On Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love, James Talley established himself as a songwriter of true substance and a purveyor of relative truth. There was no cynicism in his vision, and like Mickey Newbury, he understood that the image in a song communicates everything and all language should be directed to conveying it. On Tryin' Like the Devil, Talley digs deeper into his blues roots, and deeper into his portrayal of the image, so that the listener gets an actual picture in her or his mind. The rambling, pastoral "Deep Country Blues," with its whining dobro, lonesome harmonica, and Travis-style guitar picking, offers a tale of simple backcountry love amid the plenitude of the land and the absence of money. But like all innocence, it breaks down into a reality not expressed here, yet referred to as a gazer through the past where the scar on the heart is plainly visible. The waltz that is "Give My Love to Marie" comes from the mouth of a black-lung miner on his deathbed, who recounts his inability to resolve the fact that there are "millions in the ground, but not a penny for me."
Economics is also the theme of "Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?," not Willie and Waylon. Here is Woody Guthrie's ghost speaking through the mouth of fellow Okie Talley with a dobro, a thumping standup bass, and an acoustic guitar leading the séance. The title track, with its electric guitars and modern honky tonk riff, is a snapshot of pot-bellied truckers, whiskey, red-headed waitresses, and lonely midnights all engaged in reconciling broken dreams yet not giving up on life. They're all separate, all inseparable: "A lot of lonely people just like me." Johnny Gimble's fiddle solo soars in the bridge. "Nothin' But the Blues" is one of Talley's most covered songs, but its easy-swinging Bob Wills-style execution in his gorgeous tenor makes it a late-night lounge lizard's anthem full of wheel-spinning-in-a-rut blues. The set ends on the up though, with "You Can't Ever Tell." It's a strutting honky tonker with Talley exhorting his lover to say the hell with everything in order to go out on the town and raise some hell. This is a fitting end, considering this has been an album about the tough side of the working and loving life, and this small bit of relief is all anyone has a right to expect after all. Tryin' Like the Devil is a masterful work by one of country music's most profound and empathetic of talents. DL