James Talley is not a stranger to Washington. Jimmy Carter listens to his records when he's not listening to Dylan or Beethoven. Talley sang at Carter's Inauguration. Chip Carter showed up at Talley's last engagement here.
So, you might think that when James Talley arrived in Washington to play the Warner Theater the other night - the author of "Are They Going to Make Us Outlaws Again," the bard of the blue-collar, the President's poet - well. you'd think he'd get a warm reception.
There it was right there on the theater's marquee. Big as life. JAMES TALLY.
Damn nation. As Talley said, when he toted his own blanket into the Rhode Island Avenue Holiday Inn: "You never know what kind of heat you're going to get. I've slept in some of these places where they don't have heat."
James Talley is a cult figure, even if the Carters and author/psychiatrist Robert Coles are part of it. What that means is terrific critical reception, meager album sales, little support from his record company, second billing. It means spending 19 times a week as much on road tours, as he earned Wednesday night at the Warner Theater. It means Talley's making desperado-style pleas like. "Tell Rosalynn Carter we'll put her on the payroll if she'll go out and do promo for a month." It gives piquance to his claim that he represents the working man: "Everybody needs to be loved. Everybody needs affection. Everybody has the same feeling of the blues and frustration that I do. I'm just listening to them. They're writing the songs. I'm just writing it down."
Talley, 33, is a big, unsmiling, quietspoken man. His cowboy boots, he says; have been resoled three times.He wears fiannel shirts and carries a briefcase with a combination lock. He looks at you obliquely. He is sweet and patient with the sort of wimply, bespectacld, star-struck backstage Johnny the sort who could make a less forebearing man cross his eyes, mangle a beer can and throw the wretch out of the dressing room.
James Talley has the dolors. That's not exactly the catchiest title for an album, which is probably why Talley, a former UCLA and University of New Mexico PHD, candidate in fine arts, prefers to talk - and write - of his Okie roots.
"My mother get [WORD ILLEGIBLE] off when I talk about being poor." says Talley. "But she's a working woman. She went out the door every day for 34 years as an elementary schoolteacher . . . She hates for me to use the word 'Okie.' She says we weren't poor. But she's not telling the truth. She came off a 160-acre farm in Oklahoma where she'd been looking a plow horse in the tail all those years."
Somehow, you don't mind this mild shuck from Talley. In these days of "Roots" madness, everybody can pick out the park of the newly discovered past which suits him best (Shall I be a persecuted Huguenot today? Or a County Antrim potato grubber?). At his most sincere - and he is a wary, dignified performer - Talley plugs into a mother lode of feeling, of smoldering, blue-collar, puzzled, proud, chip-on-the-shoulder, potato-grubbing feeling. You don't have to be an Okie to dance to that tune.
While he emphasizes his labors as a construction worker and carpenter, he acknowledges as his music's sources his years as a welfare caseworker and his master's degree studies of Depression-era art forms: writers Agee and Steinbeck songwriters Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie, Farm Security Administration photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
"I think there is a great drama in what people have to go through in this world," says Talley. "It's the most powerful because it's the most honest."
He writes music that celebrates the old Depression and hints subtly at a new one.
When he sings "W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys" - a balladeer's oral history of a whompin' stompin' Dust Bowl band leader turned governor - all those long dusty road and windswept, bleak shoot-em-ups from the movie "Bonnie and Clyde" come back to you. In other songs, there are rail-riding hoboes, big-city women, migrant workers dying out on the road. There are blues, blues of country people working in cities, where "the redbird don't greet the mornin' light." In "Bluesman," which he recorded with the legendary rhythm 'n' blues picker B. B. King, Talley writes, "Yes, I'm the bluesman,/And I can hear you when you cry."
Why this medium? Why the painter turned singer?
"In 1967," says Talley, "I was painting. I got frustrated. I said it just wasn't a medium I could like, I started writing poetry - a lot of painters are poets. Michelangelo was a poet. D. H. Lawrence was a painter. Then I read Woody Guthrie's book, 'Born to Win' I says to myself, 'Hell, I can write like this.' So I did."
But what's a nice PhD. candidate like you doing in Nashville?
"I don't think PhD. means jack . . .," says Talley, with a certain winsomeness. "I got very tired of academies and academia. (Country bopper.) Commander Cody has an MFA. Why is he out there moron to be a country musician. But it helps."
He is referring to certain dark moments since his arrival in Nashville in 1968: a 1972 contract with Atlantic, at $250-a-week, which foundered with corporate personnel shifts. Talley speaks of his having to produce, and distribute, at his own expense - around $2,000 - his first album in 1975: of enormous touring expenses and small returns. For Wednesday night's engagement at the Warner Theater, Talley, his road manager, and band members wer paid $500. Period.
Tally has written, sung and produced four albums in two years. These met with wide critical acclaim. But few sales. Talley's best-selling album. Blackjack Choir, sold perhaps 25,000 copies, according to Talley. His relations with Capitol Records have been less than warm-hearted. Talley hopes a new manager, acquired this spring, will send him over the top, the way Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson have gone with their "outlaw" music.
Meanwhile, Talley is saying. "That outlaw thing, it's such a bunch of bulls . . . Waylon and Willie - no, I love Willie Nelson's stuff. It's just that they've latched onto the team like a Madison Avenue executive would. You can't tell me that Waylon Jennings - who has 36 people on the road in three Greyhound busses - is an outlaw. I don't think being an Okie has anything to do with an outlaw. Being an Okie gives me a perspective on the whole thing."
Unlike many Nashville folk, who are reluctant to discuss politics or who - like antic eminence Roy Acuff, ar frankly Republicans - Talley says, "I've never voted for a Republican in my life. Neither did my parents. I don't know anybody who works for a living who has their head screwed on right who would vote for the Republicans."
He says he's not church-going religious - "It's like D. H. Lawrence. I believe in the possibilities of the creative mystery." And he believes in the redemption of hard labor. "What was a nice boy like me doing in hickory striped overalls standing in a ditch with a hammer in my hand covered with mud, putting up construction forms in Nashville (when the Atlantic contract ran out)? That makes just as much sense as asking about the PhD. I was learning a lot from people who had a lot to say. It's the working people that built this country. I love this country. I love the freedom it has. We've made a lot of progress, but there's a long way to go."
And so he sings, "I'm like that potbellied trucker drinkin' coffe/ I'm like that red-headed waitress named Louise./ I'm like every workin' man/All across the land/ Just tryin' like the devil to be free." And he means it. But his hands are not the curved and knuckly hands of a hard-scrabble dirt farmer. They are extraordinarily white, and seem, when he talks, to finger invisible strings.