An Interview with Roger Talley

I had the opportunity to interview Roger Talley before a Talley Trio concert last fall. One thing led to another, and it took this long to get it up. But it’s worth the wait. For a formatted version of the interview, click here.

DJM: Could you start by explaining how you became interested in Southern Gospel?
Roger: I grew up in a little church in East Tennessee that sang what we call Southern Gospel music, and it was just just music out of the red Church Hymnal—the one that Gerald Wolfe uses and sings out of—so that’s the kind of music that I was familiar with.

My parents sang in several church quartets, with a couple of other men from our community. As soon as I could play the piano, I got, as I always say, “roped in” to playing for their quartet, or their trio at church.

I could do that without even hardly thinking about it. The songs were easy and I had heard them all my life. My mom always used to say that I would sit at the piano and read a comic book at the same time I was playing for them! So it shows how much attention I was really giving the song, I guess!

DJM: How old were you at this time?
Roger: I started playing piano—started taking lessons when I was in the sixth grade, so that would be about twelve years old, I guess. I took lessons for a couple of years and quit, just . . . I didn’t think I was learning anything, and I just wasn’t that interested in it.

I could play by ear, but I just didn’t want to practice and learn the hard stuff, I guess. It was always a war to get me to practice, and finally they let me quit. And then later on, I became interested in it again, and just sat down and kinda taught myself. I never had any more lessons.

DJM: So did you continue just playing for your parents until you started with the Hoppers, or were you with any other groups in the interim?

Roger: Well, I never played for anybody else except our family before I went with the Hoppers.

I started hearing some music by the Downings, the Rambos, and the Speers, and I thought, “Now that’s really good! I like that better than what my mom and dad sang!”

So I got my brother and my sister in around the piano, and I thought, “We can do this!” So we would just start learning Rambo songs, or Speer Family songs, or whatever. And the first time we sang at our church, my parents had to go early because they were teaching in some class. So I got my brother and sister to learn a song at home, and then we went to church and sang it that night. I think it was “I Just Came to Talk With You Lord” by Dottie Rambo.

DJM: So your brother being Kirk, and I don’t know your sister’s name?
Roger: Diane.

DJM: So did she sing above Kirk, or below him?
Roger: They switched back and forth. At that time, Kirk’s voice, of course, had not changed. He was probably only eight or nine years old, or even less than that. So he had a high voice, and his voice never did change, I guess. (That’s a joke!)

DJM: Although there a couple of tenor singers that I wonder sometimes…
Roger: [Laughs]

DJM: So was it ’74 when you joined the Hoppers?
Roger: Yes.

DJM: How did that come about?
Roger: I went to college when I graduated from high school, studying Agricultural Business, of all things.

DJM: To become a farmer? To work at a feed company?
Roger: No, after my junior year of college I got an internship—like a summer study—with FHA. And when I graduated from college, they offered me a job, and I went to work for the FHA as an Assistant County Supervisor financing rural homes and farms.

DJM: The FHA is?
Roger: Farmer’s Home Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And I had no intentions of doing anything else.

One day—I had been working there probably almost a year, maybe nine or ten months—and my phone rang, and a voice said, “Roger Talley, this is Claude Hopper of the Hopper Brothers and Connie. Tilford Salyer gave me your phone number, says you can play the piano. We’re looking for a piano player.”

Tilford had been in the recording business in Kingsport, Tennessee for a lot of years. He was also co-host of a TV show called Huff-Cook Gospel Sing, that aired all over the state of Virginia.

My group, the Talley Trio, had gone up and sung on the TV program, so Tilford was a little familiar with me. After I graduated from college, he had a guy ask if he knew anyone who could play old hymns for a session he was recording at the studio. So he called me and asked me to do that, and that’s how he was familiar with the fact of who I was, and how I could play.

DJM: At this time, was the Talley Trio your parents, or you and your siblings?
Roger: That was me, Kirk, and my sister.

DJM: Did you do any recordings back then?
Roger: We made two albums, and they are hilarious, looking back, but it was the best we could do at the time.

DJM: What are the names of those albums, if you remember?
Roger: The first one is called More than Enough—that was the song title. The second one—I cannot remember the title. I can see it, but I can’t remember the title.

