For a brief moment in the '70s, James Talley appeared poised for stardom. His songs of hard-working Americans were championed by critics and even caught the ear of Jimmy Carter. Despite all the attention, though, units didn't move, and soon Talley, who had previously done everything from graduate work to rat extermination, was out of music and in the real-estate business, just trying to support his family.
It's hard to say why he never made it. His unclassifiable music, too pop to be country but not pop enough to be rock, certainly didn't help. And perhaps expectations were simply too high. In hindsight, Talley's albums, careful and often sentimental, were overrated.
Still, Talley's earlier work always had much to recommend it. His finest songs, which explore the South as place, mindset and people, have been filled, by turns, with humble charm and populist pride. The latter is best exemplified by 1976's "Are They Going to Make Us Outlaws Again," an honest-to-God classic that plays like a meeting of Merle Haggard and Woody Guthrie.
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Talley's latest album, recorded in 1994 but only now released on his own label, is a 21-song tribute to Guthrie and his songs, and it is the most wonderful of Talley's career. The inconsistency of Talley's compositions is rendered irrelevant, and his voice, now textured and deepened, has never been so engaging. Backed by acoustic pickers who play with verve and love, Talley discovers new wisdom in Guthrie standards like "This Land Is Your Land," while his version of "Deportees," about immigrants exploited then forgotten, is more moving than previous variations on the tune. It certainly doesn't take much imagination to see how these songs, written as industrialization was driving people off the land, might remain relevant to workers as the world collapses anew beneath a microchip revolution.