his writing, and a poetic lyricism. He's someone to be experienced when you're tired of all the inanities that often masquerade as lyrics, and to revel in the quiet joy of his performance. American classics, true American classics, are a rarity, but James Talley is one, and Touchstone, like all his other records, is a gem to be discovered.
Rock the Cradle of Love - James Talley's All-American Encore
Willamette Week - Portland, OR
October 10, 2001
by Jeff Rosenberg
An oft-quoted maxim claims that there are no second acts in American lives. Don't tell James Talley.
Both Talley's life and his songs are thoroughly American, as is his unflagging conviction that his mature, weathered voice (think a less nasal Willie Nelson) might help people and should be heard by the widest audience he can win. And after a tangled and bruising past, his career is commencing a second triumphant act more than two decades after it began.
As a rising young troubadour of working-class life, Talley took songwriting advice from Pete Seeger, impressed famous talent scout John Hammond and was signed to Atlantic Records by the legendary Jerry Wexler. He quickly moved to Capitol, which released his debut album in 1975. A critical favorite from early on, Talley was invited to play at the Carter White House.
Unfortunately, his embrace with the big time was wracked by the financial and political crises endemic to major labels. A long run of musical bad luck left Talley heading in a new, unexpected direction--selling real estate in Nashville. In keeping with the blue-collar roots of his songwriting, Talley makes no distinction between his own hard career reversals and those faced by most people.
"Modern people have to deal with a much more brutal business climate," he says. "All the cutthroat consolidations and downsizing...there's no job security any more. There's no such thing as a gold watch."
While Talley obviously doesn't expect any thanks-for-your-service mementos from Capitol, he is glad to have secured the rights to his '70s albums, all out of print for years. He hopes to soon make them available again. In the meantime, 2000 saw the release of two discs on Talley's own label, Cimarron: on Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home, Talley lends his voice to 21 timeless Guthrie tunes, and Nashville City Blues is his first new album since 1989.
After he visits Portland, Talley's next stop is Richland, Wash., in the shadow of the Hanford nuclear plant. It's a place with deep and lasting connections for Talley. His dad worked in the plant's plutonium reactor between 1947 and 1952, and Talley attributes his father's poor health and early death to his job there.
"It should be an interesting visit," Talley says. "I haven't been back there since I was 8. My father had a good job downtown, but they offered him three or four times the money to come work at the plant." An autobiographical song Talley penned about life in Richland ends with his wrenching retelling of his father's life to his own sons: "'Now my little boys say, 'What's plutonium?/ Who was this man we've never seen?'"
It's heartbreaking stuff. But fortunately, sometimes, life offers a second curtain call.
James Talley vs. Bob Dylan
October 4, 2001
by Kurt B. Reighly
If I followed up on every unsolicited pitch about an unknown musician that I receive, this column would be very dull indeed. But while recommendations from professional music-industry flacks are fairly easy to shrug off, things get trickier when the artist's champion is my friend or family member—or, worse yet, the family member of a friend.
So imagine my trepidation a couple weeks ago, when I got an e-mail responding to a recent column on country music from the father of a close pal and read the following: "On October 6, songwriting god Bob Dylan plays Key Arena. The same night, appearing at EMP's JBL Theater is James Talley," who—the note went on to explain—garnered glowing comparisons to not only Dylan, but Bruce Springsteen, Merle Haggard, and Woody Guthrie in his brief mid-'70s heyday.
Would I please, my correspondent implored, spill some ink on this forgotten master?
Discovering no mention of James Talley in either the 2nd edition of the All Music Guide or the 1992 Rolling Stone Album Guide, I decided to treat this e-mail with the same courtesy I would show any professional peer: I ignored it. But after a couple days, I began to dread the inevitable follow-up call from my friend on behalf of his dad, and responded, asking him to send any music that he could, since he'd said Talley's vintage catalog remains out of print.
Not long after, I received a copy of Talley's 1999 CD Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home (on his own Cimarron imprint), accompanied by a homemade anthology of tracks from his four albums for Capitol Records: Got No Break, No Milk, No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love (1975); Tryin' Like the Devil (1976); Blackjack Choir (1977); and Ain't It Somethin' (1977). Steeling my ears for a couple hours wasted listening to some whining old folkie, undoubtedly cast aside by pop historians with good reason, I popped in the compilation CD.
Almost instantly, my clenched jaw relaxed, and my gritted teeth gave way to a smile as I savored some of the liveliest country music I've heard in eons. What struck me first was Talley's voice, a tangy timbre reminiscent of Willie Nelson, and the lively arrangements shot through with mandolin and fiddle. And the songs! Talley's lyrics are full of vivid depictions of genuine working-class Americans (of all colors) and their emotions, not the blue-collar cartoons Nashville pimps nowadays.
Talley grew up in Commerce, Okla.; Richland, Wash. (about 200 miles southeast of Seattle); and Albuquerque, N. M. Early in his musical career, he was fortunate to cross paths with Pete Seeger, who listened to Talley's first batch of tunes and told him to ignore the influence of the bustling New York City-folk scene and concentrate on capturing the voices he'd heard in his own life. That advice served Talley well. "I don't write the songs, people write the songs," he observes in an autobiographical excerpt at www.jamestalley.com. "I just listen to what people say and write it down."
Take the title tune from his sophomore album, Tryin' Like the Devil, inspired by his stints doing carpentry on construction sites in New Mexico and Nashville. "I've worked with old crusty carpenters in baggy overalls, tough as strap leather, with fingers missing, who chewed tobacco and spit, spraying everything in the mist, who couldn't win a hand of five card-stud poker at the lunch break to save their lives, and who said, 'Sonny, ain't nothin' a 40-hour workin' man can hope for in this old world, except to pay his rent, the payment on his truck, and put a few beans on his table . . . and we're all just tryin' like the devil, ain't we?' Well, that sounded like a song to me, an American song, so I wrote it down."
Alas, in 1977, the same year he performed at the inauguration at the request of President Carter, Talley split from Capitol in pursuit of a better deal that never materialized. He eventually left showbiz and turned to real estate ("Probably more people in Nashville know me in the real-estate business than the music business," he told writer Bill Friskics- Warren in 1995), and although in recent years he has resumed recording (he didn't release an album domestically for over 20 years) and performing with greater frequency, Talley still can't afford to devote himself to music 24-7 and care for his family.
Which means that Talley's rare appearance Saturday for "an evening of conversation and song" at EMP deserves your attention. Yeah, Bob Dylan is a god, and his new Love and Theft is his finest work in years. But Dylan doesn't vanish for decades at a time; Talley already did once. Let's try to make sure it doesn't happen again
September 1, 2001
by Jim Bessman
Talley, too, should have been a star a long time ago.
April 21, 2001
by Nick Cristiano
You can think of Touchstones as James Talley's greatest hits - Through it all, you can hear the spirit that has made Talley persevere, through all the professional disappointments, and continue to produce outstanding music.
Dirty Linen: The Magazine for Folk and World Music
by Dave Soyars
Talley has been championed by roots music writer Peter Guralnick, was a favorite of President Carter and performed for him at the White House, and been called "the godfather of Americana" an "unassailable witness for life as it is." He was a genuine country outlaw even in an era of outlaws, and he's only gained intensity through the years. The songs and singing are uniformly good, informed by Talley's Oklahoma roots as well as his experience as a social worker. Most telling and best, however, is the title track, a relentless diatribe decrying the current music industry in Nashville that has "taken all the music/and watered it all down" and "wouldn't know old Hank if he came walkin' down the road." Here Talley's smooth voice takes on a little edge before concluding I ain't leavin'' this town baby/'til I get paid. Talley may continue to be ignored by Nashville's hitmakers, but he's still singing with purpose about things that matter.
Amazon’s Folk Artists of the Year 2000
November 24, 2000
by Marc Greilsamer
Amazon's Folk Artist of the Year is James Talley - In the 1970s, James Talley was a potent but obscure country-folk singer with populist leanings. Without warning, Talley was launched into the spotlight when President Jimmy Carter publicly sang his praises. Talley may not have parlayed this acclaim into a commercially successful music career, but nearly 25 years later he's returned with a vengeance, releasing a pair of hard-hitting albums in 2000. Early in the year, he offered the spare and moving tribute album, Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home. He followed that release with the provocative, resolute Nashville City Blues, a powerful collection of songs that explore the importance--and the futility--of having dreams in life.
After a rough musical career, talented bluesman coming into his own
September 6, 2000
by Craig Havighurst
James Talley never asked to make a fortune in music, just a living.
For the longest time, that dream looked bright. Legendary record producer John Hammond recognized Talley's singing and songwriting talents as early as 1972, and heavily influential music critics like Peter Guralnick have championed his cause for decades.
James Talley still battles the Nashville Blues
Signed to a major label deal back when fellow populists Merle Haggard and Bruce Springsteen were breaking out, Talley saw a solid career on the horizon, and he stood at the brink of his dreams longer than most people are willing to.
Talley still lives in Nashville, but that has more to do with his connections in the real estate business than his desire to be near the music industry. Maybe you've seen the signs around town on lots and buildings that say "James Talley and Associates." That's him.
Armed with licenses to sell both commercial and residential property, Talley says he has to cover a lot of ground. "The good news," he says, "is that occasionally when I close a big apartment or something like that, it gives me the money to go in and make a new record." Indeed, that's how Talley's latest record and his new label Cimarron Records came to be, a welcome development that will allow him to get his impressive catalog of country/folk albums back in print in the United States for the first time since about 1980.
With an involved career and only a cult following, Talley says he finds it almost impossible to tour, but he will perform songs from the new album, Nashville City Blues, Thursday night at the Station Inn, with a band that will include dobro and steel player Pat Severs, guitarist/mandolinist Billy Panda, and bassist Dave Pomeroy.
As for the music industry, Talley makes it clear where he stands on the title track of the new album. Here, Nashville is a town where cold hearts beat under rhinestone outfits.
"They've taken the music and they've watered it all down," he sings on Nashville City Blues. "The glitter and the glamour is a big time game ... it's all about the money that's made/Lord, people it's a crying shame."
With the cynicism of Larry Cordle and Larry Shell's Murder on Music Row still echoing in the air, another song criticizing the musical-industrial complex might be dismissed as so many sour grapes. But Talley has a tough story to tell, and he spells it out in the lengthy liner notes to his CD, released earlier this summer.
Talley was born in Oklahoma and raised various places in the West. After college, Talley became a social worker in New Mexico, where he says he developed a strong sense of empathy for struggling and oppressed people -- a sense that began to come out vividly in his songs.
After one abortive deal with Atlantic Records, Talley made his first album on his own. Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot of Love more or less summed up Talley's workaday existence as a family man and a carpenter, selling records out of his trunk. Curiously, he hired a young Bruce Hinton, now chairman of MCA/Nashville, to promote the record to radio, and after some success, it was eventually released by Capitol Records to great critical acclaim.
Talley's populism came a few years too late to catch the folk wave, and he suffered some calamitous betrayals by associates. As a result, Talley could never quite translate critical success into commercial success. And around 1980, after years of hard touring, he found himself broke with a wife and two kids.
Almost 40 years old at the time, Talley got into real estate "by accident," he says. But he never left music. In the 1990s, he recorded a series of records for the German label Bear Family, but he did so without a written contract and wound up getting paid little or nothing for those works, he says.
Talley has had a share of career highlights. He was invited to play several times at the White House for President Jimmy Carter, a professed fan. He was featured in Guralnick's classic book of American roots musicians Lost Highway as a victim of the record industry's short-sightedness. That recognition earned him a new and appreciative audience in Europe.
Talley also recorded a song called Bluesman with B.B. King in about 1976. Talley recalls King fixing his own guitar chord with a borrowed screwdriver and says he's always considered that experience a hallmark of the down-to-earth quality that defined King and other great blues artists.
"Some rock and roller probably would have sent somebody out for a new chord," Talley says. "But B.B. came from the old school. He picked cotton and came up the hard way. He knew what he had to do to fix his own chord."
Talley's songwriting has been hailed by many other colleagues and collaborators. "I always felt he had a great ability to people his songs with real people," says producer and long-time friend Jim Rooney. "Or if they weren't they certainly felt like they were real. He has a wonderful visual imagination as well."
At one time, Talley wanted to be a painter, and his keen eyes and ears may have worked in tandem most powerfully on a 1992 CD/book project called The Road To Torreon.
