James Talley was 29 when he recorded his debut album in 1973. The title summed up his station. He had been a songwriter for Atlantic under producer Jerry Wexler, but mostly worked as a carpenter to support his family. He had never set foot in a radio station; the country music he loved most was fused with familial memories of Oklahoma, Washington and New Mexico—shack porch string-bands and barn dance Western swing. Pete Seeger had told him to write about the world he knew, and so he did. The sound and spirit of the album that resulted, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot of Love, wasn’t nostalgic; Tally’s western memories were more real and rich with promise than his Music City home.
With the exception of legendary fiddle player Johnny Gimble, the 20 musicians who gathered for the Got No Bread sessions were mostly unknown (including a young John Hiatt) and they played on spec. Talley bartered for the studio time. The sound couldn’t be less hurried. The string arrangements glowed, as if answering countrypolitan’s excesses, and the spaces between lines contained lifetimes. “Take me from destruction, the anger and the pain,” Talley sang on the final song. His voice and words seemed to make the present and the future—from the aftermath of Vietnam to uncertain house payments—go away.
The cover of the album featured a black-and-white photo that could have been taken by a camera placed on a brick and set to automatic. Talley smiles as he leans against a cinder block store (“Talley’s Grocer” the sign says, but there was no relation), his arm around a very pregnant Jan Talley, their son Reuben James playing before scrub grass and a truck tire. Capitol, Talley’s record label, wasn’t releasing this kind of country. No one was. The album sold around 5,000 copies before being deleted in 1979.
That wasn’t a surprise, but the response from three of the counterculture’s best rock-oriented critics at the time, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau and Peter Gurlanick, was. Talley had never met or even heard of these young writers, and his debut bore no pop or rock traces, yet Marcus responded to the depth of emotion, while Christgau captured the album’s commercial context, or lack thereof: “[T]o market it as ‘country’ is to miss how perspicaciously it looks beyond such categories.”
Thirty years on, the album’s lack of pretension or artifice remains its key. “Pure” is the word most often used to describe it, but the music restores meaning to that sanctimonious plaudit. The swing is so subtle you could miss it; likewise the wit of Talley’s songwriting and the warmth of his tenor. The album’s influence is quiet but significant. Steve Earle’s Train a Comin’ and John Hiatt’s Slow Turning owe the record a palpable debt.
“When Jan and I were first married, we didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of,” Talley recalls. “I probably went to the refrigerator one night, saw that we had no bread and no milk and no money to buy any. But we did have love.” And music, which after decades locked in Capitol’s vaults, still sounds like the most unexpected, generous gift.