Troubadour Nikki Talley’s new record hits closer to home

ROAD TRIP: Years ago, a successful crowdfunding campaign called singer-songwriter Nikki Talley and her collaborator/husband Jason Sharp to live and tour full time in their van, Blue Belle. Now, with a growing family, the musicians plan to keep touring — but they recently held a Kickstarter to purchase a camper. Their new album, ‘Blue Eyed Girl,’ features a photo of their daughter on its cover. Photo by Derek Olson

Nikki Talley has a thing for singer-songwriter Greg Brown’s records: You can hear him inhale before he starts to sing. His guitar mic captures the sound of his fingers sliding along the strings. There’s something imperfect and unpolished about it, yet arrestingly intimate.

Though Talley’s live sets tend to be pumping with energy and charm, if you listen closely to any of her three albums, you can hear something at the heart of it all that might remind you of Greg Brown. However, none of her recordings have yet come as close to that level of intimacy as does her fourth, Blue Eyed Girl, which she will be celebrating at Isis Music Hall on Friday, Nov. 29.

The album starts with a fingerstyle walking rhythm, the aural equivalent of pulling on a sweater as you head outside. Talley is singing to a friend she hasn’t seen in a while, beckoning the person to come sit with her and “relive those good old days, nice and slow.” You hear a friend behind her, singing harmony as they repeat together, “nice and slow,” again and again, like a mantra.

“We’ve got property out in Transylvania County, about 30 minutes from [downtown Brevard],” she explains. “We had come off the road, and I was out there with my friend, and we were just kind of having a let-it-all-go-by kind of day, drinking some wine. We’ve got this little spring-fed fishpond, and [we were] just watching the clouds go by, realizing how crazy my life is. When I look back over my Instagram feed, if I get a chance to do it, I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, we’ve done some traveling.’”

Indeed, Talley has long been one of Western North Carolina’s hardest-working singer-songwriters. Though she says she and her husband, Jason Sharp, have paused now and then to “play house,” to the outside world it appears they’ve been traveling almost nonstop for decades.

“I’ve had so much freedom,” she says. “It’s just been me and Jay. Like, ‘Let’s go out to Joshua Tree for two weeks and just do some shows and hang out.’”

The couple spruced up a van and were living out of it, playing shows across the country and steadily building the kind of loyal following that can support a working artist on the road. Then they decided to take a little detour.

“Jay and I have been together for 20 years,” Talley explains. “And we thought, ‘We’ll get around to having that baby.’ And then I turned 40, and we were like, ‘Hey! We need to get around to having that baby.’”

Their daughter was born in 2017, and the couple toured with her in Florida when she was just 3 months old. The photo on the cover of Blue Eyed Girl features her at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico during another tour out west. And though Talley has pushed forward with touring determinedly, riding momentum she’s been building for years, she also recognizes that children necessarily require a change in routine.

No longer is the couple comfortable in their van — having their daughter on the road feels more manageable when they have room and creature comforts. So, having funded their last album on Kickstarter, they decided to launch another campaign to help them purchase a camper. “I’ve done three Kickstarter [campaigns],” Talley says, “and you just don’t know if you can go back to the well. Something’s got to give.”

But once the campaign was launched, Talley discovered there were new folks — from her years of touring — who hadn’t discovered her music in time to support previous records. And, as Talley set up the rewards that donors receive for giving to the campaign, she realized she had a new album, recorded in a loft at her house outside Brevard, that she’d been sitting on, waiting for the right way to release it.

Blue Eyed Girl is a departure from the polished, produced, full-band efforts that preceded it. There are no special guests or studio tricks. It’s just Talley and Sharp channeling Greg Brown, playing music the way you might hear if you wandered into their living room on any given afternoon. The title track is a tribute to their daughter, who burst in just as Talley was polishing off a take that felt perfect to her. And the cycle closes with an excellent cover of the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” — a nod at another family famous for making music together.

Sometimes, Talley says, “my head’s almost spinning too fast, and for some reason, it seems to move faster with a kiddo. But it’s all about relaxing and being reflective of all your crazy journeys.”

WHO: Nikky Talley & Jason Sharp
WHERE: Isis Music Hall lounge, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 29, 7 p.m. $15

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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