James Talley,
Tryin' Like the Devil
(Capitol, 1976; Cimarron, 2016)

Released in 1976 on Capitol Records, Tryin' Like the Devil makes a welcome reappearance on James Talley's private label. It was his second major-label release (there would be four in all), and on the evidence of critical acclaim and airplay he seemed on the brink of major stardom. It didn't happen, owing in good part to the fallout from a bad business decision. Eventually abandoning a full-time career in music, Talley went into real estate in Nashville. These days, dividing his time (with longtime spouse Jan) between Music City and a small town in New Mexico, he still performs occasionally in America and Europe.

In the interest of full disclosure: Talley and I have been friends for nearly two decades, when he contacted me after he saw a review I'd written of his remarkable Woody Guthrie & Songs of My Oklahoma Home (1999). I am ordinarily reluctant to write about albums by artists whom I know more than casually. In this case, however, I was listening to the artist long before I met him, and hearing Tryin' -- originally, soon after its issuance -- again after all these years, I find that my response now mirrors mine then, except of course that in the interim I've listened to thousands of records and know a whole lot more than I did in those days.

If you've never heard him, let me put it this way: Talley sounds at once like a lot of people and like practically nobody in any significant particular. His approach synthesizes vernacular music to which you'd have been exposed if you'd lived in the Southwest between the early 1930s into the 1960s. It doesn't feel dated, though; rather, like the best art it stands curiously outside the moment. The influences are interesting if you know them, but even if you don't, the music feels supple and evocative. Of course, as one who has no shortage of Bob Wills and Woody Guthrie -- both with ties to Texas and Oklahoma -- in the collection, I readily detect Talley's starting point. Yet Wills and Guthrie, while they shared musical roots, were sufficiently unalike that hardly anybody ever thought to marry their approaches. And for a long time, I'm sure, only a relative group of unusually open-minded listeners had as much as heard of both.

Another element in the mix is blues, which Talley's vocal and writing gifts serve in an always capable and assured manner. (He would be the first white Nashville artist to bring B.B. King into the studio with him, by the way.) Beyond that is a liberal political allegiance which, unlike the left sympathies of folk singers of preceding generation (e.g., Guthrie's), has nothing to do with the Popular Front, and everything to do with an in-the-American-grain strain of liberalism. Like me, Talley came to the folk revival through country music, not (at least initially) through Pete Seeger. And where pure honkytonk is concerned, Talley was first marketed to country radio. He had some degree of success there, but his approach ultimately did not fit into the rigid and narrow space within which programmers seek to stifle any but prescribed originality, not to mention any hint of ideological heresy.

All that said, if I were to cite a single performer whom Talley most broadly resembles, it would be Willie Nelson. I stress the adverb "broadly" because he is in no way a Willie clone. But each is connected with Southwestern country, and each goes from there to draw in other genres to fashion songs. In Nelson's case it's mostly big-city blues, jazz and the American Songbook. In Talley's it's the more grassroots stuff: rural blues, fiddle tunes, folksong sounds. While Nelson and Talley share the same politics, only the latter's is discernible in his songs; even so, it is always no more than implicit. He's too subtle for slogan-shouting.

Talley will call up thoughts of the late Merle Haggard as well. Haggard and Talley, while different sorts of men, were friends, and their musical approaches draw on comparable styles. Haggard's politics, however, were at once generally incoherent and fundamentally conservative. While his songs were often like folk ballads, Haggard was uninfluenced by the folk revival, of which Talley is manifestly an offspring, if an eccentric one. Still, if not many artists can be spoken of in the same breath as Haggard, Talley is one of them.

In large part about the travails of working people, Tryin' is steeped in sincere sympathy with the characters who populate its material. Still, Talley respects them too much to sentimentalize them. Even though of a New Deal-influenced sensibility, he dispenses with twaddle about their special virtue or political wisdom. His people are not paragons, they're people, and they're doing what their immediate survival demands (i.e., laboring at crappy low-wage jobs in a post-union economy), and it is their struggle and their humanity that merit our concern and compassion. (Maybe it's because he was listening to them that he was able to predict that white blue-collar workers would choose Donald Trump as their president. Talley thought he would win all along, and I thought he was crazy.)

These songs, though in the first person, are rarely about Talley himself. He vividly inhabits the souls and speaks in the voices of others whom he resembles in some ways and, as a man of learning and intellect, not in others. The title number quotes a phrase from a conversation he had with a grizzled fellow worker when both were employed as carpenters. The anxious sentiments of a real-life trucker drove "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?" "Give My Love to Marie" speaks achingly from the heart of a coal miner.

Though these are all exceptionally crafted, consistently distinctive songs (10 in all), the most indelible of all has to be "Deep Country Blues." Set to a simple folk melody that (thanks to producer Talley's brilliant arrangement) builds in power and intensity over its four and a half minutes, it relates a story without betraying exactly what that story is. A careful listener will be able to discern that it is set in a rural Mississippi landscape, poor and black. Every other verse appears to be missing. In the classic style of old blues ballads, it is more commentary on a narrative than a narrative itself. It is, moreover, seeded with disturbing images ("blackjack choir" most unsettling of all). The lyrics hint at terror, tenderness, dread, and beauty, and an almost novelistic sense of possibility. Outside traditional folk music, I have heard nothing like it.

Yes, Tryin' Like the Devil is an American masterpiece. Besides, the band that plays so expertly behind Talley and his acoustic guitar features two of my all-time musical heroes, authentic legends of the roots: dobroist Josh Graves and fiddler Johnny Gimble, both now gone on to their reward in hillbilly heaven.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 May 2017

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