Jeff Talmadge: Blissville(2006) and (At least that much was) True (2007)
It’s a big country, the USA, and even just the state of Texas is big enough to produce songwriters of the quality of Jeff Talmadge who somehow manage to escape the attention of even quite avid fans like myself; makes you wonder how many more there are out there, one of whom might be just the songwriter you want within reach as you travel through life. Jeff Talmadge is that sort of writer; reflective and thoughtful, careful enough to tell a story in his own words and offer a personal perspective on the world around him.
A native of Texas, there are people keen to associate him with the great Texas folk writers of recent years, Guy Clark and Townes van Zandt. Well I guess the Guy Clark allusion is valid because Jeff has the same style of story song in his repertoire, but he’s nowhere near as dark and bleakly humorous as the great Townes. Rather, if you take Guy Clark as one reference point, there are also similarities, especially vocally, to the blues-y growl of Chris Rea or Chris Smither, the slightly downbeat mood of Slaid Cleaves and the willingness to get up close and personal in his writing that puts me in mind of Mary Gauthier or Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Blissville is one part retrospective, made up of reworked songs from earlier in Jeff’s career. Of these two albums, Blissville probably has more songs that I’ve connected with, songs that have a little more edge, a little more of that ‘ouch’ factor that makes you feel a song has really cut through to the core of the matter. Forty Days of Rain tells the story of a dryland farmer hanging on tenaciously to his own piece of land in spite of everything. He’d rather be defeated by the elements than give up his independence. Secret Anniversaries tells of a woman who’s had to move away to a new town. The cause of the disruption is unclear but the pain of her private memories is all too clear.
One theme that keeps returning in his writing is a sense of impermanence, both in relationships and in place of residence. He covers Girl of the North Country on True – losing the tone of bitterness that I hear in Dylan’s original – and that song’s theme is echoed in many of Jeff’s own songs. On Blissville, he sings: “Sometimes I wish that the next town was closer”. Always restless, always looking for someone and somewhere to be home for him. At some point he seems to have relocated to the Old South ; he’s taking in the new world around him, the scent of magnolias and the rich green of springtime, but his mind drifts back to Texas – “It looks a lot like Austin when it rains”.
Playing acoustic guitar himself and backed by some high grade musicians, his arrangements are mostly low key and restrained. Middle eights are drifty and tasteful rather than flights of exuberance; Chip Dolan’s accordion playing, David Webb’s keyboards and even Lloyd Maines’ pedal steel playing all provide backdrops rather than flashes of colour. Something of an oddity is the lounge jazz of Chet Baker St, the ‘bonus’ track on True; now, pardon me, but I’m not really familiar with Chet Baker but I guess that’s a fair impression of the man’s guitar style that lights up this song – beautifully fluid playing from Tim Thompson and the only real instrumental highlight on either of these albums. There’s a gentle humour in the way this is married to the lyric that’ll put a smile on your face.
There’s a new album in the offing, I hear, but in the meantime these two albums are a chance to get to know yet another fine Texan songwriter.