I first discovered country musician James Talley in Peter Guralnick's 1979 collection of interviews with country and blues musicians, "Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians." The eloquent roots rock historian paints a sympathetic and engaging portrait of an up-and-coming country and western artist struggling to make his music known during the economically challenged late '70s.
Talley's actual music was something I had to wait for, but I finally ran across a used vinyl copy of "Tryin' Like the Devil," the artist's second LP from 1976. The simple bland-and-white cover art depicts a smiling Talley with a big afro-like head of hair leaning on a sledgehammer, accompanied by a couple of wizened old-timers. The dirt at their feet looks dry and crumbly. They look like they've been busting rocks and hauling out tree stumps.
The music on the record is as rough and sincere as that dirt, heartfelt and plain spoken, recorded with a beautiful austerity by "Cowboy" Jake Clement in Nashville, Tennessee. Talley's poetic lyrics are grounded in the tough reality of day-to-day working stiffs, a segment of society that hasn't really been celebrated in pop culture since the cold, clammy, hair-gelled '80s swept away the simple hominess of the 1970's forever.
Listening to sad songs like "Forty Hours," (a raw paean to everyday laborers that makes "Working 9 to 5" look downright silly), and "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again" (which wonders if folk outlaws like Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger are the answer to the economic disparity of the '70s), I couldn't help but mourn the loss of the American man. That guy who wore denim shirts, drank Coors, and fixed engines, but who could also rock a baby to sleep and write honest poetry. That guy is gone in popular culture, replaced by a Seth Rogan-looking pseudo-man whose biggest accomplishment on any given Saturday might be to register a top score on Wii Golf and microwave a Philly Steak 'n Cheese Hot Pocket simultaneously.
These are dreary days we live in, but at least we have old records, recorded by real men like James Talley, to remind us that there could be a better way. It would seem that the Oklahoma born singer/songwriter never really got the due he deserved (there's a massive gap in his discography between 1977 and 1985), but you can still find his music in the bins of good used record stores.