I went over and filled in with the Hoppers one weekend. It was during the gas shortage of ’74. I got my little Chevrolet Vega and a 5-gallon can of gas, and drove and met them in Hillsville, Virginia on a Thursday night. We set up about 4:00 and went to the bus and changed clothes, and I had to play the entire program that night—and I had never played for them. He had sent two albums and said, “Learn these songs.” And I played that whole weekend, and Sunday night, he offered me the job.

I took a pay cut from the USDA to start playing for the Hopper Brothers and Connie!

DJM: And then you were with the Hopper Brothers and Connie until 1983?
Roger: Mmm-hmm.

DJM: Now at what point did Debbie join?
Roger: We got married in 1978 and she started just a few months after that. Kirk was singing with the Hoppers by that time.

DJM: And he stayed with them until 1979?
Roger: I think it was Thanksgiving of ’78. I’m not sure—maybe it was ’79. Anyway, Debra and I had just been married a little while, and she stayed home during that time and was not singing.

Kirk went with the Cathedrals, so the Hoppers just said, “Do you think Debbie would fill in with us and just sing that other part that Kirk sings on some songs until we decide what we’re going to do, and hire somebody else, a tenor?”

And I said, “Sure, I’m sure she could do that.”

So she started singing. We were doing Christmas songs a lot during that time. And then . . . she just stayed on, and they never looked for anybody else. She sang with them until she was pregnant with Lauren in ’82.

DJM: So moving on to the Talleys, then, what led you to decide to start the Talleys? Were you just ready to sing with your family, or were there any other factors involved?

Roger: Actually, it was Kirk’s idea. I think he was ready to leave Ohio. He approached us and said, “Let’s start our own group, with me and you and Debbie.”
We thought about it, and thought, “Well, that might be a good thing. Let’s give it a whirl.” So he quit the Cathedrals, and I quit the Hoppers. And we started the Talleys in January of 1983.

DJM: So you actually signed with Word, then?
Roger: We did. We cut a couple of what we now refer to as table projects, just to have something to sell when we first started singing. We had a couple of offers from Benson Company –

DJM: The Heartwarming people?
Roger: Yeah, at the time, and it didn’t seem to be the right fit. Then Bill Gaither approached us and said that he would like to produce our recordings. He went to Word, and we liked that deal that was proposed to us a lot better—it felt right—and so we signed with them. It was for the Canaan label.

DJM: I’d been wondering about that.
Roger: Later, after a few projects, they switched us to Word.

DJM: Was that because you were seeing some success with inspirational stations, outside of strictly Southern Gospel stations?
Roger: It may have. I think that the Canaan label, after a few years, was kinda winding down, and some of the mainstays were no longer there. And I think that was around the time they switched us to Word, because at the time, they saw us going in a more Inspirational direction than the traditional.

DJM: And was that something you wanted to do, or was that something where your producer said, “We think you’d sound good at this?”
Roger: We always liked things that were different from the traditional quartet music. And our albums had always been that anyway. Of course, with the Bill Gaither influence, that was more of where he saw us as well.

We did a couple of records that were aimed more in that direction. And then, to be honest, we just didn’t feel like that was it. We came back to a more traditional Southern record on one that was called Typical Day. That seemed to be where we felt more at home. So we just kind of stayed there, I guess.

DJM: So you came off the road as the Talleys in ’93?
Roger: Yes.

DJM: And then it was just three years later that Lauren decided she wanted to sing with you?
Roger: We really had no plans to do it again. We just stayed at home for—I don’t know—3 ½ or 4 years.

DJM: Did you go back into agricultural business?
Roger: Well, I got my real estate license, and I was trying to sell real estate, but I was not making much money. And at the time, I was still doing recording sessions. A lot of people would call and ask me to play on sessions, and so I  . . . I still kept my foot in the Gospel recording business, I guess you would say, at the same time.

We just sang a song or two at church, here and there. There was a bank at home that asked us if we could put together a Christmas program. We just got out the old Talley Christmas tracks. Lauren could sing Kirk’s part—she was about 12 years old by then, thirteen, maybe—and it didn’t sound half bad. Then we started getting some invitations to sing in other places, and one day we had to look at ourselves, and say, “Do we really want do this again, or do we not?”

And it just felt like, yeah, we were supposed to do that.

Lauren was really excited about the singing, and felt like that was what she wanted to do. I’ve always enjoyed traveling. Debra is not near the traveler that I am; she would be very happy to go home tomorrow and just stay! But we felt like this is what we were supposed to do for the time being.

