James Talley has passed the test of time

James Talley, songwriter and real estate agent

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.

James Talley and his wife Jan, right, with Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter at the White House in 1977.

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 feel good, and it’s worth seeking out, whether or not it gets played on your local Clear Channel affiliate.

You can start with a radio station where you can hear Talley and others of his ilk: Boulder’s KGNU. Music from all 12 of Talley’s albums will be featured tonight on KGNU’s “Highway 322″ folk music show, with host Mike Bell and co-host Joe Craighead, who, like me, has been a fan a long time.

Craighead interviewed Talley a couple of months back when the musician flew to Colorado to perform at a little-promoted music festival in South Park, and that interview will be aired tonight alongside Talley’s songs.

Tune in to 88.5 FM and 1390 AM for the Boulder, Denver and beyond radio on the ol’ analog radio, or click for the live audio stream at http://kgnu.org.

Gil Asakawa in a previous life got paid to listen to music and mouth off about it.

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