"'That book gives a voice to a fairly deprived area in the Southwest most people don't have a lot of experience with," Rooney says. "'James will always be remembered for that work."
Talley's most recent triumph was a widely acclaimed album of songs by Woody Guthrie. Considered by some to be the best Guthrie tribute album ever, Songs of My Oklahoma Home became the first release on Cimarron. And after a long legal battle, Talley secured the rights to release his older Capitol records on Cimarron, and they will begin appearing in about six months.
August 3, 2000
Nashville City Blues - James Talley has never been a household name - except maybe in the White House, where he was a favorite of Jimmy Carter's in the '70s. But between working construction and selling real estate, he has built a formidable catalog as a country-folk troubadour and a common man's poet who makes camp somewhere between Woody Guthrie and Lefty Frizzell. For his first album of new material in a decade, Talley turns to the blues. "Nashville City Blues," recorded in New Mexico with the crack band that fired last year's superb tribute "Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home," is filled with songs of world-weary disenchantment and stubborn faith. The searing title cut is certain to become an alt-county anthem - "I ain't leavin' this town," he promises bitterly, "till I get paid." And bummed-but-unbowed ruminations such as "Down on the Corner" and "If It Wasn't for the Blues" carry on with the same populist empathy and musical assurance that marked such worth-seeking Talley landmarks as "Tryin' Like the Devil" and Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love."
Loose Cannon With a Heart
Pro Sound News
by David McGee
James Talley: 'I don't think you can live with your pain unless
there's some kind of redemption'
The angry, protesting guitar notes that open "Nashville City Blues," the first cut on James Talley's like-named new album on his own Cimarron label, immediately signal a few important facts. For one, this outing is a bit more fierce than its immediate predecessor, 1999's stunning Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home, in part because Talley is backed by a potent band, in part because the songs are cut from the deepest part of the artist's personal history. For another, those opening notes tell the listener there's tough stuff ahead, and "Nashville City Blues" proves to be precisely that: a scabrous, pitiless scorching of a Music City that has lost its way.
There's more where that comes from. That is to say, more tart, eloquent country blues, with Talley casting himself in the role of loose cannon with a heart. In his soft, ingratiating, swinging vocal style, he advises, in the funky "Rough Edge," "Got a rough edge on me baby/I'm cut against the grain/Can't do nothin' but bring you trouble/All I can do is give you pain." And: "If I wasn't for the blues/I'd be crazy too," he reports in the terse, driving "If It Wasn't for the Blues." On it goes, with Talley, the most populist of contemporary songwriters, juxtaposing his own woes against those of other common folk who are trying to get through a day in one piece. Which is to say that the artist who has written eloquently of the plight of the underprivileged and disenfranchised makes himself the news of Nashville City Blues. "You can hear my autobiography on this record," Talley said in a recent interview from his Nashville real estate office (the day job that pays the rent).
To recap quickly: the Oklahoma-born Talley surfaced on Capitol Records in 1975 with Got No Bread, No Mile, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love, an album critics discovered and heaped with hosannas-here, yet again, was a new Dylan. Talley was even invited to play at President-elect Jimmy Carter's inauguration. From that high, there was only one way to go, and it wasn't up.
By 1977 Talley, bedeviled by bad management decisions, was off Capitol ("They didn't drop me," he pointed out. "I dropped them. It wasn't the smartest move."), and a struggle of some two decades ensued before he regained the rights to his master recordings, formed Cimarron Records, released the Woody Guthrie album (which was cut on spec in 1994, in hopes Capitol might pick it up and reinvigorate Talley's almost non-existent
career), and once again the critical plaudits began pouring in. With Nashville City Blues, he's close to reclaiming the turf he seemed to own when he forfeited it over two decades ago.
This comeback, if you will, is being done on Talley's terms. In terms of his recordings, though, Talley's always done it his way, serving as his own producer or co-producer from day one. He's as comfortable in a studio as most people are in their living rooms. It shows in his work, too-Talley's albums have always been distinguished by a relaxed feel and the artist's ingratiating, welcoming presence, even when he brings unsettling tidings. A lot of artists strive for, and fall short of, that intimate feel of good pickers gathered around a tape recorder on the front porch, playing whatever comes to mind, mistakes be damned, going for the heart. Talley achieves this exalted state by not only prizing the feel above all else, but by embodying the feel himself: laid-back and gentle is the demeanor,
soft-spoken and insightful is the conversational style, and those qualities define his presence on record.
For the Woody Guthrie album and Nashville City Blues, Talley's studio of choice was Stepbridge Studios in Santa Fe, in his beloved New Mexico, which was the Talley family's home from the time young James was eight until he went off to college in his birth state, Oklahoma. Stepbridge is located in the downtown area, and features among its amenities an adobe house where musicians can stay while they're working. Talley said the studio is "state of the art," meaning it has an SSL console and "you walk outside and you're in the fresh, New Mexico air and sunshine." Put Talley in such a setting, and he's home free, because he has a simple formula, if it can be called that, for getting his music down on tape. He simply keeps in mind something Sam Phillips explained to the author Peter Guralnick in interviews for the latter's awesome two-volume biography of Elvis Presley: as Talley put it, "Phillips said he didn't want to record in Nashville; he didn't want professional musicians. He wanted good amateur musicians who could play. They weren't playing by any kind of formula; they were playing for the feel. That's the essence of what I've tried to do with all of my albums-get past all that formula and go for the feeling. I don't want click tracks; I don't want to sit and play to a metronome. Life doesn't move to a metronome. Your heart speeds up and slows down with your emotions and your actions. Life's full of pitfalls; you know, you've fallen down and skinned
your knee, or your wife's left you, or you lost a job, or whatever. Life doesn't move at a constant, steady beat; it moves all over the road. I want my music to speed up and slow down and feel like I'm breathing in it.
As a producer, Talley has evolved a system that works for him, dating back to his first Capitol album. It's not real complicated, but it is dependent on the clock being irrelevant. At Stepbridge, he locks up the studio for the four or five days it takes to get the songs down, and works out the arrangements with the musicians according to their schedules-for instance, on Nashville City Blues, some of the band members had day jobs and couldn't make the session until the evening rolled around. Which didn't stop Talley and the others from laying down a rhythm track and later overdubbing the absent musician's part when he came in for the session.
Talley's learning curve as a producer (and to give proper credit where it's due, he has co-produced the last two albums with his drummer, Gregg Thomas) was fairly short. From the start of his career he understood what he needed to do to make a record work. "I'm a fairly quick student in most things," he said. "The main thing I'm trying to do is get the recording down of me playing and singing the song. Over time you learn more what the equipment can do, you learn more what the engineers do, you learn more about the
sound you want when you go to mixdown and that type of thing. You can make or break an album in the mix. There are a lot of records that were mixed when somebody was smoking weed or some shit, and you think you're hearing some wonderful stuff, but it's not that great. You gotta mix with a clear head, because just the slightest adjustment in equalization of an instrument or a vocal, or adding too much echo, or not enough echo,
distorts things tremendously. People don't realize what's involved in making a record. It's very complex. The complexity is not in playing the song. Hell, you sit down and play the song and you hope you play it with feeling and don't make too many mistakes. The complexity comes in when you're trying to retrieve what you've put on tape, do your mixdown."
This is a side of Talley often overlooked in stories about him, as if the records simply happen, and aren't the product of gifted musicians focusing their time and energy on a goal of communicating the message clearly and efficiently, when it's costing Talley money to do so. Kind of recalls when Isaiah Thomas complained about sportswriters waxing poetic about Larry Bird's work ethic and attributing Thomas's own skills to "natural abilities." There's a process involved, and in Talley's case it may not result in a record as slick as those coming out of the Nashville he bemoans in his title song, but it's real in a way those records never will be.
And for all the focus on his tales of woe, Talley isn't lacking for a tender heart. Consider the abovementioned "Baby Needs Some Good Times" and "When I Need Some Love," so touching in their honest admission of shortcomings overlooked and good intentions gone awry, so humbling in their descriptions of love standing the test of time and trial. Talley will never stop writing about the oppressed, but that doesn't mean he sees only a
world without light or compassion. "Well, I don't think you can live with your pain unless there's some kind of redemption," he explains in a quintessential Talley yin-yang kind of way. "And fortunately for me, I've got the ability to sing about it. Everybody doesn't have that outlet. But that's the universality of pain, that's the universality of humanity-everybody has felt those songs at one point or another in their life."
James Talley - Nashville City Blues
Roots Highway - Italy
by Marco Denti
Compare tra noi l’annunciato seguito dello splendido tributo a Woody Guthrie: Nashville city blues non è però un disco di covers, seppur bellissime, ma raccoglie finalmente canzoni dello stesso James Talley, registrate tra il ‘95 ed il ’98, sempre grazie all’aiuto dell’amico Gregg Thomas. Gli intenti di James Talley erano quelli di sviluppare un disco che puntasse l’accento sulle sue radici country-blues dai sapori sudisti, partendo proprio dalla title track, un’ironica e feroce satira sul music business nella capitale dei finti cowboy tutto lustrini e canzoncine pop. Il disco vede la luce solo oggi per i soliti fastidiosi problemi legali grazie alla Cimarron Records, oasi indipendente messa in piedi dallo stesso James, mettendo in mostra un’incisione perfetta, anche per merito dei musicisti coinvolti. Graffiante davvero il country-rock-blues della title track, con la chitarra e la voce di Jono Manson in sessione a dare corpo al brano: un sound elettrico di prim’ordine che si ripete purtroppo raramente nel resto del disco, giusto in occasione del classico passo rock’n’roll di House right down the road. Ai gusti personali però è sempre meglio anteporre il valore delle canzoni: la classe non manca di certo a James Talley, ed il suo inconfondibile marchio di fabbrica ritorna prepotentemente in primo piano in ogni singola nota di questo apprezzabile coming back. Rough edge, Workin’ for weges e You can’t get there from here sono nuovamente sintonizzate sulle frequenze di un country-blues leggermente elettrificato e dal gusto impeccabile, mentre Streamline flyer ne fornisce una versione più acustica e ruspante. Down on the corner è country-rock swingato che porta dritti in Texas e la successiva Don’t you feel low down una variazione in chiave più soft e d’atmosfera. Baby needs some good times e When I need some love sono invece due ariose ballate che sfoggiano un sound da pieni anni settanta, ricordo della migliore stagione del country-rock. Effetto che non riescono invece a ricreare altrettanto bene brani come So I’m not the only one e la conclusiva I’ve seen the bear, un po' fiacche o semplicemente più di routine. Niente che possa comunque inficiare il peso del songwriting di James Talley.
July 18, 2000
by Brian Mansfield
Nashville City Blues - After re-establishing his connection to America's folk-singer lineage with last year's masterful Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home, Nashville singer/songwriter Talley returns to his own material with Nashville City Blues. The title track is more than the blistering three-chord rant it appears to be on its surface. Ultimately, it's less about bitterness - "They've taken all the music and they've watered it down" - than the importance of perseverance and the inevitability of disappointment. Other songs touch on these themes from more personal and romantic perspectives. Displaying a no-frills sound that answers to no expectations but his own, Talley's songs get straight to the point without being simplistic.
July 15, 2000
by David McGee
This is Nashville City Blues: That laconic voice, speaking with the warmth and directness of a close friend delivering tidings both glad and unsettling; that acerbic wit; those unadorned, beautifully crafted lyrics about common folk getting through one more day with their souls and sense of humor intact; the spare, engrossing instrumental arrangements. And most significantly, there are the songs. Vibrantly lived-in compositions such as "If It Wasn't for the Blues," "Don't You Feel Low Down," "Rough Edge," and "Workin' for Wages" resonate like the chapters of an autobiography, while the bittersweet love songs "Baby Needs Some Good Times" and "When I Need Some Love" could only have been written by someone who's been touched to the core by the faith of his significant other, even as his dreams come crashing down around them. There's also the title track, which joins Larry Cordle's "Murder On Music Row" as an eloquent indictment of the mainstream disemboweling of the music's traditional virtues, and the stifling of artists with a distinctive point of view and singular way of expressing it. This is James Talley, a genuine American original, revealed in multiple dimensions on an album rich in emotional truth and musical vision. This is what it's all about. Or should be.
