Indie Artist of the Week – James Talley

Audio Samples

Legendary Oklahoma born singer/songwriter, James Talley, is an artist whose vision of the American experience, as author David McGee has said, is “startlingly original.”  As a youth, James’ family moved from Oklahoma to the state of Washington, where his father worked as a chemical operator in the now  infamous Hanford plutonium factory.  After five years in Richland, Washington, and realizing the hazards his father’s employment  presented, the family relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico.  James grew up in the rich tri-cultured environment of the Southwest, and graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in fine arts.  After college, James soon began to write songs that drew upon the culture of the Southwest he had experienced.  These early songs eventually became The Road To Torreon, a saga of life and death in the Chicano villages of northern New Mexico.  It is a powerful collaboration of photography and music, with a photographic essay contributed by James lifelong friend, photographer Cavalliere Ketchum.

For more information on James please visit http://www.santafeartists.com/Artists/JamesTalley/ as well as his myspace at www.myspace.com/jamestalley

Here’s TCB’s review of James’ critically acclaimed “Touchstones”

Cimarron) 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.

One Response to “Indie Artist of the Week – James Talley”

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