Tommy Talton has been a professional musician since about the time he first picked up a guitar. He is perhaps best known as the lead guitarist on Gregg Allman’s 1974 landmark solo album Laid Back on Capricorn Records and Allman’s subsequent tour that also produced a live album. But his pedigree runs much deeper as a founding member of the band Cowboy, a prolific singer and songwriter and one of the most acclaimed guitarists of his era.
Now living in the Atlanta area, Talton has a new solo album, Somewhere South of Eden, that harkens back to the Capricorn sound that came out of Macon during the hey-day of Southern rock. His CD release party is Saturday night at The Vista Room at Napoleon’s in Decatur.
Talton recently sat down with ArtsATL to discuss Cowboy (also the Capricorn studio band), his friendship with the late Duane Allman, and his relationships with Allman, Rolling Stones keyboardist and music director Chuck Leavell, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi.
ArtsATL: When do you remember music grabbing hold of your soul?
Tommy Talton: That’s easy. It happened when I was eight years old, when I was at my uncle’s house. He was a collector of old recorders and jukeboxes and really all sorts of things. There on the floor — what I know now — was a National Steel Dobro. I saw that case sitting on the floor and walked over to it and opened it, and when I did, it was like “Ta-Da!” I plucked one of the strings and was just looking at it — mesmerized while it vibrated. I never forgot that. I can see that and hear that moment right now as if it was an hour ago.
ArtsATL: What was your first live music performance, and how did it leave you feeling?
Talton: I didn’t begin playing guitar right after that moment I just told you about because I was a big sports guy and had fully intended to become a professional baseball player. But I found a guitar again when I was 13. I was listening heavily to James Brown, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in their early days — like late 1963 and 1964. A group of my friends and I started playing music together. And, we’d play for hours. We put a band together called The Chessmen. Our first gig was playing at a dance for our junior high school. We each made $5. That was my first live music performance and it felt great. It felt special. And back then, not everybody was in a band like now, where just about everyone claims to be in a band and be a musician.
ArtsATL: When did you start writing songs, and can you name one of your early songs?
Talton: Very early on — really immediately once I started playing. Even in that first band, we were mostly doing our own songs. Then, with We the People — my second band — I continued writing more and more songs. “Free Information with No Obligation” was one of my early ones.
ArtsATL: How in the world did your second band ever top your first band playing at your junior high school dance?
Talton: Well, what was exciting about that band was we recorded with RCA Victor. So, I found myself at RCA Studio B — the same place where Elvis recorded all of his stuff. It was surreal for me since I’d been introduced to Elvis through my older sister and began listening to him at age seven. So, there I was in Nashville, Tennessee, at age 16, recording an album with We the People on that same sacred spot as Elvis. Funny talking about that because I was recently told that We the People is held in high esteem today among garage bands (chuckles).
ArtsATL: What is your process for writing lyrics? Do the lyrics appear to you in final form, or do they come after the music?
Talton: It works both ways. In fact, with my last two recordings — for the most part — although I didn’t have the lyrics, I’d go record anyway. Then, when I’d hear the music play back and hear the rhythm and the chord structure, I’d fill in the lyrics. I’ll often times blurt out phonetic sounds to a melody. Then, when I hear that, I’ll say to myself, “It sounded like I was saying such and such right there.” And then, I write that down and that’ll inspire another thought. It’s very much like putting a crossword puzzle together. And then there are times when I have all the lyrics written and I just put the music to them. Songs are always floating by. They’re literally floating by in the ether. And any songwriter worth his or her salt will tell you if you open up your mind — your centers of creativity — to it, you can just pull them out of the air as they are floating by.
ArtsATL: What’s the key to good songwriting?
Talton: The main thing with songwriting is to know when to allow the silence in between the sound. You have to know how much to say, how much to play and how much to do nothing at all — so as to let the listener have a chance to think and feel what the song is saying.
ArtsATL: Name a few things in this world which are most likely to inspire your music writing?
Talton: Oh, it can be something like watching someone losing their temper at the supermarket checkout. Or it can be as simple as the way in which a leaf falls from a tree, or something I see a baby doing or any life experience can inspire me. If you microscopically hone in on it, you can turn almost anything into an event and be inspired by it.