Nashville City Blues
Montreal Gazette - Canada
July 13, 2000
by Mike Regenstreif
Nashville City Blues - Talley reflects on his shattered and resurrected dreams of music making and defiantly, and quite accurately, analyzes the state of affairs in contemporary country music. He lets it be known that despite that state of affairs, he's got something to say and will do it on his own terms. Many of the other songs also reflect on holding true to life's dreams and overcoming the inevitable barriers that will fall in the way of fulfillment. These songs could only have come from someone who has held fast to the dreams and conquered the barriers.
July 12, 2000
by Marc Greilsamer
Nashville City Blues - From this CD-opening lament of Music City's soullessness through the moody closer "I've Seen the Bear" ("is anything sacred, is anything fair?"), Talley is resilient, though not optimistic, in the face of a life where "not a dream comes true." In fact, the concept of dreams arises in nearly every song … he writes in the lengthy autobiographical notes (subtitled "The price of dreams and keeping the faith"), "the dream is the spark," whether it comes true or not. "Dreaming," he writes, "is a way of coping with man's discontent." Similarly, the "blues" is a way to come to grips with man's discontent, and here he uses the blues in all of its permutations as a musical backdrop, shading his creations with the strains of mandolin, country-flavored pedal steel, or background soul singers. Ultimately, Nashville City Blues is about the healing effects of the blues, its loyal companionship and its knowing sympathy.
Country Standard Time
by Brian Baker
Nashville City Blues offers the same simple formula that Talley has offered from the start of his career - unpretentious songs about life sung in an eloquently plain voice in whatever genre fits the mood (country blues on "So I'm Not the Only One," rockabilly on "House Right Down the Road," the whole spectrum on the axe-grinding title cut). Talley has the same expressive flatness that marks the work of John Prine, Hoyt Axton and David Olney; still, there is a warmth and comfort in his songs and presentation, and he's more than paid his dues on his way here.
Blue Suede News
by David J. Klug
Woody Guthrie and Songs of my Oklahoma Home - Talley was a fine arts graduate at the University of New Mexico in the late '60s and there had the opportunity to meet Pete Seeger, who provided much encouragement and direction about writing and interpreting folk songs. That inspiration eventually led to Talley's release of at least nine solo records, as well as his exploration of Guthrie's songs and music. Unlike the much critically acclaimed recent output from Billy Bragg and Wilco of previously unrecorded Guthrie songs, this double-length CD contains 21 songs all by Guthrie or adapted from traditional sources by him (with the exception of one, "Red Wing," that was the melody to which Guthrie wrote his song "Union Maid."). Songs of My Oklahoma Home is an entirely "unplugged" affair of the heart recorded in 1994 at Stepbridge Studios in Sante Fe, New Mexico and just released late last year. … This record serves not only to introduce and celebrate the music of Woody Guthrie, but also to discover singer/songwriter James Talley as interpreter. It's a charming record.
June 10, 2000
by Chris Morris
Nashville City Blues - powerful and typically affecting blues-tinged originals. That set follows Talley's superlative "Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home," a recital of Guthrie songs. "Nashville City Blues," recorded in Santa Fe, N.M., on a couple of trips West, is no less personal a project than Talley's splendid homage to Guthrie, who was an Oklahoma native like himself.
May 1, 2000
by Michael Tearson
Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home - The overdue release of this collection of Woody Guthrie songs sung by James Talley is most welcome. Recorded in 1994 in New Mexico, the players are all area musicians who do a fine job of capturing the songs' intentions and spirit and the 21 selections comprise a fine primer to Guthrie's work. Virtually all his best known songs are here, making this a terrific introduction to Woody. The only one not a Guthrie original is an instrumental take of "Red Wing" which Woody "borrowed" for the melody of "Union Maid." It certainly belongs here. A delightful, excellent album.
by Michael McCall
Reverent and unassuming, yet with a spot-on musical touch, veteran acoustic singer-songwriter James Talley revives 21 Woody Guthrie songs with exacting care on this self-styled tribute …Talley knows these songs like he knows his own voice. He enunciates Guthrie's earthy stories with deliberate attention, and his resonant, subtly animated guitar work is sure-handed and exemplary … a commendable project, and one that presents a great American songwriter in full, loving light.
In Music We Trust
by Alex Steininger
Woody Guthrie and Songs of my Oklahoma Home - The album is an inspiration; an uplifting piece of American history that is as whole heatedly truthful as it is entertaining.
by Peter Guralnick
Nashville City Blues - I feel like you made this album for me.
by Nat Hentoff
One singer-composer of singular talent and integrity, whose work will last beyond all fads and fashions, is James Talley. You can hear why in his Nashville City Blues.
by David McGee
The seductive, ingratiating country blues ballads and traditional country musings on Nashville City Blues remind us that Talley has always been an unassailable witness for life as it is … a journey through passions keenly felt and acutely observed; it's the work of a man who knows what it is to "see the bear" and keep on fighting. James Talley does that every day of a life that would beat him down if he let it. Why he doesn't is the interesting part of the story, and we should pay attention.
March 23, 2000
by Philip Van Vleck
Talley was born in Oklahoma and his mother grew up on a farm in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Guthrie, a native of Okemah, Okla., came of age as a songwriter and folksinger during the 1930s, writing tunes that became nothing less than the populist conscience of America.
Talley's interpretations of these songs … evoke both the simplicity and the undeniable elegance of Guthrie's Depression-era songcraft. Talley has taken care to record these 20 Guthrie songs in a thoroughly acoustic manner. In the process, he has preserved a true slice of Americana.
New Haven Advocate
March 16, 2000
by Joshua Mamis
Talley is a post-Dust Bowl troubadour in the Woody Guthrie mold. Where legions of others strapped on guitars and harmonica harnesses like Guthrie, Talley lived in depressed Oklahoma and felt a kinship with the folks of Guthrie's roots. He didn't pretend to be Guthrie, he just wrote his songs with a similar affection for working people. His records were rootsy and bluesy and mostly acoustic--Americana music 25 years before the term was invented.
On Woody Guthrie... he sings prettier than Guthrie, and strums his guitar far more gently. He brings a sorrowful affection to the familiar songs. His reworking of "This Land is Your Land," for example, is downright mournful. When you hear him sing it, the popular misreading of the song as a patriotic anthem rather than a socialist response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" seems downright bizarre. Like Guthrie, Talley sees the American landscape as a precious jewel ... His interpretation is a reminder that Guthrie's themes of economic hardship are as current today as when he recorded them.
James Talley is an accomplished folk poet, a beautiful singer and one fine guitar player. He's an entertainer, an engaging and intelligent performer and a writer of indelible songs. It's fitting an artist of his caliber would choose to offer this collection of Guthrie tunes. Not only does Talley ably handle these great Guthrie chestnuts, the double-CD set is packaged with prose from Talley's learned pen that gives us a vivid portrait of the "Dust Bowl" - Oklahoma during the depression, as well as some stirring photographs of those people, places and things. A musical gem.
by David Whited
Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home … After listening to this double-CD a dozen times, I cannot for the life of me understand why he was not included on the Folkways: A Vision Shared tribute to Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Short of Doc Watson, I don't know of a single performer who could do more justice or sound any more real covering these songs. I also cannot understand why this recording remained unreleased for almost six years. If you like Guthrie's songs, or would just want something to possibly spur your interest in him, this is the place to start.
February 23, 2000
by Steven Stolder
James Talley, briefly in the spotlight in the '70s when President Jimmy Carter cited him as a personal favorite, country-folk artist James Talley pays tribute to his own hero with Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home. Reviving Guthrie's best-loved classics with austerity and dignity, the populist-minded Talley has created an album of rare depth and grace that does justice to the timeless music of America's preeminent folksinger.
February 20, 2000
by Daniel R. Moser
The Woody Guthrie canon is, of course, one of the great slices of pure American expression. But listening to it through Guthrie's voice has always been a bit problematic. His own recordings of his work tend to be thin and well, kind of boring. Hence, they haven't held up well over time.
Now comes perhaps the best collection ever of Guthrie songs. It seems fitting that it comes from fellow Oklahoman, James Talley … Talley has the same matter-of-fact twangy edge to his voice that Guthrie had but is a much better singer, and he breathes new life into these songs.
Country Standard Time
February 5, 2000
by Joel Bernstein
Woody Guthrie was one of the great songwriters of the 20th Century, but few people really know him today. His song that everybody sings, "This Land Is Your Land," is as misunderstood as "Born In The USA." … [He] was determined to write songs that gave people a positive outlook and made them feel better about themselves. It's just that the characters and places in his songs are from a world long ago. Guthrie couldn't really sing, and his records were low-fi even for their day. People who can't watch black-and-white movies will never appreciate Woody Guthrie. Yet, if you think about them, Guthrie's songs are also about today's world, and that will be true as long as poverty and class divisions continue to exist.
James Talley, once a working class hero in his own right, who had four albums on Capitol in the '70's, can sing As an Oklahoma native, he can also relate to Guthrie's songs better than most. … It's a history of America in the '30's and '40's more vivid than you'll ever get from a book. And if Woody can hear this album in his grave, he's got to be smiling.
Woody Guthrie and Songs Of My Oklahoma Home
Roots Highway - Italy
A volte ritornano: James Talley, fine cantore dell’America rurale e di confine, dopo lunghi anni di silenzio, riapproda alle cronache della nostra musica, con uno splendido omaggio alle storiche canzoni di Woody Guthrie, eroe per eccellenza della folk music statunitense. In realtà non si tratta di nuove incisioni, ma di una agognata e tardiva pubblicazione di canzoni registrate nel lontano 1994, e mai apparse finora, perché orfane di uno straccio di contratto. James, che da sempre voleva ricoprire il repertorio di Guthrie e ricordare la sua terra d’origine, l’Oklahoma, non si è lasciato scoraggiare, ha fondato la propria etichetta, ed ha curato personalmente il progetto in ogni minimo dettaglio. Ne è nato un disco dal suono praticamente perfetto, con un esauriente libretto interno, arricchito da fotografie d’epoca e dalle note di alcuni giornalisti, fra cui l’amico italiano Marco Denti: un lavoro di presentazione di gran lunga superiore alla media offerta dalle majors. James ci ha preso gusto e dovremmo vedere presto ristampati su Cimarron anche i suoi vecchi dischi degli anni settanta, più un nuovo imminente lavoro. Intanto godiamoci le 21 perle di questo lungo atto d’amore per la tradizione cantautorale più sacra, tutte, indistintamente, di pari valore e difficilmente scindibili. Assecondato da un band in gran forma, che crea un sound acustico di cristallina bellezza, tra uno stuolo di mandolini, chitarre, pedal steel e dobro, James rifà in modo del tutto personale e convincente classici come Deportee, Do-Re-Mi, Vigilante man, Pretty boy Floyd, Oklahoma hills, Pastures of plenty e This land is your land. Un grande disco, anche, ma non solo, per il suo peso storico ed il suo essere fuori tempo rispetto ai nostri giorni.
February 2, 2000
by Robert Whiteman
James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is, along with the works of John Steinbeck and, of course, Woody Guthrie, one of the most honest and heartfelt portraits of the great depression we have. It is also literary and poetic. Most importantly it is perhaps the first consciously subjective and artistic study of culture. As such it shares much common ground with the touching, intelligent, working class music of James Talley. Moving, insightful and above all else real, Talley's portraits of working class life are so powerful because he is so clearly in touch with and affected by those very lives.
As honest and direct as Guthrie, with a voice like Willie meets Merle and a rebellious Steve Earle lilt to his playing, Talley should have been a star. He almost was. After four brilliant albums in the '70s he'd earned a mountain of critical praise and the friendship and admiration of such good ol' boy populist luminaries as B. B. King and Jimmy Carter. His music spanned the rootsy gamut from hot blues licks on "Bluesman," featuring King and Lucille, to folky working-class epics like "Tryin' Like The Devil" and romantic country classics including "Up From Georgia," all songs well worth seeking out.
January 16, 2000
by Dan DeLuca
James Talley ... erudite Okie folkie, has been a cult country singer whose too-infrequent albums have been worth seeking out since the days when he was a favorite of President Jimmy Carter.
Songs of My Oklahoma Home is a nothin'-fancy set of 21 Woody Guthrie songs, from "This Land Is Your Land" to "Vigilante Man," recorded with a superb band of New Mexico acoustic musicians in 1994 and unfortunately unreleased until now. Talley doesn't radically rearrange Guthrie's tunes; he simply renews their simple truths by delivering always-understated interpretations born of personal experience.
