In some Southern rock circles, Tommy Talton is considered royalty. In the mid-’60s, he was a founding member of cult garage rockers We The People. In the late ’60s, he co-founded Capricorn Records band Cowboy with Scott Boyer, recording often in Jacksonville and Macon, with Duane Allman. Talton also recorded and toured with Gregg Allman when The Allman Brothers Band lead singer embarked on his own, laying down prime cuts on Gregg’s solo debut Laid Back. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Talton is still thriving today-recording, performing and touring, while pouring his heart into all of it.
Folio Weekly: You’re one of the few musicians already coming back to Blue Jay Listening Room for a return engagement. We’re guessing you dig it?
Tommy Talton: There’s much that I prefer about a listening room like that. It’s more intimate. When you’re playing by yourself in front of 50 to 200 people, you really feel the energy from the crowd and can give it back to them. The only thing I miss is playing off of other musicians-it’s so nice to have that magic spark. But when you play with a band, you have to stick to a certain program. Doing a show on your own, you can change horses midstream.
Does that mean throwing the set list out the window?
Many times, I will go off and improv simply because of the audience’s reaction. You can never do that with a full band-play half a song, go off to another song, then come back and finish the original song-just based off the feeling in the room.
Your last solo album, South of Eden, came out last year. Are you still focusing primarily on that material?
No, not necessarily. I could never do an instrumental like “Poblano” on my own. My set list covers songs that I may have written 40 years ago to songs I wrote last year. I go by what I’ve heard from listeners. I’ll have a list of song titles at my feet, and I’ll glance down and go, “Oh, yeah-I remember that one.” If I don’t use a list like that, I’ll forget songs that maybe I should have played. There’s no limit to my madness.
How do you wrangle that madness into the day-to-day life of a working musician?
Before this interview, I was helping out my friend Mike Rizzi, who’s recording with John Driskell Hopkins from the Zac Brown Band. I basically was a guitar slinger for hire, which I very much like. I also record here at home, starting with a cool groove or progression and spouting off phonetic sounds over it. That helps me discover things I didn’t expect. When I’m not playing music, I spend a lot of my time as a carpenter, a painter, a lawn man, or a roofer. Creativity is born from using your hands, no matter what you’re using your hands for. I love working with wood, and when I do that work, it frees my mind and opens up the creative mode. Sometimes you can get burnt or hit a mental block, and the only way to come out of that is to get away from it from a while. While you’re nailing a nail, I’ll say, “Now I know what I should say in that particular song!”
When you look back on everything you’ve accomplished, what lesson do you still put into practice every day?
You have to do this from your heart with no other intention than making the songs you’re working on feel true. You certainly can’t worry about the money you might or might not make. Communication is important; and out of that communication comes these great recordings or musical events that might be talked about forever. You never know exactly how long what you’re doing will be heard, but the heart put into the original recipe can still hold power for the listener. I can tell on a recording whether a singer was smiling or not. You can hear it on certain words or phrases and know that person was doing it from the right place. It makes it a better listen. People can feel and hear that heart. It can’t be denied.