Now Spinning: James Talley

The browning leaves and cooling temperatures of fall bring to mind The Band’s famed self-titled’Brown Album’ for me, which, along with Music From Big Pink and The Basement Tapes is widely considered a cornerstone of the rootsy and rural rock ‘n’ roll offshoot that has become known as Americana in the years since. Much like The Band’s far more famous effort, James Talley’s debut album, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love offers a sepia-toned cover and familiar tales of the joys and challenges of ordinary folks, supported by an array of musical styles, making for a perfect fall afternoon listen.

Talley had a solid run of success in the mid-seventies, recording a brilliant string of albums for Capitol, and even performing at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration before sliding into obscurity. Talley wrote and sang with the working class edge of Capitol label-mate, superstar Merle Haggard, mixed with hefty influences from western swing bands, Appalachian fiddle tunes, a touch of soul music and more. While he hardly approached stardom, Capitol continued to invest in him, supporting him for four stellar albums, where he was even paired with high profile studio collaborators including B.B. King, as well as Nashville studio legends Reggie Young and Charlie McCoy. Nevertheless, before the decade came to a close, Talley was sadly out of a label, having traded his music career for a real estate license.

Released in 1975 with disco and punk rock taking over, this back porch country music felt timelessly unique, even as Willie Nelson’s outlaw masterpiece Red Headed Stranger built a new market for country music. It’s somewhat surprising that Talley couldn’t ride the coattails of the outlaw country goldrush to a bit more prominence, but in a sense his music doesn’t owe enough to rock ‘n’ roll to fit in with the hard-edged outlaw music. Instead, Talley’s music owes more to pre-rock ‘n’ roll influences such as Bob Willis & the Texas Playboys, New Lost City Ramblers and rural blues. Closing the circle, legendary fiddler and Texas Playboys’ member Johnny Gimble appears here too, contributing both fiddle and mandolin throughout, linking two generations of country music together.

One of the longest album titles in my collection could only kick off with a similarly wordy track called ‘W. Lee O’Daniel and the Light Crust Doughboys’ which, despite the goofy mouthful of a title, perfectly sets the tone of the album both lyrically and musically. Of course given the weird old history of American music, the song is based on reality: W. Lee ‘Pappy’ O’Daniel was a real historical figure, a blend of politics, populism and rowdy string band music with the Light Crust Doughboys. The song also introduces a couple of amusingly ironic coincidences: Bob Willis, whose ghost seems to float through the album as a chief influence, was a member of the Light Crust Doughboys during his early days as an up-and-coming musician. Even more eerily, a fictional concoction of O’Daniel would later surface as a central character in the Coen Brothers’ film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, which is closely tied to the 21st century rise of Americana music. Unfortunately for Talley, Americana as a commercial genre was not yet invented when radio stations and record stores were puzzled over marketing and promoting his debut album, and it never received the accolades it deserved.

I got no troubles, I’m feelin’ no pain

I got moonshine whisky down in my veins—

So let the Light Crust Dough Boys and Old Pappy Dan

Play us a song we’ll never forget. . .

Now, they say times are rough and money is tight

But I don’t care on Saturday night—

I got no money, but I can’t sing the blues

When I feel like dancin’ down in my shoes

– James Talley, ‘W. Lee O’Daniel and the Light Crust Doughboys

The two verses above echo appreciation of life’s small pleasures and the relief a night of dancing along to music can bring for the struggling working class, themes reiterated throughout the album, particularly on the relaxed country soul of the title track. Despite the perhaps clunky album and song titles (‘Blue-Eyed Ruth and My Sunday Suit’ is another mouthful), Talley is both straightforward and poetic as a lyricist, with a style that brings to mind the no-nonsense storytelling of Guy Clark. Musically, the album is led by Gimble’s outstanding fiddle work and shimmering pedal steel guitar from Jimmy Buffett collaborator, Doyle Grisham. Grisham particularly shines with a soaring solo on ‘Take Me Back to the Country’, and in a surprising but effective pairing, while trading riffs with mariachi horns on ‘Calico Gypsy’. No influences are off limits here, though the band sounds most comfortable between impressive bluegrass picking and barroom honky tonk, always supporting Talley’s dusty barroom vocals.

After returning to a music career in recent years, Talley has managed to buy back his masters from Capitol, making his long out of press classic seventies run available on CD and Spotify. While vinyl represses seem unlikely in the immediate future, albums from major labels like Capitol are not too difficult to track down, even the less popular ones like this. Several quality copies are for sale on Discogs, but with a little patience and effort, you might be able to track it down at your local record store. Or you might get really lucky like me and find a near flawless copy in the finest thrift store in the land, Philly Aids Thrift, for merely a dollar well spent.

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