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.