Garry Tallent figured it was finally time to step out of his comfort zone.
For most of the last 45 years, that zone, professionally speaking, has been on stage off to the side of Bruce Springsteen, where the bass player unobtrusively helps lay down the rhythm as the last remaining charter member of the E Street Band.
Even when the group was disbanded for most of the '90s, Tallent still stayed behind the scenes, working as a record producer and writing songs in Nashville, where he lives.
This year, however, the 66-year-old Tallent released his first solo album. "Break Time," on his own D'Ville Records label, finds the usually unassuming musician stepping up to play guitar and sing songs he wrote or co-wrote.
"I've always preferred to be in the background," Tallent says over the phone from New York, a day after a four-hour-plus Springsteen marathon last week at the Meadowlands. "I've never been comfortable in the spotlight ...
"I guess at the age I've gotten to, it became, 'Well, it's now or never.'
"I do write songs, and I enjoy that part of it. The hard part is the performing part, singing and all that. So it was time for me to get out of my comfort zone and just do it."
As it turns out, "Break Time" is a pure delight. Recording in Nashville with ace musician pals, as well as with guests such as Doug Kershaw and Duane Eddy, Tallent pays freewheeling tribute to the '50s sounds he grew up loving, from rockabilly to honky-tonk, Cajun to Chuck Berry. The knowing performances and the first-rate songs — from the rollicking "Ooh La La" and "Ants in Her Pants" to the twang-fueled and tempo-shifting "Stay Away" and the openhearted ballad "Promise to My Heart" — ooze the kind of personality and soul that color the original records that inspired him.
"I think anybody will admit that their favorite music is the first music they were introduced to," Tallent says. "As a child in the mid-'50s, I heard my first rock-and-roll record and just fell in love with it, and that love affair has never died."
For the Detroit-born Tallent, the various styles on the record also reflect his background.
"As a child, I didn't differentiate between genres," he says. "I just gravitated to the things that moved me. I grew up in the South for a while, and I gravitated toward mostly the rockabilly and Louisiana R&B. My first concert, I went with my mother, who was a big country fan, and we went to see Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys. So my first rock concert was not even a rock concert. And, yet, you think of that era of country stars, they had the flashy suits and the flashy guitars. That was my introduction to live music, and even though it wasn't rock 'n' roll, honky-tonk came real close ... .
"And the Cajun influence. I'm a big fan of Cajun music in general, and even the early rock stars from Louisiana, Frankie Ford and Jimmy Clanton. They had a sound in their voice that always appealed to me."
Speaking of voices: Tallent says he's "never been enamored" with his own, although on the album, he makes up with warmth and character what he might lack in technical proficiency.
"I was never a very confident lead singer, and I'm still not," he says. "But if you don't do it, you'll never be able to do it . The fact is, I actually enjoy it. It's just that I wish I had a better God-given voice, as it were. But, you know, you use what you have."
Tallent has a live show scheduled for Sept. 21 during AmericanaFest in Nashville. The expansion of the Springsteen tour this year derailed his plans to take "Break Time" on the road. Because he doesn't want to begin a tour in the winter, he says, he is instead working on selecting songs for his second album, which will focus on the '60s — "a garage-band kind of thing."
As for the E Street Band, when this tour ends Sept. 14, Springsteen will turn to promoting his autobiography, and then likely will release a solo album. So it's uncertain when, if ever, he will perform again with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group that has been back with him since 1999. But Tallent is ready to answer the call and pick up his bass again if and when the Boss calls.
"You never know," he says. "As long as it continues to work and feel good — and, honestly, it's never been better — why not?"