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For James Talley, friends in high places don't help

By Joel Bernstein, March 2000

It's a great thing for a recording artist's career to be named as a favorite artist by the newly elected President of The United States. Or is it? It didn't do much for James Talley, nor for his prominent fan.

Five years after Jimmy Carter invited Talley to play at his inauguration, Carter had lots of time for building houses, and James Talley had to sell houses to make a living.

Talley recently released his first U.S. album in many years. "Woody Guthrie and Songs Of My Oklahoma Home" shows that the populist streak Carter found so appealing in Talley hasn't wavered. The album was released on Cimarron, Talley's own label, proving that populism is not big business in America.

"I'm from Oklahoma. My father was a diehard Oklahoma Roosevelt Democrat. He had the fire and rage and hunger that Woody Guthrie had. He always used to sing 'Oklahoma Hills' when I was a child. All the stories I had from my parents growing up were about The Dust Bowl and The Depression. In high school, I had all The Kingston Trio albums. The songs that always jumped out at me were (the ones) written by Woody Guthrie. All the history and heritage of my family came home to me in these songs. I've wanted to do this for more than 20 years. Folk music was a bad word (in the '70's) when I was on Capitol."

The support of the Carters brought Talley some attention, but no real career benefit. "It was an honor that they thought so much of my work. The Carters were good people, but it may have caused a backlash. It distracted people from my music. It became a celebrity thing, and people weren't focused on what I was actually doing. I've never been into any of that. I've never cared what kind of car I'm driving or who I'm seen with."

Although the four albums Talley released on Capitol were not big sellers, it was his choice to leave the label. He soon realized it was a bad choice.

"I left at the advice of my manager at the time. Capitol wasn't doing a great job of promoting my work. This guy assured me he would put me with a better company. Two months later, I couldn't even get him on the telephone. Everybody at Capitol was pissed at me because they'd spent some money on me, and I left. It was a devastating thing to my career."

Talley drifted around. He spent some time in New York City performing at the Lone Star Cafe. He spent a month or so touring New England with John Lincoln Wright & The Sour Mash Boys. (He recorded four songs with them which appeared on his album "American Originals," issued by the German Bear Family label, which has also put his Capitol albums out on CD) He turned to real estate in Nashville when music couldn't support his family any more. In the U.S. at least, Talley seemed forgotten.

"In 1990, Rolling Stone listed my (first) album ("Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money...") on a list of essential albums from the 1970's. That's when I decided to contact Capitol again. There were new people there."

"I went through a bunch of presidents. They were going to reissue my first albums. Then they were going to release the Guthrie album. Then, EMI abandoned its catalogue division and fired everyone there. Finally, I met the chief legal guy. He tried to find someone in the company who would do something with this material. but every time someone expressed an interest, the company would get restructured, or he'd get fired. "

Talley recorded his album of Guthrie songs in 1994, and it sat in limbo for five years while he tried to work things out with Capitol.

"Fortunately, the album is timeless," says Talley, who nonetheless was anxious for it to be released. Last summer, he finalized a deal giving him control of his old masters as well as of the new recordings.

Those recordings had been made in New Mexico. Talley was visiting his '70's drummer Greg Thomas there.

"He said we should do anther album like that first one, with an acoustic feel. I said I wanted to do an album of Woody's songs, and that's the way I wanted it to sound...There was a studio there in an old adobe house. Greg assembled the players, and I came back out in October of 1994. We rehearsed for a few days before recording. These guys got a wonderfully magic, dusty quality that I couldn't have gotten here in Nashville. It was the old Sam Phillips credo of 'feeling, not technique.' There are too many perfect records being made in Nashville with no feeling. Life isn't perfect. Life is full of mistakes. To reflect life, music can't be perfect."

Talley's album of Guthrie songs may not be perfect, but it is sonically miles ahead of Guthrie's own recordings. "It's really hard to listen to (those). They were recorded poorly, and he's not the greatest singer."

Guthrie's best known song is "This Land Is Your Land," which like "Born In The USA," has been turned into jingoism that its author never intended. Talley uses it to close out his album.

"It's a gorgeous song. It's been thought about too much as an anthem, and I wanted to get people into the lyrics. We had even discussed not doing that song because it's so over-exposed. I just started playing it very softly with my guitar and thinking about it in a completely different way. There are a lot of songs in which we glide right past the lyrics because of the arrangement. A lot of things are destroyed in the arrangement. I tried to change the mood of it. I wanted people to think about the poetry of the song."

"I think The Beatles changed society. Bob Dylan changed society. (Music can) change people's expressions of themselves and how they live. It's sort of a covert thing. (A songwriter) can't set out to change society. Most people are successful writing about what they know."

"Woody had been there. He'd seen it first hand. He did not set out to be a visionary poet, he set out to make a living. At some point, he decided he was going to write about (what he saw.) He wanted people not to despair, to take pride in where they came from. Many things in place today that young people don't even think about were all (products) of his time. Before that, there was no safety net. "

"There's always going to be a need for someone who'll put the words together. A computer is just a tool. It can't think for you."