ArtsATL: Your Southern rock band Cowboy enjoyed much acclaim back in the seventies. How’d it get that single word name to stand firmly upon?
Talton: It is an unusual name. And when you hear it, impressions conjure up in your brain. But what’s funny is it wasn’t our first choice for our name. Originally, we called ourselves Easy — another one word name. However, when we came to Macon to record the first album, Reach for the Sky, the folks at the Capricorn Records offices on Cotton Avenue checked on the availability for our using the name and discovered a band out in California was already using it. The way we had chosen to use Easy in the first place was we played a basketball game of Horse and George Clark, our bass player, won and picked Easy first, but Cowboy was second. So, when we learned Easy wasn’t permissible for us to use, we simply deferred to the second choice from our game of Horse, and that was Cowboy.
ArtsATL: What was it like being a Capricorn artist during those early, history-in-the-making days?
Talton: I feel very fortunate to have been in that place, at that time. People often ask, “Did you guys realize what you were a part of?” Looking back on it now, there’s no way any of us could know what it would turn into and just how historical it’d become. We were just a bunch of young kids. Duane was only twenty-four when he died. We were all young. Capricorn Studios was just our little clubhouse and there was definitely a brotherhood there amongst us. That situation can never happen again.
ArtsATL: Can you share a story about Capricorn that might help us understand what made it so uniquely special?
Talton: Sure. For instance, [Cowboy drummer] Bill Stewart and [Capricorn producer] Johnny Sandlin and I were sitting around the studio one night because there was nothing else to do in town and we were just waiting for [Allman Brothers Band guitarist] Dickey Betts to come in and overdub guitar on the song “Jessica.” So, while we were waiting for Dickey, Johnny said, “Tom, you got any new songs we can record?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve got two or three. Let’s try one.” So Johnny and Bill and I recorded a song that night. Johnny showed it to [Capricorn Records president] Phil [Walden] the next day and Phil liked it and said, “Why don’t you just go ahead and do a whole album?” I mean, where does that happen? That was just Capricorn Records magic. “Just go ahead and do an album” — where is that going to ever happen like that again? I can tell you, “nowhere.”
ArtsATL: What was that album called?
Talton: Happy to be Alive. And people really love that album and have told me it has made an impact on them. Chuck Leavell is on that album, and Joe English, Randall Bramlett, Dru Lombar, Stephen Miller and just so many great talents are on it. And, what made it even more special was the way everybody got on it was with a simple phone call. We just called and said, “You want to come down? We got a neat thing going on — you wanna play on it?” And they came. There was no scheduling — just spontaneity. In the end, those days were really unexplainable. Without sounding cliché, “You really had to be there to believe it.”
ArtsATL: You just mentioned the late, great Duane Allman. I know you were close friends during your time together in Macon. What did knowing him and that friendship teach you that you have carried with you since his death over four decades ago?
Talton: Oh wow. Duane was just so up and was such a wonderful human. He was a very intelligent guy and very focused, as you’d imagine he’d have to be to play the way he played, and have the musical ideas he had. He was a spirit that was on fire. When he walked into a room, he’d bring so much energy in with him. He’d say, “What are you guys doing? Let’s play.” With Duane, it was always, “Let’s do it.” But, what I learned from him was not to just simply do it. Rather, let’s do it, let’s have fun; but, let’s do it good, let’s do it right.
ArtsATL: Is there any special one-on-one memory of Duane you’d care to share with us?
Talton: Back then, Cowboy and the Brothers were doing a lot of touring together, but when we were off the road, Duane and I oftentimes got together and found ourselves at the studio. We’d just stand across from one another playing electric guitars with no amplifiers — just playing licks with each other that we’d heard other people play. This would go on for a while. I was definitely fortunate to be able to get that close to Duane, as not that many people had that with him. I’m really grateful for my friendship with him. He is a legend and rightfully so.
ArtsATL: While we’re on the topic of the Allmans, last year at his Laid Back Festival in Atlanta, Gregg Allman asked you to be a special guest. What was it like to take the stage and play “Melissa” with him again?