And we figured that when God had a different plan, He would show us, and then we would move on to something else. And who knows when or what that would be, but I don’t look at this as something that we’ll be doing forever.

DJM: Hmm . . . interesting.
Roger: I mean, I think it’s not going to be long until we’re near retirement age. But we’ve always felt that there would probably come a time when Lauren would feel called or led to do something either on her own or or with somebody else, or whatever. And when that time comes, we’ll be happy not to travel. But in the meantime, we’re happy doing what we’re doing.

DJM: So if Lauren goes solo, you and Debra would probably go off the road, rather than hiring anyone else?
Roger: I don’t think that we would hire another person and continue.

DJM: Now jumping topics, this is something I wanted to ask you about. I’ve seen you in many album credits as a producer. When did you start getting into producing projects?
Roger: Even back when I was with the Hoppers, I guess I did what is considered producing for a few people, and didn’t even know it at the time! They just wanted me to help them with an album, because I was doing the Hoppers records. There were some groups we were friends with, and they were like, “Well, help us do a record!” And I would just play on the session, and help them with their vocals, and teach them parts of songs. That’s where I’ve always considered my strength—knowing the parts, and who should be singing what, and what note works, and what note doesn’t. It’s terrible—I can’t sit and listen to anybody sing without analyzing whether someone’s on the wrong note or not!

It kind of evolved from that. I remember that even when I was with the Hoppers, there was a little group called the Greenes from the mountains of North Carolina, and they wanted me to come over to their house and help them on their first record!

DJM: Now I think I have a decent feel for a producer’s role, but for the readers—what exactly does a producer do? A group comes to you and says, “Roger, we’d like you to produce your next project.” They have the budget, that’s not an issue. That aside, what do you do as a producer?
Roger: Well, if I’m familiar with the group, I try to look at what they’re doing, and what I feel like is working about it, and what may not be working as good as it could. And I also take into account what they want this record to be. That’s with an established group.

If a group is just trying to get started, and I don’t know anything about them, I have to listen to what they do, and figure out what they would be best at, what their strength is—it’s all a part of figuring out what this record should sound like. Should it be really traditional, should it be more progressive? What fits the group?

A lot of times they will have songs, maybe that some of the group members have written or they have found. And I will start critiquing songs. Yes, this one’s good. This one needs some work. I don’t think that fits you at all—why would you want to sing that? And then we finally arrive at ten songs.

Then I hire the musicians, book the studio, write the charts, write the arrangement out for the players to play—

DJM: In the Nashville number system, or in the regular clef?
Roger: Number system. It looks like algebra to most people!

Then after the tracks are cut, we start working with them on the vocals, and teaching them the arrangement, the parts. We go into the studio, get all the vocals recorded, add extra orchestration or whatever, and then it’s mixed. And I’m sitting there, saying, “Turn the guitar up right here, turn it down there,” or “the alto needs to be bumped up there,” or “where did the melody go?”

Just hundreds of things, until you finally get where you think it sounds exactly like as it’s supposed to, or it’s as good as it’s going to get under the circumstances I’m working with, you know! If the money’s gone, or the time’s gone, it’s got to go—send it out!

DJM: How many projects have you produced, roughly?
Roger: I have no idea!
DJM: Is it more in the area of 50, 250, or 500?
Roger: More in in the area of 250-500, I guess. Maybe it’s not as many, but I’ve been doing it for at least twenty-five years, and if I did even six or eight a year, that’s a couple hundred. I don’t know—how good is my math?

DJM: I don’t know—that was not my strong point! [Laughs] So you worked with the Greenes, you worked with the Collingsworth Family when they were just getting started . . .
Roger: Yes, I did the first album Phil and Kim recorded, just as a duet.
DJM: And in fact, I heard that you were the one that suggested changing the name to the Collingsworth Family, instead of just Phil & Kim.
Roger: Well, yeah. I could see that the children were going to be very talented. And I felt like that’s what people would be more drawn to. They started recording with Kim’s sister on the first couple of CDs, but she was moving to the Philippines as a missionary, and so I said, “You just need to let Brooklyn sing. She’s gonna be great, and they’re all going to sing as they come along, so let’s just go and make the change. It’s going to be the Collingsworth Family!”

DJM: So you worked with the Greenes early on, the Collingsworth family early on . . . what other groups that’ve become since known that you worked with early on?
Roger: I didn’t start the Hayes Family by any means, but I did several of their CDs many years ago. I just always thought they were a really talented family, and I could just hear in my mind what I wished their records sounded like, so I said, “Let me do a record for you guys!”