"Who we are at present is defined by our vision of our past," the singer writes in extensive liner notes. Talley's look back at his rural roots is as much of a testament to Guthrie's enduring accomplishment as Mermaid Avenue, the 1998 Billy Bragg and Wilco collaboration.
James Talley and Woody Guthrie
January 15, 2000
Beginning with 1975's beautiful, gritty homemade album "Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love," Oklahoma artist James Talley has made a series of thoughtful original albums in the folk tradition of Woody Guthrie ... He has continued to make his own records periodically, culminating in this heartfelt tribute to Guthrie. The 21 Guthrie or Guthrie-adapted songs included on this set are some of Guthrie's best-known tales, such as "This Land Is Your Land," "Deportee," and "Do-Re-Mi," as well as Talley's adaptation of "Red Wing," which was the melody Guthrie used for "Union Maid." Talley's spare vocals and sparse accompaniment present them in authentic interpretations.
Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home Review
Los Angeles Times
January 9, 2000
by Robert Hilburn
Talley is a country-minded artist whose underdog, blue-collar sensibility two decades ago conveyed such character and detail that he reminded you of Merle Haggard as a writer and Willie Nelson as a singer -- qualities that should have made him a star. But his albums --notably 1975's "Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love" -- were too stark for country radio, and Talley eventually turned to real estate as a career. The Oklahoma native, however, never lost his touch for music, as this collection on his own label demonstrates. The acoustic 21-track work, featuring such Guthrie tunes as "This Land Is Your Land" and "Do-Re-Mi," is an ideal companion piece to "Mermaid Avenue," the much-admired 1998 album in which Billy Bragg and Wilco put music to some of Guthrie's lyrics and poems. Talley takes liberties with Guthrie's words in a few places, but he never loses track of the folk legend's spirit.
January 7, 2000
by Alanna Nash
Talley, an Okie who went to Nashville to craft some of the best albums of the '70s, doesn't gussy up Guthrie but lets his stark imagery and humble melodies speak their own quiet power. A gem.
by David McGee
If you get out of America's great urban centers and travel across country on its blue highways, you'll recognize the scenes James Talley sings of on Woody Guthrie And Songs Of My Oklahoma Home. Woody created James Talley: a hardworking, decent man trying to make an honest stand who had the misfortune to learn that they'll rob you with a fountain pen as surely as they will with a six-gun. In the late '70s, Talley broke through the country scene with stark, resonant, traditional country music that won him critical plaudits and an invite to Jimmy Carter's 1977 Presidential Inauguration. Shortly thereafter, Talley was chewed up in the music industry meat grinder and bowed out. But he never stopped writing and recording, and these news reports -- you won't hear on the networks or read in the papers and magazines -- remind us why he's important. Talley relates them in a relaxed voice, dry and evocative, twisting phrases to drive home the message. … Talley stands alone among latter-day interpreters. He knows this turf, to the bone and through the bone, and when he sings, these tales come alive again. Sometimes vividly, heartbreakingly alive.
ESTATES of the HEART
by Bill Friskics-Warren
"James Talley & Associates." I'd seen the signs in yards around Nashville for years. I didn't give them much thought at first, but after awhile, a sinking feeling came over me. Could the guy whose name was on these ubiquitous blue-and-white real estate signs be the same James Talley whose homespun blend of folk, blues and country music once had critics comparing him to Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard? Could this be the singer-songwriter whose albums brim with the empathy of Woody Guthrie and James Agee? The Okie populist who Jimmy Carter invited to play at his 1977 inauguration?
It turned out to be him, all right - THE James Talley, not that many of his house-hunting clients would have known the difference. "Probably more people in Nashville know me in the real estate business than in the music business," Talley told me back in 1995.
If anything, this assessment is more true today than it was five years ago. By the time Talley's new album, Woody Guthrie And Songs Of My Oklahoma Home, comes out on his own Cimarron imprint in January, it will have been more than 20 years since he released a record domestically. And despite Herculean efforts on his part to see to their reissue, it's been just as long since Talley's classic Capitol LPs have been in print.
What happened? What derailed James Talley's once brilliant and celebrated career?
The year was 1977. Talley had three albums out on Capitol by then and was about to go in and cut his fourth. "I was barely making it," Talley recalls. "I didn't have a decent booking agent. I didn't have management. I was literally road-managing the band myself. So I played a few shows with Jerry Jeff Walker and thought, 'His deal looks like it's going pretty good.' Jerry wasn't the straightest guy in those days. I mean, he was pretty fucked up. So I said to myself, 'Jesus, if they're doing this for a guy like that, what about somebody like me who'd really work hard at it?'"
Walker's manager took Talley on as a client. The first order of business was advising Talley to ditch Capitol and go after a "real record deal." Talley thought the move made sense at the time. "Capitol had released my fourth album [Ain't It Somethin'] in September of '77, but their promotion department was in chaos and they had just changed presidents," he recalls. "It didn't seem like they were behind my record at all."
As it turned out, Talley ended up with more serious problems on his hands. "A month or two after my manager made all this happen, I couldn't even get him on the phone," Talley says, shaking his head. "So here he'd taken me off my label and abandoned me."
Artists second-guess their career decisions all the time, but the timing of Talley's departure from Capitol couldn't have been worse. The nation was in a deep recession and record companies weren't taking chances on critics' darlings who couldn't churn out hit singles. And anyone who would walk away from a major-label deal didn't exactly endear himself to record execs. That went double for Talley, who had the temerity, while under contract to a major, to impugn those very same suits with vituperative volleys in his songs: "The rich folks and the gamblers got the whole world in their hands/They don't leave nothin' but the bottom for the poor old workin' man."
Talley's albums are rife with such hard-hitting music. His lyrics often have been too in-your-face, too critical of the establishment, to be commercial. His twang, inflected with blues and western swing, has likewise been too hard-core, even by the outlaw standards of the '70s, for country radio. Looking back now, it's a wonder he ever got signed to a major label at all.
NASHVILLE CITY BLUES
Talley hung in there on the margins for a couple years after leaving Capitol, touring and living hand-to-mouth, but when his savings ran out and the record companies still hadn't come calling, he sought work outside the music business. Yet instead of going back to rat control or construction (day jobs he'd had before his recording career took off), he went into real estate. Such a move might have at first seemed out-of-character for a leftist-leaning populist such as Talley, but ultimately it made sense coming from the guy who wrote, "The blues is fine for singin'/But it's mighty hard to eat."
Indeed, Talley's decision was utterly consistent with the roots of his raising. He came from a line of steady family men and was by this time a husband and father himself. He also was no stranger to bi-vocational life, having worked as a carpenter to finance his autobiographical debut album, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love.
Not that it was easy for Talley to shelve his dreams, even if, as he first thought, the sacrifice would be only temporary. It wasn't just the irony of it all, the fact that the guy who'd written the anti-capitalist anthem "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?" had gone into real estate, perhaps as pure a form of capitalism as there is. There was the bitter taste of having swallowed his pride as well. "I was at the bottom," Talley admits, looking back on his lean post-Capitol, pre-real estate years, a time when, among other things, he sold coffee at a shop frequented by Music Row bigwigs.
"It was incredibly hard on me emotionally," he continues. "It's just like Peter Guralnick wrote in his essay about me in Lost Highway. 'It's almost like being exhibited as a prize fish...and then being tossed back into the sea.' It was only through the support of people like Peter, and Bill Williams, my champion when I was at Capitol, that I got through it. Bill said to me, 'Look, you've always gotten your greatest work from the common people. So now you're one of 'em again. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Just be who you are.'"
As a realtor, and a successful one at that, Talley may not be one of the common people anymore. But that doesn't make Williams' comments any less apropos of who Talley is, or of how his journey has differed from that of, say, James Agee, one of his biggest heroes (and the inspiration for his 1992 album The Road To Torreón). Talley is hardly less gifted or empathetic than Agee. But where Agee, never the sort to settle down and start a family, was free to pursue his art as vocation, Talley's music has long played second fiddle to the often dreary business of earning a living, whether that's meant driving nails or scheduling termite inspections. Where Agee set out, self-consciously, to chronicle the struggles of unsung men and women and was ultimately an observer, Talley has lived with, and written from, the perspective of one who feels the alienation, resentment, and pride that attends that struggle.
This isn't to take anything away from Agee's breathtaking body of work, but just to stress that, in Talley's case, it is precisely this insider status that gives his music, even his third-person odes to migrant fruit-pickers and black-lung miners, its intimacy and authority. It's certainly what gives Talley's new album, a stripped-down acoustic affair flecked with piano and accordion, an edge over many Guthrie tribute records that have preceded it.
When, for example, Talley sings "This Land Is Your Land", he betrays none of the exuberance that made the song an anthem on the early '60s hootenanny circuit. Instead, his ambivalent reading captures the dissonance, the commingled sense of possibility and loss, not only of the original, but of his own life, and that of the Okie line from which he has descended. All of the Guthrie songs Talley sings on the album evince this knowing quality - he doesn't so much re-create Guthrie's Oklahoma as he reveals it to be of a piece with his own.
MY DADDY CAME FROM OKLAHOMA
Talley's early footsteps followed closely in those of America's greatest folk singer. "My father was born two years before Guthrie, my mother two years after," says Talley. "They both came from that same Dust Bowl, bound-for-glory period. And I grew up with that - flour sacks stitched together for bedsheets, no running water. When you come out of that, you really understand what Guthrie was all about."
Talley isn't just blowing smoke here. Even Guthrie's daughter Nora was haunted by the kinship between the two men. In a letter to Talley after hearing his new album, she wrote: "[You] sounded eerily like my father! It was hard for me to get passed [sic] that, although I certainly did think [your record] was beautiful."
Talley's mother had been a teacher (the one-room schoolhouse where she taught near Stillwater is still standing). When the war effort picked up, she took a job working with her husband at a gunpowder plant in Pryor, Oklahoma. In the mid-1940s, when James was just a few months old, his parents moved from Pryor to Commerce, Oklahoma, just north of Miami, (pronounced "my-á-muh"), the town where Mickey Mantle grew up. "My father used to meet people and say, 'Shake the hand that shook the hand of Mickey Mantle's hometown," Talley chuckles. "My father was proud to be an Okie." By all accounts, the man also had a sweet tenor voice, played guitar, and doubtless inspired his son to become a musician.
As the Second World War was winding down, Talley's family moved to Richland, Washington, the town he immortalized in his heart-rending song of the same name on his 1978 Capitol album Ain't It Somethin'. His father first worked in construction, and then as a chemical operator at the Hanford Works in Richland, a plant located along Guthrie's beloved Columbia River.
"Hanford was where they made the plutonium for the 'fat man' bomb the U.S. dropped over Nagasaki, Japan," Talley explains. "There are a lot of nuclear waste problems associated with Hanford now. It's probably where my father ruined his health because when we moved to New Mexico they found a big tumor on one of his lungs that nobody could identify. Back in those days nobody knew too much about uranium and plutonium and what they could do to you."
The Talleys moved to Albuquerque in 1952, where James' mom once again taught school and his father did everything from selling appliances door-to-door to delivering milk and working for yet another defense contractor. James Sr. later died there as well, of a heart attack, while his son was studying fine arts at the University of New Mexico.
Contrary to most accounts, Talley never lived in Mehan, Oklahoma, the whistle-stop that provided grist for his still-unsurpassed Got No Bread LP. He did, however, spend childhood summers there, with his maternal grandparents Mary and Og, the couple Talley paints so indelibly in the song "Mehan, Oklahoma". "Mehan has an awful lot of attachment for me," he says. "Almost every time I go through Oklahoma I stop there."
Talley's grandparents were as poor as the wind-swept dirt they struggled to farm. "There was no running water and you used an outhouse," he explains. "If you wanted a drink you took it out of the dipper on the back porch. We took baths out in a big galvanized tub in this room out on the back porch.
"There was a little store down on the corner, a funky general store kind of thing. It had one of those coke machines that had everything in a radial arrangement with a little trap door that opened up and you pulled the bottle up out of the ice water. It stood about the same height as this desk [maybe three feet high] and they sat me up on it and had me sing 'em a song. I usually sang 'Jesus Loves Me' and they'd give me a nickel or dime to buy a soda pop.
"My grandparents would ride the train into Cushing to go shopping," Talley continues. "The train had an engine and two cars. My father would get out on the track and flag it down, and it would stop. It would hiss and steam. It made an awful lot of noise for a little kid. It was frightening, that train."
