Artist: James Talley
Album: Tryin’ Like the Devil- Special 4oth Anniversary Re-issue
Release Date: 4.14.2017
James Talley is not often mentioned with icons Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, or Waylon Jennings, yet he can stand as an equal to any one of them. As writer Bill-Friskies-Warren put it in The Nashville Scene, “James Talley is the Godfather of Americana,” the first singer-songwriter to connect the dots between Stephen Foster, Bob Wills, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan and the Band.” Talley was ahead of his time but his songs, as this classic album will attest to, are just as relevant and timeless 40 years later.
In the early 1970s, the late John Hammond Sr., who had signed Dylan and Springsteen, recognized Talley’s songwriting and singing skills and signed him to Columbia, He later referred Talley to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic where Talley signed in 1972 but that didn’t work out when Atlantic closed their Nashville office. Then Talley signed with Capitol, making four albums of which this was the second, recorded in 1976. His promising career had all major ingredients in place in terms of major labels and key people backing him, only to see him fall into relative obscurity due to poor business advice. For many years he earned his living selling commercial real estate in Nashville. I recall a conversation with Jimmy Lafave about 10 years ago at SXSW, “Yes, James and I are both from Oklahoma, we both play country, blues, and folk and have a connection to Woody Guthrie.” Now semi-retired at age 72, Talley has returned to limited touring. Fortunately he retained nearly all his earlier recordings that are now available from his own label. This marks the first time that Tryin’ Like the Devil has been available physically since 1979.
When released in 1976, the critics bestowed high praise on the album. The late Nat Hentoff is quoted in 1976, “one of the most compelling, perceptive, and haunting of all country and folk singers. The stories are of workingmen, their wives, their pasts, and maybe their futures. This is an honest man making music.” Thirteen years later, Derk Richardson of the San Francisco Bay Guardian wrote, “More than a decade before country music’s new traditionalists broke into the Nashville establishment from the alternative market, James Talley was peeling away the gloss and restoring a populist perspective…he sings in a rich voice that cannot tell a lie.”
Talley has blessed us with extensive liner notes providing the background for each song as well as lyrics for each. He had earned enough respect to self-produce the album, a rarity still today on a major label. He talks about his vision for the record, “I wanted a very straight forward, rather eclectic 1930s sound to the album- simple and straightforward, without a lot doubling of tracks…” The inspiration for the album came from Talley’s then day job as carpenter. He listened carefully to what people said and decided to write a group of songs about working people. Haggard, Springsteen, and others have mined similar turf. Arguably Talley’s songs are every bit as strong.
Talley still vividly recalls certain phrases. One day a fellow carpenter said, “Sonny, about all a workin’ man can hope for is to put a few beans on his table, keep a roof over his head, and make payments on his truck—we’re all just tryin’ like the devil, ain’t we?” During a truckers strike, when the oil embargo was in effect under Jimmy Carter, a trucker responded to a reporter’s accusation about breaking the law, “Mister, when a man can’t put food on the table for his wife and kids, he’s gonna break the law.” Talley compared that to the 1930s and Pretty Boy Floyd in his tune, “Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?”
There are some tender moments ,too, as you’ll find in the gorgeous love song for his wife, “She’s the One,” as well as “Give My Love to Marie,” “’She Tries Not to Cry,” and his enduring ballad, “Sometimes I Think About Suzanne.” With a voice that’s every bit as soothing as Willie Nelson, to whom he is most often compared, James Talley is an exquisite poet—one who truly paints pictures with words.
Do yourself a huge favor. Listen to Talley and delve not only into this classic, but into his catalog as well. I prize the six I own. You’ll find him most rewarding too.