As far as beginnings . . . I didn’t come prepared with all this thought out.

DJM: That’s fine . . . I could just drop that question!
Roger: There are lots of beginning groups, but I’m trying to think of who might have progressed on . . . I did all the records for the Browns up until the last one. They were just beginning.

DJM: I’ve noticed your records tend to be much less orchestrated, much less use of an orchestra than records produced by, say, Lari Goss or Wayne Haun. Is that just due to the budget of groups you work with, or more because you like other styles, and don’t like the huge ballads style as much?

Roger: Well . . . most of the groups I work with don’t have the budget to do Lari Goss or Wayne Haun. Those guys are great at what they do. If that is what you’re going for, if that’s what’s gonna be your sound, then you should just go and have them do it, because I don’t write orchestra parts. I would farm that out anyway. I would send the songs to somebody else and say, “Orchestrate this.” And I do that sometimes—it’s just that if the big orchestrated sound is your hallmark sound, then you should go to somebody who does that really well.

DJM: There’s a lot of talk about how hard it was for Southern Gospel groups back in the old days—some of which is just tied into poor amplification systems, stories of Eva Mae having to sing over a piano, and all that—but there’s stories of how hard it was for Southern Gospel groups back then. But in today’s economic climate . . . you were with the Hopper Brothers and Connie back before they were they were as much a household name as they are now. Do you think it was harder back then or harder now for a group to stay on the road?
Roger: [pauses and thinks]

I think it’s harder now, because I think there are so many more things now to compete for your time and consumer’s money. And there’s so much more entertainment now that it takes so much more to impress an audience, because they’ve seen it on TV, they see it on the internet, and they’re not impressed by much anymore.

Back in what you would call the good ol’ days, you did not have entertainment so much to choose from. When a group came to town, it was a huge deal. And it was big entertainment, and everybody came. Now, it’s just like, “There’s six things I could do tonight, and I have kids involved in all these activities, and when I get home, I’m just gonna crash. And if I want to see the Talleys, I can see them on DVD, I can see them on YouTube . . . “

It really takes a lot anymore to get people to come out, pay money to see you, buy your products, when music is basically free anymore.

DJM: Is some of the thinking behind that tied into what you do with TalleyTree-o?
Roger: Well, there are two or three purposes behind that site. One is, we just felt that there is a demand that people want to know you better then they do. And there’s no time for them to get to know you really at a concert, or anywhere else. And that was kind of an experiment to see what they wanted to know, how close they wanted to feel.

And it is also a way to make contact with the people that enjoy your music, or what you do.

I was just looking on YouTube last night at videos, and I was seeing some of ours that are in the hundreds of thousands of views. And reading some of the comments, I’m thinking, “Most of those are people that we will never see in person.” So if we’re going to connect with people, it’s going to have to have to be in the new tribal/viral marketing. So that’s what that site is about.

DJM: Do you think you’ll ever tie it in with your main site, or do you think you’ll run them as two separate sites long-term?
Roger: We’ve talked about combining the two into the one, and just having the different sections. And that may happen at some point. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes that goes into doing that!

DJM: I know what you mean!
Roger: As far as combining your store, the product, how things get routed . . .

DJM: Are there any questions that you’ve wished someone would ask you in an interview some day, and nobody ever has?
Roger: No. I’ve never wanted to do an interview. I’m the type of person that just wants to sit over there and play the piano, and not be out front. I don’t want to sing the solo, but I will if I have to. I don’t want to be the front person. I don’t feel comfortable talking on stage.

I think that’s why I like being in the studio. There’s nobody there but me and some equipment, and a couple of other musicians!

That’s my natural inclination. Obviously, to do what we do, you have to make yourself get out of your comfort zone, and be a little more of a public person, but it’s just not my nature.

DJM: So if the Talley Trio part of your life phases out, do you think you’ll do more album producing, or go in other directions entirely?
Roger: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think I will always be involved in Gospel Music in some way. I would like to think that I could still produce records for a while, even though there are always younger people with new ideas, and better methods, and better ideas coming along. I think there’s a value in both, and hopefully an old dog can learn some new tricks and keep doing it!

DJM: Any other thoughts or comments?
Roger: I enjoy your blog—keep it going!
DJM: Thanks!

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