James Talley

Ain't It Somethin'

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By the time James Talley issued his fourth album for Capitol, his sound had been transformed from a simple fusion of folk, country, and blues to a hotbed of steaming R&B, funky New Orleans second-line rhythms, country, and even rock. These 11 tracks suggest that Talley was moving honky tonk and folk music into a new era, one that would explode just a few years later. But Talley was ahead of his time and Ain't It Somethin' didn't even chart. Ultimately it doesn't make a difference, because Talley went on to do alright for himself as Nashville's number one real-estate broker and developer and has continued to record. Despite the changes in arrangement and style, Talley's songs are still about the same people he wrote about on his first record: the poor, working class, day laborers, farmers, factory men and women just doing everything they can to make a life for themselves. The only politics in Talley's songs come from his experience as a social worker, a farmer, and growing up in Torreon. Check the beautiful piano lines and melody in "We Keep Tryin'," where he sings: "Me and Mattie, we ain't got no influential friends/Just tryin to beat them blues." Or the soft, jazzy overtones in "Dixie Blue," with Billy Puett's clarinet easing the piece in before Randy Scruggs slips his banjo into the mix and Steve Hostak fills in with an electric on top of Josh Graves' dobro and Jerry Shook's acoustics. "Nine Pounds of Hashbrowns" is Nashville funky strut at its finest and Talley doesn't even have to stretch to get there: "Nine pounds of hashbrowns and a rock & roll degree/Will take me anywhere you might want to see," with horns, James Brown-style, punching the margins and a pair of dueling greasy guitars riffing outside the melody. And right from here it's the simple folk music of "Richland Washington," about a father who made plutonium. Here the echoes of Roscoe Holcomb and Bascom Lamar Lunsford fall in with Talley's melody, while his story comes right out of Woody Guthrie. The last two tracks on the set are Talley at his best, the poignant ballad "The Poets of the West Virginia Mines" and "What Will Be There for the Children?" Both are folk songs done in the modern vernacular, both tender and empathetic beyond anything being written today. Talley's eye was never journalistic; it was the observation of the neighbor, allowing the spare instrumentation to help him impart to another neighbor what he sees and feels about it all as a way of communicating and extending the dialogue of life, particularly life as witnessed by the heart. In the 1970s, Talley issued four masterpieces in a row.

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