TO GET BACK HOME
All these things - the hardscrabble living, singing "Jesus Loves Me" for a dime, his parents courting to the music of W. Lee O'Daniel & the Light Crust Doughboys (with Bob Wills on fiddle) at the storied Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa - made as much of an impression on Talley as the clamorous train to Cushing. Everything about the Dust Bowl and the Okie migration West left its mark on the young Talley, so much so that when he enrolled in graduate school at the University of New Mexico, he concentrated his studies on the art forms of the Depression era. He also sang the songs of Woody Guthrie and began writing originals in the Guthrie mold.
Yet with the Civil Rights Movement in full swing and conflict over the Vietnam War reaching fever pitch, Talley couldn't content himself with the past. "There was so much turmoil and everything," he recalls. "Here I am studying the Depression period and reading James Agee and John Steinbeck and listening to Woody Guthrie. All of it had great personal significance for me because of my family. But I couldn't help but feel there was something more immediate happening. As good as I thought the Guthrie songs I was singing were, I wanted to write songs that were more about current times and my own situation."
A visit from Pete Seeger proved pivotal for the aspiring singer-songwriter, who had since dropped out of grad school to serve as a welfare caseworker. "One of my English professors from the UNM knew the people who were housing Seeger when he did this concert at the university," Talley explains. "They told him I'd started writing songs and convinced him to come over and meet with me. He was staying not too far from this little house I was renting [on Montoya Road in the Old Town section of town]. He just walked over to my house, past all the dogs that barked at him and snapped at his heels.
"So I sat down and took out my little Martin guitar and played him two or three songs," Talley continues. "They were some of my earliest compositions. And he told me, 'Look, you've got some talent, but don't try to write folk songs like what you're hearing on those records from New York City. There's already people doing that. You're from the Southwest. Look around you. Write about the people around here that you've seen. Write about what they're doing. The rest of it will take care of itself.' So I kinda began to follow that advice, and out of that grew The Road To Torreón."
It would be another twenty years before Talley recorded the material that became The Road To Torreón, even though he wrote most of it shortly after his visit with Seeger. The project was born of his job with the Bernalillo County Department of Public Welfare, where as a social worker he encountered the resilient Hispanic families living in the mountain villages outside Albuquerque. Around the same time, Talley learned that Cavalliere Ketchum, a fellow grad student at the UNM, had been photographing the denizens of the Northern New Mexico barrios.
"I saw Cavalliere's photographs and he heard my songs, and we thought they would go together well," Talley explains. "So I carried a group of his photographs around with me. I moved to Nashville with them and made several trips to New York. I met John Hammond [at Columbia Records], who was probably my first mentor in the record business. Hammond wanted to record my songs and he sent me over to a guy at Holt, Rinehart & Winston, which owned CBS at the time. I can't remember the guy's name right now, but he looked at the photographs and basically said, 'Yes, if CBS is gonna do the record, then we'd be interested in doing the book. But Clive Davis, who was the head of CBS at the time, decided he didn't want any songs about Hispanics, so that was that. The project was way ahead of its time."
Indeed, the album didn't come out until Germany's Bear Family label released it as a lavish box set in 1992. A powerfully empathic collaboration depicting the lives and struggles of an all but forgotten people, The Road To Torreón is very much in the tradition of another long-neglected work, James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
TAKE ME TO THE COUNTRY
Talley moved to Nashville to pursue music full-time in August 1968. Contrary to stories of how wide-open the city's music scene was during the late '60s and early '70s, Talley found it little different from what most upstarts encounter today. "The business was very rigid back then, too," he recalls. "And of course a lot of the old-timers who are pissing and moaning now were doing quite well back then, thank you. They weren't giving most of us an opportunity either.
"Most young people who come to Nashville think that this is a music city when in reality it's not - it's a commerce city," Talley continues. "What they do here is mine a very small spectrum of music that's designed to fill the slots on a certain format. You can either modify what you do to fit that format, or acknowledge that you don't make that kind of music and go your own way, like I did."
Opting out of the industry game altogether, Talley went the DIY route, trading the carpentry work he'd done on a Music Row studio for time enough to cut four tunes there. And as he did with the demos for The Road To Torreón, he sent the tapes to John Hammond in New York, who had by this time become one of Talley's biggest supporters.
"Hammond liked 'em and, again, tried to get CBS to sign me - not CBS in Nashville, but in New York," Talley emphasizes. "Hammond saw me as someone like Dylan or Springsteen. He had just signed Springsteen. This was in the early '70s and he still couldn't get any interest at CBS, so as he did with Aretha [Franklin, after her career at Columbia faltered], he sent my stuff over to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic. Jerry was at that time contemplating making a foray into Nashville.
"So Wexler came down here in 1973 and signed me, and he signed Willie Nelson and Troy Seals as well," Talley continues. "He took the four songs I'd sent Hammond and released two of 'em as a single. The A side was a song called 'One Less Child' and the B was 'Mississippi River Whistle Town' [which later resurfaced on Blackjack Choir, Talley's third album for Capitol]. But then Jerry got divorced and dropped out of the music business for awhile. Every project he was working on, including mine, got lost in the shuffle."
Talley made Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot Of Love, an exquisite evocation of his childhood summers in Mehan, while still under contract to Atlantic. The record was a quintessential slice of Americana, a rustic song-cycle that connected the dots between Stephen Foster, Bob Wills, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan and The Band. It also boasted a cluster of first-rate pickers, notably guitarist Doyle Grisham and Texas fiddle player Johnny Gimble, as well as Talley's languid drawl, a homey instrument that fit his colloquial narratives as comfortably as a roomy suit of old clothes.
With $1,000 each from three friends, Talley made Got No Bread on his own, pressing 1,000 copies on his Torreón imprint and selling them out of the trunk of his car. He also paid a young promoter named Bruce Hinton (now president of MCA Nashville) $600 to work the record to radio. Before long, Mike Haynes, a DJ at Nashville's WKDA, started spinning a song from the album called "Give Him Another Bottle". "Mike just loved the album," Talley recalls. "He played the fire out of it. And there was another DJ, over at WSIX, which in those days was sort of an easy-listening country station, who was playing 'Red River Memory'."
Meanwhile, Talley had given Frank Jones, then head of Capitol's country division, a copy of the album while he was doing some remodeling at Jones' West Nashville home. Jones soon started hearing Talley's songs on local radio and offered to put out Got No Bread on his label. Capitol released the album in 1975 and, on the heels of a glowing Village Voice review by Greil Marcus, critical praise came flooding in.
"Marcus said that my record was as good as anything that Dylan or the Band had done," Talley remembers. "I couldn't have hoped for a better review if I had written it myself. Soon everyone and their brother was writing about it. Of course Capitol is just beside themselves at this point. So here they're flying me out to L.A. to do interviews with all these people, and Dennis White, the vice president of sales at the label, is going, 'Who the hell is this guy? We only paid $5,000 for his album? How can it be any good?'"
TRYIN' LIKE THE DEVIL
Talley released his second album for Capitol, Tryin' Like The Devil, in January 1976. Where Got No Bread addressed larger social and political concerns only indirectly, Tryin' tackled them head-on, championing the working class and advocating for Robin Hood-style redistribution of wealth. "Well I think I see why Pretty Boy Floyd done the things he did," Talley sang on "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?" Elsewhere, the album's title track and "40 Hours" offered similarly biting critiques of capitalism and economic injustice.
Convincing radio programmers to slot Talley's broadsides for airplay wasn't going to be easy. Capitol nevertheless undertook an ambitious campaign to promote "Tryin' Like The Devil", the album's first single. And the effort might have paid off, had it not been for a reporting snafu at Billboard.
"I'd never been inside a radio station before," Talley recounts. "So Bill [Williams] takes me on this [radio promotions] tour and invites Peter [Guralnick] to go down with us." (Guralnick's chronicle of the ill-fated odyssey appears in his loving chapter on Talley in Lost Highway.) "So we're driving this new Ford Club Wagon van that I bought to go out with the band in; we're calling on radio stations. We've got 'Tryin' Like The Devil' out as a single and it's making its way up the charts.
"But when we get to Memphis, all of a sudden it's dropped from 60 or 70 to 99. Bill can't believe it. He's furious. He's making calls to everyone, and finally Billboard admits that the whole thing is an error on their part. But by then everybody at radio looks at Billboard and sees that the record's dropped to 99 and says, 'Screw it,' and drops it from their playlists. It was an important mistake."
The album's next single, the equally inflammatory "Outlaws", fared somewhat better but stalled well short of the Top 40, as did "Alabama Summertime", the only single that charted from Talley's third LP, Blackjack Choir. None of which is surprising: The close-to-the-bone themes and sounds of Talley's records weren't exactly radio-friendly, but lent themselves more to the album format.
"I was making albums," he stresses. "I was making records like Dylan makes records, or Eric Clapton makes records, or Springsteen makes records. I wanted people to be able to put the needle down on the first cut and play all the way through to the end and not have a bunch of filler, a bunch of garbage, to contend with."
YOU CAN'T EVER TELL
Radio programmers might not have appreciated Talley's music, but the most influential couple in the nation at the time, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter, did. Talley's wife Jan had heard that the Carters liked Bob Dylan's records; thinking they might fancy her husband's as well, she urged James to send them copies of his albums.
"Just on a whim, I put my first two albums in a package and addressed them to "Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Plains, Georgia,'" says Talley. "I didn't hear a word from them until one day I was down at the Capitol office and a call came through from a woman named Joanne Goldberg wanting to know about James Talley. The woman was Barbara Walters' producer. Barbara had just done an interview with the Carters down in Plains. She asked them who they liked to listen to and Carter said, 'Last night we were listening to my wife's favorite artist, James Talley.' It was a bolt from the blue. I was just flabbergasted. It wasn't long after that that I got a call from somebody wanting to know if we'd come up and play at the Inauguration."
Talley's visit to the White House in January 1977 was the last hurrah of his much heralded, if commercially marginal, run at Capitol. Within a year he was without a record contract, a situation that has persisted to this day. Not that Talley hasn't continued to write and record. He's licensed a live album and a pair of studio records, as well as the magnificent Road To Torreón set, to the German label Bear Family. But without a patron (Talley self-financed all four Bear Family projects and his new Guthrie album), he had neither the time nor the money to pursue music full-time.
Furthermore, the music business has changed dramatically since Talley's days at Capitol. The personal, even informal, exchanges that led to his record deal, and to his relationships with the likes of John Hammond and Jerry Wexler, are less likely to occur today. While Talley was working to obtain his real estate license, the music industry became the domain of conglomerates run by lawyers and accountants, devotees of the bottom line who didn't know, or care, the first thing about artist development.
Understandably, and as the following lines from his "Nashville City Blues" attest, these developments left a nasty taste in Talley's mouth:
Now people let me tell you 'bout this Nashville town
It will break your heart and it will knock you down
The glitter and the glamour, it's a big-time game
And people, the music, well it don't mean a thing
It's all about the money that's made
Aw, people, it's a cryin' shame
I've got them Nashville city blues
And I ain't leavin' this town, people, 'til I get paid.
"The record companies have just gotten lost in merchandising," Talley says. "Look at Pat Quigley, the guy at Capitol here in Nashville. He's a merchandising man. I've never met him, but it's obvious he doesn't give a damn about the music. He could just as easily be selling beer, yo-yos, or cars. It's all marketing to him.
"Not that marketing's not important. But the essence of music is emotion and feeling. When the record business started, people went out and found artists. I'm talking about the Ralph Peers, the Don Laws, the Frank Joneses. They found Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Bob Wills. They found Lefty Frizzell. They were interested in finding people who had something to say, people who had already created something unique - a style." People, it's worth adding, like James Talley.
WE KEEP TRYIN'
Despite the many disappointments he's known, Talley has been nothing but dogged in his efforts to make his music available to the public. For years he held out hope of resurrecting his relationship with Capitol. When a 1990 issue of Rolling Stone named Got No Bread one of the essential albums of the 1970s, he urged the label to reissue the record, as well as his other Capitol releases. He's also sought, since 1995, to get them to put out his Guthrie record, as well as Santa Fe Blues Sessions, an electric blues album that includes the aforementioned "Nashville City Blues".
