Learn “Talco Girl,” Steve James’ Rootsy Character Study in Dropped-D Tuning

One of James' most popular tunes, “Talco Girl” is supported by a guitar accompaniment that would make a smart instrumental composition on its own.

Steve James was not just a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, encyclopedic in his knowledge of blues and roots guitar and mandolin styles, but an idiosyncratic songwriter and storyteller. Among other gems in his oeuvre, “Talco Girl” is one of James’ most popular tunes. This character study of a woman who returns to her Texas hometown after many years away is supported by a guitar accompaniment that would make a smart instrumental composition on its own. 

The transcription here is of James’ studio recording of “Talco Girl” heard on his 1994 album, American Primitive. On the surface, the song might seem like straightforward roots fare, but with closer inspection, quirky details reveal themselves at all levels. The verse is 15 measures long, rather than the expected 16; this lends a slippery structural feel, as what’s expected to be the last bar of each verse is instead the first bar of the subsequent repeat of the intro/interlude figure. In bars 23 and 31, an Am chord is substituted for its diatonic counterpart (A major), the addition of the open D string (the chord’s fourth) providing further harmonic color. 


“Talco Girl” is more difficult than it looks on paper, and it might take some slow practice to be able to play it at tempo. It will help to think ahead when it comes to fretting-hand fingerings. For instance, in bars 1, 3, 9, and 11, on beat 2, play the sixth-fret C# and E# with your third and fourth fingers, respectively, making your first finger available for the fifth-fret E on beat 3. 

To learn more excellent guitar moves from James himself, I highly recommend you check out his book/video sets Roots and Blues Fingerstyle Guitar and Roots and Blues Fingerstyle Guitar Explorations, both available at store.acousticguitar.com.

Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 47.

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 340

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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  1. Miss Steve but he lives on in the tunes I learned from him over the years and the 1939/40 Kalamazoo Orioles I picked up from him a few years ago. He really deserved more notoriety than what he received in life-an incredible musician/educator/teacher and unending source of musical trivia and knowledge