After college, encouraged by Pete Seeger while on a trip to New Mexico, James began to write songs that drew upon the culture of the Southwest he had experienced. These early songs eventually became The Road to Torreón, a saga of life and death in the Chicano villages of northern New Mexico. Released in a boxed edition by Bear Family Records in 1992, it is a powerful collaboration of photography and music, with a photographic essay contributed by James’ lifelong friend, photographer Cavalliere Ketchum.
In 1968 James moved from New Mexico to Nashville, Tennessee to try to get his songs released. Over the years Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, Gene Clark, Alan Jackson, Hazel Dickens, and most recently Moby, and others, have recorded his songs. Joining country music and the blues, B. B. King, played his first Nashville session with James in 1976, as his lead guitar player.
James’ recording career now spans thirty plus years. The late John Hammond, Sr. at Columbia Records in New York was his first mentor, and championed his writing in the early 1970s, as he had the careers of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. When Hammond could not get James’s more country-flavored sound signed at Columbia in New York, he sent him to Jerry Wexler, who was starting a new Nashville operation with his Atlantic label at the time. Wexler signed James to his first recording contract at Atlantic Records at the same time he signed Willie Nelson. Atlantic’s Nashville operation, however, did not do well at the time and Atlantic closed its Nashville office.
James then moved to Capitol Records where he released four now legendary albums during the mid-1970s and was one of the originators and godfathers of Americana music: Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love (1975); Tryin’ Like The Devil (1976); Blackjack Choir (1977) and Ain’t It Somthin’ (1977). Rolling Stone, and other music publications, have declared these albums American classics for their time.
During the 1980s and 1990s, James recorded four albums, which were released in Europe by the German Bear Family Records, American Originals (1985); and Love Songs and The Blues (1989); The Road To Torreón (1992) and James Talley: Live (1994).
In 1999 James started his own artist’s label, Cimarron Records, and released Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home (2000), his only album that covered someone else’s songs; Nashville City Blues, (2000), and was named Amazon.com’s Folk Artist of the Year 2000. In 2002 Touchstones was released – a fresh retrospective of the songs from his early career. It was recorded in Texas with the help of James’ old friends, Joe Ely and Ponty Bone. In 2004 Journey was released, a live, in-concert recording made on his recent tour of Italy. It displays some of his classics as well as five new compositions. In February 2006, James’ classic first album, Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love was reissued in a special 30th Anniversary Edition.
In July 2008 James simultaneously issued two CDs in digital download, Journey: The Second Voyage, the remaining songs for the original live Journey recordings, supplemented with five new songs, and Heartsong, an album of fifteen new songs and a re-recording of his song “She’s The One,” which was covered as “Evening Rain” by Moby.