After nine years of correspondence with Capitol - nine years of watching record execs pass through the label's revolving door, and of seemingly constant corporate restructuring - Talley finally convinced Capitol to grant him exclusive 15-year licensing rights to his catalog. Taking matters into his own hands, Talley has just launched his own Cimarron label, its first release being Woody Guthrie And Songs Of My Oklahoma Home. The CD includes Depression-era Farm Security Administration photographs and Talley's reflections on why Guthrie and his songs are still relevant today.
Talley also has developed his own website (cimarronrecords.com) to market the project, but even with the boost the Internet brings, he harbors no illusions about selling enough copies of the Guthrie CD to enable him to make music full-time again. If, however, the album moves a fair number of units, he might be able to tour some, as well as reissue his long out-of-print Capitol LPs.
"I know I'm not a household name," he says. "But I'm no different than James Agee was when he was alive. Maybe a handful of people knew his movie reviews, but hell, none of 'em knew Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which only sold 600 copies when it was published and maybe 50 copies a year until it was rediscovered in the 1960s and became a standard in English departments across the country. And no one knew A Death In The Family during Agee's lifetime either, because [the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel] wasn't even issued until after he died.
"So how much do you have to do in a lifetime for it to mean something?" Talley goes on to ask. "I don't know. All I can do, man, is the best I can and leave behind what I've got to leave behind. My only regret, if I've got one, is that I've had to spend 16 years in this business, screwing around with bullshit like termite letters and closing statements, instead of writing and producing great music.
"I mean, I'd still like to be able to make a living from my art. But if I can't, that doesn't make my art any less valid, does it?"
No Depression contributing editor Bill Friskics-Warren lives and writes in Nashville.
Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home Review
December 22, 1999
by Jerome Clark, Canby, Minnesota
A beautiful surprise -- Those of us who know Woody Guthrie's music can be excused for wondering why we should be asked to listen to James Talley's covers rather than Guthrie's readily available originals. The answer is in the listening. Talley's interpretive gifts are such that very soon into the CD the issue fades into inconsequentiality. This is, let there be no mistake, a Talley, not a faux-Guthrie, record. Talley's readings are subtle, nuanced, original, unexpectedly moving. No one -- and I've heard them all -- has done "Deportee" and (especially) "This Land Is Your Land" better. Where the latter is concerned, you'd think you'd never heard this well-traveled song before. Talley reinvents it and goes deeper into its American heart than any artist, including Guthrie, has ever managed to do. If there were any justice in this world, it would be played on every radio from California to the New York island. Talley has blessed us with a very fine record, and if you miss it, it's your loss. My advice: don't.
The Nashville Scene
December 16, 1999
by Bill Friskics-Warren
Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home: James Talley is the Godfather of Americana, or at least the first rootsy singer-songwriter to connect the dots between Stephen Foster, Bob Wills, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, and Bob Dylan and the Band. His epochal Capitol LPs have been unjustly out of print in the States for more than 20 years. But after nearly a decade of haggling with lawyers and record execs, the transplanted Oklahoma populist has finally wrested control of his masters from Capitol and plans to put them out on his own label, Cimarron Records. The imprint's first release is Talley's exquisite Woody Guthrie tribute album. Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home (Cimarron) is no mere tribute album, but rather a case of one dustbowl child reaching across time and space to another. Billy Bragg and Wilco may have revivified Guthrie's myth for the post-Nevermind set. But here, armed with the force of history and the machine that kills fascists, Talley makes Woody's world his own.
The Long Road To a New Label
The New York Times
December 9, 1999
by Neil Strauss
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- "All things unfinished or in turmoil around me are reminders that I'm still alive" is a quotation hanging on a wall in the office of James Talley. "Who would have thought that a populist
songwriter like myself would be doing this?" he asked, pausing before answering himself: "I mean, I never thought it in my wildest dreams."
In the '70s Talley was one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the working man, rural life and the indomitable human spirit, recording one strong album after another for Capitol Records. Fans placed him in the lineage of Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. And he found a friend in a high place in President Jimmy Carter, who invited Talley to perform at his inauguration ball.
But today this man who was the voice of the blue-collar worker spends his days at a desk in Nashville selling real estate. It is a job that Talley, 56, has had for 17 years. "Lord," he said from behind that desk, "I wish at one point in my life I had been in the right place at the right time."
But this is no where-are-they-now story of dashed Nashville dreams. Talley still has the day jobs he thought he would be able to shed when, working as a carpenter, he sold his first album to Capitol in 1975 for the low sum of $5,000, but he has in just a few months turned his musical life around and started his own label, Cimarron Records. After nine years of struggling and pleading with Capitol, he was given the rights to release the albums he recorded for it in the '70s (which have unjustifiably been out of print in the United States for 20 years).
"When you see where my mother came from," he said of her upbringing as a tenant farmer in Oklahoma, "you realize the incredible determination it took for her to get a college degree, become a schoolteacher and teach for 38 years. She taught me determination by example. And those guys at Capitol know I'm one determined son of a gun. They never met anybody as tenacious as me."
Next week he will release his first album on Cimarron, "Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home" (available from his Web site, www.jamestalley.com). He finished the album five years ago, and it languished between Capitol's intermittent promises to release it. It is Talley's good fortune that the recording is as timeless as his best work and hasn't suffered by the delay. Arranged simply and delivered perfectly in an incisive sing-song storytelling style, the 20 songs on the album not only stand up to the originals but also complete them, compensating for the recording deficiencies that make many of Guthrie's recordings hard to take in large doses.
Talley went into debt to release the album but plans to put one out every six months. "You do wonder and you do despair, and you do go through some incredible pain and suffering," he said. "You risk your fortune, you mortgage your house, you take what little you've been able to accumulate and put it at risk to do something because you believe in it."
Music business dilemmas have distinguished Talley's artistic career from the beginning, when a fruitless signing with Atlantic Records held up his first record, "Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love," for three years as he moved to Capitol. And his music and photography collaboration, "The Road to Torreon," bittersweet tales (many of them gathered while he was a caseworker for the New Mexico Department of Public Welfare) about Hispanic mountain families in New Mexico, didn't come out until 24 years after he wrote the songs.
So it comes as no surprise that Talley has long since completed the album intended to follow his Woody Guthrie tribute. And where once he found much of his inspiration in conversations with fellow workers in his carpentry, social service and rat extermination jobs, his writing has turned further inward and grown darker.
This next album, which he plans to release next year, is called "Nashville City Blues." And in the title cut, he comes on like a piece of gum clinging to the sole of a cowboy boot, "Got them Nashville city blues/And I ain't leaving this town, people/Till I get paid."
Talley came to Nashville in 1968, influenced by Bob Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" album and under the mistaken impression that Dylan was living here. But Talley stayed, performing in a style equal parts country, folk and blues, and consequently remained a Nashville outsider the entire time.
"It's not supposed to be slick," he said, speaking of contemporary country productions. "It's supposed to be rough and brilliant. The heart doesn't move to the click track. Life doesn't move at one constant tempo. Life's full of times when you fell down and skinned your knee, when your wife left you, when your girlfriend threw your clothes out in the front yard and when you had your car repossessed. Life is not like they make these records in Nashville: It is not perfect."
Talley rarely performs these days and seems to have no intention of giving up his job to face the vagaries of the record business again. Some say he is a victim of the forced marriage of art and commerce, others say he is a victim of his own hardscrabble outlook. Either way, he has become one of the semitragic, semiheroic Everyman who populate his songs or, for that matter, the music of another great populist songwriter, Bruce Springsteen: a character caught between dreams and reality, growing older to find the dreams growing less vivid and the forest of reality -- of work, family, immobility -- thickening around him.
"I suppose years ago I hoped to be at the point today where I could sell out shows in a few hours," he said, speaking of Springsteen's recent tour. "But it didn't happen that way. And if it doesn't happen that way, then you go on another way. Or you do like Phil Ochs and you kill yourself. You know, I probably thought about that a time or two during some of the really dark periods. But then you say, 'Well, if I do that, who's going to take care of my kids and my wife?' And maybe, just maybe, I might still create something good here."
by Greg Johnson
James Talley was once among the most critically acclaimed songwriters in the country. His descriptive stories about Oklahoma and his family were the watermark of his 1975 debut album, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money. His second album, Tryin' Like The Devil, addresses more populist themes and appealed to many listeners, including the newly elected Jimmy Carter (who invited Talley to sing at his inauguration in 1977). Talley, for a while was considered the best folk/country songwriter around.
January 4, 1996
by Bill Friskics-Warren
Talley's version of This Land Is Your Land ... The singer betrays none of the exuberance that made the overworked standard an anthem ... his matter of fact performance captures the dissonance - the commingling sense of possibility and loss - at the heart of Guthrie.
by Alanna Nash
The Road To Torreon is a loving tribute not only to a people, but to a region...In a style that mixes the confessions of Leonard Cohen, the folk of Pete Seeger, and the Mexican lilt and spoken sagas of Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash with elements of country pop and rockabilly ... a noble and indelible tour of the spirit and the heart.
by Jimmy Guterman
The Road To Torreon is Talley's first album since his late '80's resurfacing that recaptures the urgency and generosity that characterized his salad-day sessions ... an entirely successful return to form from a writer and performer whose populism extended to his music as well as his politics.
October 31, 1992
by Brad Hogue
The Road To Torreon is an incredibly strong musical and visual statement strengthened by the bonds of simplistic purity and poetic appeal. The Road To Torreon delves into some harsh truths which are confrontational to the traditional images of the American dream, it cannot be easily catagorized ...
The Boston Phoenix
September 22, 1989
by Jimmy Guterman
What emerges most ... is Talley's respect for his material and his chosen form, and a commitment to both that far outstrips reverence.
The Seattle Hearld
September 10, 1989
by Jim Kelton
The irony is that, although a dazzlingly capable country tunesmith and performer, he has another, probably more important gift of universal proportions. You see, it doesn't take a hardscrabble working-class background to appreciate his songs. All it takes is a lot of heart. Talley is a great believer in the power of the heart. His best numbers are as evocative as dreams that everyone has shared in to some degree, dreams of better times, of fewer farewells, of an easier way of living... In Talley's case, the music business seldom has seemed so wasteful or so outright ridiculous.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian
August 30, 1989
by Derk Richardson
More than a decade before country music's new traditionalists broke into the Nashville establishment from the alternative market, James Talley was peeling away the gloss and restoring a populist perspective. Got No Bread and Tryin' Like The Devil are Talley's bonafide classics. Tryin' is my personal favorite, an album I've probably played more than 200 times ... he sings in a rich voice that cannot tell a lie. That's enough right there to separate him from most of today's pop country crooners.
April 5, 1986
by J. Garland Pembroke
It has been 10 years since Talley's manager demanded his release from Capitol Records in an ill advised move. With no forum for his music, the Oklahoma native resorted to paying for his own recordings, ironically the same tactic that got him his deal with Capitol in the first place. This is the story of the indefeatable human spirit, the will to push forward when all odds point to failure.
by Joe Blum
His best songs conjure images of the American landscape (the corner store, the jukebox, the filling station), images he weaves together with his subjective experience, the way Bruce Springsteen does ...this offhand, conversational style is Talley's greatest charm; he talks to you as if he knows you.
November 6, 1985
by Gil Asakawa
A true American Original sings some of the most affecting songs imaginable... and he's selling real estate in Nashville for a living. There is no justice.
Chattanooga News Free Press
October 27, 1985
by Jim Maguire
Anyone concerned with originality and authenticity in music and lyrics would do themselves well to listen to Talley.
The Journal Herald (Dayton, OH)
December 16, 1982
by Terry Lawson
Fortunately for Talley, one of the most gifted songwriters of this or any other country, the last press clipping has not yet been penned ... a talent like Talley's will not be denied forever. Talley, like Guthrie and Dylan wrote songs that were poetic and honest in the same breath, songs that dealt concurrently with the soil of the land and the soil of the mind.
Record World (New York)
April 7, 1979
by David McGee
His four Capitol albums contain some of the best country songs of the decade, and his new material is doubly formidable. He is a writer possessed by the American experience, and his vision of it is startlingly original.
Lone Star Cafe Review
The News World
February 4, 1979
by Linda Soloman
If you like Carl Sandburg, Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Reed and Little Feat, you'll probably like James Talley, his songs and his albums... his writing is a home run that touches base for most people. Simplicity is the key, but his lyrics are deceptively simple
The News World (New York)
February 4, 1979
by Linda Solomon
If you like Carl Sandburg, Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Reed and Little Feat, you'll probably like James Talley, his songs and his albums ... his writing is a home run that touches base for most people. Simplicity is the key, but his lyrics are deceptively simple.
