(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Watching the ACM Awards show reminded me of just how fleeting fame and success can be for some country artists and how lasting the good times can be for other stars. Artists on that show such as George Strait and Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire and Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson and Randy Travis and Ray Price will endure forever.
Watching the ACM show also was a graphic reminder of how disgracefully country’s pioneers and elders are sometimes treated on these awards shows. The great Ray Price, who was given the ACM Pioneer Award before the show, was pictured only briefly sitting in the audience with his award on the floor by his feet. He was allowed no opportunity to speak. Half the artists on that show are not talented enough to carry Ray Price’s guitar case for him. At last year’s CMA Awards, Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Carl Smith was also given similar short shrift. He was pictured briefly sitting in the audience and allowed no opportunity to speak. Either these awards should be an integral point of these shows and presented with dignity, or they should be eliminated entirely from the proceedings. This sort of condescending treatment of country’s valuable elders is shameful.
But to return to my point about career longevity, some of the younger artists from that ACM show will endure as well, but there were a number of faces on stage that will be forgotten in a few years. If not much sooner. Sometimes the talent isn’t enough, nor the charisma, nor the drive. The timing may be wrong. The songs may be wrong. Or the management. Or the record promotion. Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw, or it’s one unfortunate decision that can bring an end to a country career.
In James Talley’s case, it was a combination of many factors, especially the latter one. Talley is probably the most talented singer and songwriter that you have never heard of. And there are reasons for that. But one reason I was thinking of him in regard to that show was that he has a new CD coming soon (June 15) that is more or less a reprise of his career.
Talley was first signed to Atlantic Records and then to Capitol Records in Nashville in the 1970s and released a string of brilliant albums of what can loosely be called songs of the working class, of ordinary men and women. President Jimmy Carter loved Talley’s work and invited him to perform at his inauguration as well as at the White House several times. Music critics loved his work. I wrote about him in the pages of Rolling Stone. The Los Angeles Times devoted a full page to Talley. The man was and is a true poet of the people. His debut album Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love remains a favorite of mine today. B.B. King played on his third album. He has had his songs recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Moby and Alan Jackson.
Despite all the critical acclaim he received, he did not sell all that well. I don’t think Capitol knew what they had in Talley and certainly didn’t know how to promote an artist who was being compared to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie — two artists who had few champions in the hallways of Nashville record labels in the ’70s. Additionally, his songs demanded to be listened to closely, which is not something that country radio embraces or advocates.
But what effectively ended his career was a bad business decision. His manager convinced him to leave Capitol Records — while he still owed the label three more albums under terms of a seven-album contract. Angered, Capitol management promptly deleted his four albums from the label’s catalog — which was “Something in my youthful naiveté I had never anticipated,” he writes in liner notes to his new album. Continues Talley, “In the years after I left Capitol, without their powerful marketing support or the albums remaining in print, my musical career crashed like a plane shot out of the sky.”
His manager abandoned him. No other label would touch him. He was in record label limbo. To this day, his Capitol albums remain unavailable, except as custom issues on Talley’s Web site. His Capitol exile happened in the late 1970s, which was before the advent of both CDs and the Internet and was therefore long before it became possible to record and sell your own CDs online.
After about five years of record label exile, he went into real estate and continues today as a respected Nashville realtor. In becoming a realtor, he wrote, he discovered that “the thing that is so hard to accept and understand when you are living through your dreams being crushed, is that there is really nothing wrong with working at another job apart from music. It’s no disgrace. It’s honest. In fact, that is the way it used to be. Working people, not professional musicians, made much of the world’s most heartfelt and inspiring music.” Along the way, he has continued to write and perform and has released a series of albums as a sideline, and his talent continues to shine.
The new album Journey (on his own Cimarron label) was recorded live in a series of four concerts in Italy, where Talley had only recently discovered he had a great many fans. It’s made up of several of his touchstone songs from over the years, as well as five new songs.
Check out his Web site, jamestalley.com. It’s a fascinating saga of the fascinating life of a country star who never quite caught up with stardom. Talley is also one of the better essayists I have read, and I’m looking forward to the addition of his blog/journal to his site.