Talton: It was simply wonderful. And I had just met Scott Sharrard [lead guitarist for the Gregg Allman Band]. He’s just a fantastic guy. Beforehand, I was wondering how he and I would hit it off because of the history thing, but Scott couldn’t have been more wonderful to me. It was just great to be on the stage with Gregg again. I was so happy to spend time with him that night. It was truly special to see him look over at me and smile while we were playing. There was no need for words — that smile felt like it could be 40 years ago and time did not exist. We may be older now, but inside, we’re still 16 years old (chuckles). It’s the good moments like that which keep you goin’.
ArtsATL: You just said you’ve been making and playing music for over 40 years. That’s longer than many musicians have been alive. What words of wisdom would you impart on the young ones with regards to choosing music as a career?
Talton: You know, for me, I never chose this. It chose me. I started playing music. I got in a band and was playing before 200 people. Then, I met Scott Boyer and we went to Macon. He introduced me to Phil Walden and all of a sudden we were touring around the United States with the Allman Brothers and making records. And we were making session work with Clarence Carter and Dexter Redding and all sorts of great musicians. But my point is, one thing leads to another and now I find myself here talking to you and this life has gone by. First, I’d say to the youth that you should always follow your heart and you’ll know right away why you’re in it. If you’re in it just for recognition and applause, you’re in the wrong game. You’ll only have heartbreak after heartbreak because you’ll be in it for the wrong reason. And that applies to anything you choose to do in life. You’ve got to be in it for the love of what you do. You will grow old faster if you are silent about your gift and don’t acknowledge it.
ArtsATL: I read in an interview that Derek Trucks was inspired by hearing you on slide when he was a boy. What does it feel like knowing that now that he is a guitar legend?
Talton: Oh, it’s wonderful. Derek is such a great man. He’s so humble and so talented. He’s the perfect example of following the gift which was bestowed upon him. He follows his gift with the utmost purity. And so does his wife, Sue [Susan Tedeschi]. That’s why they’re having such great success. They live according to their love and have always followed their hearts. But, yeah, to watch Derek since he was about 10 years has been nothing but amazing. I remember once when he was about 10, maybe 11, he wanted to play with me and so we brought over a National Steel Dobro and handed it to him. He’d never played one before but after about 10 or 12 minutes he was playing it like the best old 72-year-old blues player like from backwards Mississippi, maybe Clarksdale. That’s him (chuckles).
ArtsATL: Tell us about the making of your new album, Somewhere South of Eden. Did it come quickly or did this one have to marinate for a bit?
Talton: It took a little time not because of anything about the music but strictly because of scheduling. You have to build the house and then once you do, you can set anything on it. We did eleven songs in two days but I didn’t have the lyrics for a lot of them. And that was in Henderson, Tennessee. Then, I came back to Atlanta and got the lyrics once I got back home.
ArtsATL: Are those delays a good thing or a bad thing in making a record?
Talton: They can be both. It’s good because sometimes you have time to revise and say to yourself that something sounded great the other day but not so much today. And if you’re forced to get something out, you may say to yourself — for the rest of your life — “Damn, I wish I had taken a minute to fix that.” On the other hand, sometimes it’s cool to be under the gun and say, “Man we’ve got to get this done, today.” And when you’re a professional and know you have to get it done, you go in and do it. And not to quote myself, but I wrote a song called “Deal with the Deal.” And that means you do what you got to do when you got to do it.
ArtsATL: What about the name of the new album; was there any particular inspiration for it?
Talton: Well, I always loved the title, East of Eden. So, I thought if there’s an east of Eden, there’s got to be a south of Eden.
ArtsATL: Your old friend Chuck Leavell plays on the instrumental track “Pablano.” Did you know it had to be him playing on this one?
Talton: Oh yeah; it had to be him. There’s nobody but him that could’ve done it. That’s a fun one. And he does it so correctly and so good.
ArtsATL: On your thought-provoking track, “We are Calling,” was it the current strife we’re all dealing with around the world today that inspired this one?
Talton: Definitely. I think it’s strange that I have to write something that asks, “Aren’t we all part of one humanity?” I mean — really. Have so many millions of people forgotten that? Or, did they ever know it? It should be obvious that people should be able to love who they want to love without having rules placed upon them. It should just be a given. We are calling, we are calling out — speaking to the highest part of you. If only everybody would just do that.
ArtsATL: If you could overhear people talking about your new album as they were leaving the release party, give me three words which would please you to hear them say.
Talton: Happy. Beautiful. Inspiring.