James Talley – Estate of the heart
“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 Torreon). 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.