May 1, 1978
by President Jimmy Carter
James Talley is one of my best friends and is Rosalyn's favorite singer.
Pop Top: The Record Buyer's Guide (Boston)
by Steve Morse
The ballads remind me of the documentary book by James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I can't think of a higher compliment.
Hendersonville (TN) Free Press
February 22, 1978
by Nat Hentoff
Dreams power all forms and idioms of popular music. Different dreams nourished by people of profoundly different backgrounds. In what came to be called country and western music, the early dream of unending spaciousness, always somewhere unspoiled to travel. Americans today are still attracted to traveling music and the dauntless loaners who create it. Talley comes from a long tradition in American popular music going back to Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers (The Singing Brakeman) and beyond them, to the music makers of the American frontier who sang of independence and hard work, with some whiskey on the side, that might make their dreams take palpable shape.
by The Bullet Awards
Talley doesn't play for the critics he plays for the people.
October 21, 1977
by Jeannette Smith
Talley plugs into a mother load of feeling, of smouldering, blue-collar, pluzzled, proud, chip-on-the-shoulder, potato-grubbing feeling. You don't have to be an Okie to dance to that tune.
New York Times
September 21, 1977
by Robert Palmer
Whether he is singing about good times or hard times, he invests his work with an impressive intensity, making up in passion what he lacks in vocal equipment ... sometimes he puts so much force into his songs, his voice seems ready to break altogether. He is a fascinating artist, and one wishes him luck.
by Doug Green
The comparison with Guthrie is frequent and inevitable. It is a comparison which genuinely flatters and awes Talley (I should be so lucky and so fortunate to have people forty years from now speak of me the way they speak of Guthrie.) but it is one he accepts as well. Talley's far reaching intelligence and gift for words and because he is a slow, soft, careful speaker who is refreshingly difficult to interpret make him eminently quotable on a wide variety of subjects... James Talley is indeed a song painter and a poet, a self-conscious modern day Woody Guthrie, a man with the ear of a poet, the eye of a painter and the earnest seriousness of a social worker.
Syracuse New Times
May 29, 1977
by Mike Greenstein
Calling Talley either a country or a folk artist hardly does justice to the man or his work, primarily because of the limited connotations those terms have acquired ... Talley shares with Haggard the ability to mold his vocal to each individual situation, pushing the fast fiddle tunes, carressing the country blues. He comes closest, of all contemporary artists, to the authentic greats of real country music: Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Hank Williams. His songs need little narrative embellishment, for each is a concise story in itself. I cannot avoid the feeling that at some point in the future I'll be able to tell people I once shook hands with a great American songmaker, and that it meant a lot to me.
May 13, 1977
by Steve Morse
Talley is one of the great songwriters of the day, a folk poet compared favorably to Woody Guthrie and the young Bob Dylan. He has the soul of a country-blues singer and the intellectual sensibility of a social observer like psychitrist Robert Coles or journalist Studs Terkel.
by Nat Hentoff
Talley really is a manifold original American working class parents fresh off the farm; himself a carpenter, welfare worker, horse wrangler, college student, construction laborer. And he sings about workers, and the odds against them, as well as about lovers, and places in this land most of us will never see.
March 13, 1977
by Martha Hume
Talley has come as far as he has only because of a rare combination of superhuman determination, and the belief that what he has to say is important and the ability to translate those beliefs into words and music that are esthetically pleasing. Talley says he believes in people specifically American working people those who have been crushed and left behind in the national stampedes of Great Societies and Wars on Poverty ... like his heros, James Agee and John Steinbeck, Talley believes these people have worth and dignity and that their stories need to be told.
February 16, 1977
by Jon Bream
Rosalyn Carter took copies of James Talley's three albums to the White House. President Carter even invited him to perform at one of the inaugural parties. B. B. King played his first Nashville recording session with Talley. In fact, it was the first time in twenty years that the great blues guitarist had worked as a sideman ... Talley's music reflects the same kind of soft-spoken determination as his conversation. His songs are attractive in their simplicity. His lucid, poetic lyrics depict universal characters whose stories offer insightful glimpses into Americana. As do the discussions of the Depression by songwriter, Woody Guthrie, novelists John Steinbeck and James Agee...
Whose People Were at the People's Inaugural?
January 31, 1977
by Robert Christhau
There was one way in to "preferred standing room," and outside perhaps a thousand of us were packed into the kind of crowd that has a mind of its own, yearning for the promised gate. Fortunately, our fellow ticket-holders--lucky or well-connected party faithful, friends of friends, disappointed office-seekers, and second-line journalists like ourselves--had it in them to joke past the threat of claustrophobia, and we all got inside soon enough. Carola and I climbed onto a platform some 150 yards from the main event, thus gaining a clear view of the two-story television scaffold and the great seal of the inaugural stand. From ground level we could have looked up under the cameras and watched Jimmy Carter turn into a president. As it was, we heard it happen over the public address system. Did people really fight and bitch over such piddling access?
Perhaps it was the inadequate visuals that made the ceremony itself seem a low point of the two-and-a-half days of festivities we took in. But I don't think so. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," always a rousing tune, did indeed carry a nice symbolic zing when sung by a black Southern choir. But by that time the Methodist bishop from Atlanta who delivered the invocation had already compared Carter to Solomon, an analogy anticipated in Ruth Carter Stapleton's Bible reading at the interdenominational prayer service earlier that morning. In the absence of any actual rabbis, Old Testament references seemed de rigueur--Carter himself took his justice-mercy-and-humility quote from Micah--but looking through my own Bible I find one I consider more suitable: King Asa, who was praised by Israel's official historian but ended ignominiously. "In the time of his old age," Samuel tells us, "he was diseased in his feet"; I wonder whether they were made of clay, or just cold.
Opening the inaugural address itself with a bow to Ford--"I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land"--was admittedly a stroke, and if I'd been able to espy the president and his ex shaking hands "warmly" (that's what the Times said) the whole speech might have taken off for me. But nothing will convince me now that "new spirit" is destined to take its place beside "new deal" or even "new frontier" in the lexicon of liberal Americanism. One phrase, however, hit me hard: "If we despise our own government we have no future." The meaning of the inaugural hinges on just what kind of truth that axiom contains. I participate in electoral politics out of opposition to totally apolitical cynicism. But I know that only those who actively distrust their government are likely to lead their fellow creatures into an acceptable future. If Carter's talent for symbolism quickens some hope, that will be good. But if it lulls people into faith, that will not be good.
If you're not already very disappointed in Carter, this probably seems melodramatic to you. But I am very, very disappointed, which, since I never expected much, is saying something. I've defended Carter's religious beliefs in print, and I didn't hesitate to urge people to vote for him in private, but he was always obviously a chancy candidate. Rooting for him on election night was a little like rooting for Oakland against Cincinnati in the 1972 World Series. The A's were hirsute troublemakers who feuded with their owner and each other, the Reds disciplined professionals uncritically loyal to their crewcut manager. There was no doubt where my sympathies were, but my stake in the outcome was hedged--it wasn't really my team up there.
Baseball is, to be sure, only a game. But the presidency is also a game--engrossing for players and spectators alike but of minor importance in a human history shaped largely by economics--the difference is that it is not only a game. Some maddened jock could invade the opposing dugout with an ax and not commit a hundredth of the mayhem of a Joseph Califano opposing government-aided abortions or a Griffin Bell prosecuting justice "moderately." Even "good" presidents don't do half of what they might to make justice-mercy-and-humility real in the world, and if we've had a "good" president since I learned to read, they must have kept him (or her) out of the newspapers. That's why I'd spent Inauguration Day 1969 and 1973 in Washington--not as a journalist but as a demonstrator trying to remind my fellow citizens that Richard Nixon could be (a lot) "better." And Nixon's not the only one.
Before the benediction was over Carola and I were on our way to the scene of those tries. The Yippies had been keeping such a low profile--unintentionally, of course--that I had little hope of finding them there, but they were the only protest in town, and sure enough, as we approached the Washington Monument I heard the telltale echo of electric guitars. In 1973 the Times put our popular-front demo at 10,000 and my estimate was 25,000; in 1977 the Times made this no more than 150, and they were right. These were "hardcore malcontents," as their spokesperson fondly described them--mostly scraggly longhairs wearing Nixon masks made especially for this occasion in Hong Kong.
I expected the inauguration of Nobody (nominal head of the Yippies this year) to be as dull as the inauguration of Jimmy C., but in fact it offered unexpected pleasures. After all these years I finally got a nice dizzy rush from one of Wavy Gravy's breathing exercises. I was moved by an earnest teenaged anarchist who deserved something better. And I actively applauded the local band the Yippies had commandeered--since the band was clearly in it for the exposure rather than the politics, I will mention their name, Griffin, and then suggest they change it to Barbara--for having the will to psychedelicize as well as boogie, to make music with utopian ambitions as well as roots.
But that night I spent an hour at the Yippie gala at the Warner Theatre and the bubble broke. Oh, Paul Krassner and Bev Grant and Martin Sostre were there, but only because it was the only protest in town. The tone was set by Aaron Kay, who plays Abbie to Dana Beal's Jerry in the current Yippie setup. Kay once threw a pie at Daniel Patrick Moynihan but appears to have no other redeeming social value. For what seemed like 10 minutes he read a poem, written on acid, that may well have been entitled "Fuck You, America." "Rock and roll from the streets of Greenwich Village, rock and roll from the streets of Haight-Ashbury" was a major theme, and added to the traditional hagiology of Joplin/Morrison/Hendrix was original Yippie Phil Ochs. "We can do it again," Kay insisted, but no one in the meager crowd responded with so much as a right on--not when Kay himself could invoke only departed heroes and altered communities in summoning the spirit of rock radicalism. I wonder what he would have thought of the analysis offered by two young "friends of Chip's" who were the only tieless nonjournalists I was to encounter later that night at the Georgia Armory party: "If it wasn't for rock and roll Jimmy Carter wouldn't be president. He was out of money during the primaries and he just called up Phil Walden and said, `Phil, you gotta get me some money.'" Maybe knowing that's how it works these days is what makes Aaron Kay act so far out.
There's no denying it: The Warner Theatre bash was more depressing, deluded, exploitative, and trapped in the past than any straight event I attended during my time in Washington. I like Washington, love it in fact; in the old days it was my habit after the protests were over to visit the Smithsonian, and a couple of years ago Carola and I spent a brief honeymoon in D.C. So this year, despite my alienation from the aura of good feelings, I was inclined to enjoy myself. There was lots of adequate-to-excellent free music in libraries and museums, most of it arranged by the Smithsonian with aid from the inaugural committee; I was most impressed with New York's own Grupo Folklorico, which transfixed a lunchtime crowd. And there was a general friendliness that had definitely been missing in 1969 and 1973.
But for Carola and me the high point was provided by an Iowa farmer named Elmer Carlson, who put on three nights of parties for jubilant Democrats omitted from the official lists. The price was $35 a head, which might have dampened our enjoyment some, but Carlson, no wallflower, is committed to freedom of the press. So Wednesday night we ate the greasy hors d'oeuvres and got barely tipsy on four or five drinks and had ourselves a wonderful time. Dancing to the Duke Ellington Orchestra (veterans of only one previous inaugural, 1965's) amid a bunch of gleeful Midwestern squares was epiphany enough. To top it off the Oley Valley [Pennsylvania] Hoedowners clomped and clogged so fast and furious you could only be amazed that one of them was seven and another 70. Mercer Ellington himself looked bemused.
Carlson's party attracted a few Washingtonians who wanted to celebrate, a class understandably more common--dominant, in fact--at the free concerts. But most of the people we met Wednesday night were nice, unpretentious Democrats from Iowa. They were not, however, just plain folks. The two farm couples we spoke to owned 500 and 1000 acres respectively in an area where land can sell for $1500 an acre; even the retired UAW man from John Deere turned out to be a union official, the state chairman of a senior citizens' group, and the husband of a Carter delegate who had tickets to one of the seven official balls Thursday. This was typical. We encountered some civic-minded curiosity-seekers and a few tourists who might have come for the cherry blossoms, but in general the celebrants were celebrating a victory that excited in them some hope of spoils, if only in the form of a more favorable price-support program. I liked these people a lot--happy liberals tend to be very congenial, as do happy middle Americans--but I thought they were kidding themselves a little, and they did not give me the feeling I was communicating with the hoi polloi. It was a people's inaugural, sure; there was none of the parvenu pomp of one of Nixon's accessions. But most of the people were privileged people. And even these privileged people took a back seat to the inaugural itself.
This may seem natural enough, and empirically speaking it is, but in theory it needn't be. There's something a little sad about how peripheral all that lovingly assembled people's culture was for the inaugural visitors; the gala, the swearing-in, the parade, and the balls, those were the attractions. One can imagine a rite of transition in which the people might rejoice primarily in each other, confident in their freedom to assign a power they feel truly to reside in them, but although incoming presidents pay pious tribute to such notions, you can tell how seriously they're taken by the way the people themselves act. By wearing a suit off the rack and walking to the White House, by permitting Danny Aykroyd to cut him up a little on his own TV show, Carter gestured eloquently toward diminishing his own role as cynosure. But a cynosure is of course what he must remain.
Like most New York media people, Carola and I had passes to the Hilton Thursday night, but I wanted to go to the Armory. This was the Georgia do, the rock party, the president's last scheduled stop, and hence a hot ticket; it took a lot of hustling for me to score even one. Although I thought either Marshall Tucker or Charlie Daniels, two of the biggest names in Southern roots rock and roll, might occasion some surprising revelation or anomaly, my interest was the opening act, country singer James Talley, whose aesthetically satisfying but commercially perilous synthesis of musicality and overt politics has attracted me ever since his first LP appeared a year and a half ago. After Carter's nomination Talley sent the candidate both of his LPs; months later he learned that Rosalynn Carter had told Barbara Walters that James Talley was her favorite artist. Now he was playing an inaugural ball, the biggest boost in all of his career, and I wanted to see how the Georgia populists would like him.
Well, he was an opening act. A few danced, a few listened, and two young workers from Common Cause, at the party on a friends-of-friends deal, were so impressed they asked for info when they saw me taking notes. But most of the guests, already a little boisterous in their best celebrating clothes, drank, talked, and kept their eye on the center aisle. Talley was cut short and Guy Lombardo set up--Vice-President Mondale would be arriving early. The crowd pressed toward the center, Talley's wife Jan and me along with it. The music began. We gained an obstructed view of Mondale's forehead as he advanced slowly across the floor. Then we watched him speak from the stage along with everyone else.
A few hours later a rousing set by Marshall Tucker was also interrupted by Guy Lombardo's roadies--the president would be early as well. There was a general migration from Talley's dressing room all the way to the side of the stage, where people who'd been occupying their positions behind the ropes for hours complained that we were blocking their hard-earned view. We retreated graciously; a good view was not what Talley had in mind. Whispers. Consultations with the Secret Service. Walkie-talkies. Yes, far backstage would probably be easiest. Suddenly, Talley's fiddler John Sayles came bounding down six steps at once: "She wants to meet you, she wants to meet you." And then the meeting actually took place.
It lasted several minutes. What was most impressive was that Carter clearly knew who Talley was, even asking a question about the cover of his first album; in retrospect, however, I sometimes wonder if he remembers the cover and nothing else. In any case, Rosalynn was a fan, recalling how she'd put the records on when they came and just couldn't take them off. Talley gave the president several copies of his third LP, pointing out a song called "Up From Georgia." Carter confided that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was one of the few books he'd brought north with him. There were handshakes all around (I was included, if anyone wants to be jealous) and much popping of flashbulbs. A friend predicted the incident would be on the first page of the Post's Style section the next day. Unless I missed it, it didn't make the paper at all.
I doubt that that matters much to Talley. The man was stunned, visibly moved to think that his music had reached all the way to the White House, and although the night before I'd become uncomfortable over the way he'd shunted all of my questions about Carter's cabinet off to Jan, I couldn't blame him. Talley had achieved what tens of thousands of visitors to Washington were really there for--a brush with power even greater than their own. Moreover, Carter had been at his best, and at his best he's a very impressive man. The only thing is, I think James Talley is a pretty impressive man, too.
January 30, 1977
by Larry Rohter
What's likely to have the Nashville types shaking their heads this time, though, is Talley's use of blues guitarist B. B. King on the opening tune of Blackjack Choir.
January 24, 1977
by Charlie McCollum
The artist is one of only a handfull that can deliver his strong, uncomplicated lyrics as well as - if not better - than some vocal interpreter. He has just the right vocal touch, whether the songs is a rouser or a ballad.
In These Times
January 22, 1977
by Tom Smucker
Anyone who is a combination of radical, populist, working person and country music fan and has not heard James Talley doesn't know what he/she is missing.
Music City News
by Jan Otteson
James Talley is not another singer-songwriter to be packaged, labeled, and marketed. Talley's music is above all else believable. A man with roots in rural Oklahoma, his music has been colored by close family ties and experiences among working class people. Influenced by Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and the writing of John Steinbeck, Talley's songs are simple, honest and earthy.
Los Angeles Harold-Examiner
October 25, 1976
by Robert Kemnitz
Talley's songs almost present a musical equivalent to the Walker Evans photographs that accompany Agee's depression era classic. Stark but poetic visions of poverty that so closely captures the desperate pride in all of those bound-for-glory eyes. The kind of stare that doesn't stop when it hits the observer who thinks he is way up there and looking down. Talley, like Agee and Evans, powerfully convinces you otherwise.
The National Observer
October 23, 1976
by Paul Hendrickson
Got No Bread... I took it home and had my socks knocked off. Without qualification, I found it the best first album I had ever heard a wondrous, airy collection of old western swing sounds set to vivid depression era imagery. The songs seemed coated somehow with Dust Bowl dreams. They were spare and tight, and seemed everything that syrupy, sales-minded Nashville was not. The more I listened, the more I thought of people like John Steinbeck, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange.
Georgia Straight (Vancouver, BC)
September 16, 1976
by Tom Harrison
James Talley and his music are for real. He's no acedemic posing for pictures with common folk because the effect is right. Talley has more integrity; it doesn't matter that he has more education and is not old enough to have the dust bowl authenticity. He's earned the latter in other ways. Talley got the progressive tag because his was simple, honest country music that came from somewhere other than Rhinestone City. Talley is an individual, more than a concerned, nostalgic Okie.
The Province (Vancouver, BC)
September 9, 1976
by Jeani Read
Talley's music comes across with an authenticity and conviction that makes our other educated hobo the famous one, Kris Kristofferson look like a joke.
by Nat Hentoff
Tryin' Like The Devil establishes Talley as one of the most compelling, perceptive, and haunting of all country and folk singers. The stories are of workingmen, their wives, their pasts, and maybe their futures. This is an honest man making honest music.
May 15, 1976
by Margaret Daly
James Talley writes and sings songs about ordinary working people their plights, aspirations, frustrations and joys. His songs are haunting, memorable, and beautifully crafted pieces of music and poetry. But perhaps their most compelling quality is Talley's total identification with the people he is singing about, and singing for. Musically, its roots are firmly in country real country, not the super-smooth slicked-down Nashville sound of today. He draws from the blues of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, the western swing of Bob Wills and Spade Cooley, the country boogie of the early Lefty Frizzell. Powerful album.
New York Times
May 14, 1976
by John Rockwell
Mr. Talley has put out two records so far, and if neither has sold millions of copies, both have attracted the sort of critical attention normally reserved for the next new Bob Dylan singer-songwriter. Which, in his own idiom and his own way, Mr. Talley may conceivably be.
May 11, 1976
by Steve Morse
Talley, an Oklahoma native like Guthrie, has also been compared to Bob Dylan in his early folk singing days. His songs deal with simple working people, coal miners, factory workers, field hands and waitresses, and they are haunting in their impact.
April 25, 1976
by George Kanzler, Jr.
Tryin' Like The Devil easily establishes him as the most important new voice in country music in the seventies. His words sound a part of the people he is singing about. Whether a Mississippi country girl, old before her time, or a Kentucky woman alienated by city life, Talley portrays them with understated compassion and complete empathy.
April 22, 1976
by Peter Guralnick
In Tryin' Like The Devil, James Talley has ventured to explore new territory and given us a hard-hitting record about the present day which will stand up to repeated listenings and changing trends.
April 4, 1976
by Charles Andrews
Talley's lyrics show him to be a writer of the highest caliber. Talley's voice doesn't have nearly the range nor shadings of Haggard's, but he has frequent moments so compelling, heartfelt and honest that you can't help being reminded what made Merle so great so long ago. Are The Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again? is the kind of protest song Merle should have written instead of Okie From Muskogee.
Los Angeles Times
March 28, 1976
by Robert Hilburn
He writes with a skill and a sociological relevance that places him far above most of the current hit-makers in country music. His new Tryin Like The Devil album is the most compelling, consistent country album since Willie Nelson's Phases and Stages in 1974.
March 15, 1976
by Peter Guralnick
What sets James Talley apart most of all is his earnestness. He speaks slowly in a modest sort of drawl, measures his words with great care, and believes altogether in the importance of what he is doing, the validity of his art, and most of all in himself. His songs do have a simplicity and clarity, an unprepossessing, almost light-hearted honesty that is at once disarming and instantly accessible. They are rooted in the specific, refer to comfortable, familiar, musical forms, and open up in a craftsmanlike, understated way to tell you everything you will ever need to know about themselves and their author. The albums are testaments to the best that Nashville and country music have to offer.
March 11, 1976
by Larry Rohter
Two albums worth of music have shown him to be a genuine American populist, a writer whose touching songs recall the photographs of Walker Evans, the books of Studs Terkel, and above all the depression era songs of Woody Guthrie. He sings of coal miners, field hands and factory workers with respect and great affection, carefully avoiding the cliches and formulas that clutter the lyrics of so many other Nashville songwriters.
by Nat Hentoff
James Talley, whose new Capitol set, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot of Love, will establish him as one of the most appealing country and folk singers of his generation.
Los Angeles Times
by Robert Hilburn
Got No Bread ... the kind of exceptionally impressive debut that makes one go back to Billy Joe Shaver in 1973 or, even, Kristofferson in 1970 to find as noteworthy a beginning by a Nashville-based singer-songwriter. Talley is an important new country artist who offers a welcome alternative to the increasing sickness of the Nashville mainstream ...
by Roxy Gordon
Talley is a literary individual (the author of at least one unpublished book, he was once in a graduate American Studies program). He knows what he's doing, and because of the intelligence it is one of the very few progressive country albums, progressive in the real sense of the word.
September 25, 1975
by Chet Flippo
Talley is obviously steeped in the rural tradition. He owes a great deal to Jimmie Rodgers and the Oklahoma-Texas string bands of the Thirties. It's a welcome relief from the twin excesses of super-smooth Nashville pop and the overreachings of progressive country. James Talley is very much in the mainstream of American troubadours.
Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love (Capitol)
August 18, 1975
by Robert Christgau
The album by James Talley is one of those unanticipated blessed events that come along once a year or so ... As should be obvious, such records need all the help they can get. But I'm hoping this unsolicited testimonial and last week's lead review by Greil Marcus will help get adventurous readers and distributors after the record retailers. Talley's record is one that only a confirmed hard rock (jazz) (disco) (soul) bigot can dislike; to market it as "country" is to miss how perspicaciously it looks beyond such categories.
The most attractive thing about this homespun Western-swing masterpiece--infusing both its sure, unassuming intelligence and its plain and lovely songs--is a mildness reminiscent of the first recorded string bands. Talley's careful conception and production both work to revive a playing-pretty-for-our-friends feel that most folkies would give up their rent-controlled apartments for. Despite its intense rootedness, it's neither defensive nor preachy--just lays down a way of life for all to hear.
Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money ...
August 11, 1975
by Greil Marcus
James Talley is a country (western-swing) (cowboy) (folk) singer out of Oklahoma who has on his first try produced an album that may well become a classic... Talley's album is being marketed as country, but it has little to do with what came out of the Nashville machine ... there's not a cliche on it. Every note sounds as if it was played - and what is more, felt - by a living human being. ... It is as finely tuned as that of a mid 60s Donovan album, and as unobtrusive as anything you might be hearing from Bob Dylan. Talley's album is modest, yet it grows stronger, more interesting each time it is played. It's tension, like everything else about it, is subtle. In the vein of the Band's second album, it is an affirmation. It is by its end, disquieting; and it sounds much better at night than in the daytime.