The Talleys: Singing through the struggle

Talleys. photos for keeps by erin stevens

Personable is a word that relates to the Talleys. With many fan awards and nominations, receiving a Dove Award for Southern Gospel Song of the Year in 2015 with their hit, “Hidden Heroes,” releasing multiple well-known CD projects, releasing a fan favorite song and music video for their song, “People in the Line,” and many more achievements, the Talleys have lots to discuss. Yet, what is one to do when their talking is cut short? What happens when the voice you’ve used with such talent for so long is now unrecognizable?

For the past five years, Debra Talley has struggled with a condition called muscle dysphonia. It is a common condition that can affect someone greatly. Muscle dysphonia is a condition that affects the vocal chords and cartilages connecting the chords. This condition is when a strain is placed on the vocal cord muscle area in such excessive amounts that can result in vocal fatigue, neck discomfort, altered vocal ability and quality, and complete loss of voice. The past two to three years have been the hardest on Debra and her singing abilities. She described her singing struggle as her “increasing scale being stuck.” When the struggle began, it was a matter she kept private, but just recently she has realized it was a struggle she was meant to share.

Debra Talley
Debra Talley

Debra has been treated and seen at multiple facilities, including Vanderbilt. Her most recent interaction has been with an outstanding Christian doctor by the name of Dr. Tom Cleveland.  We as Christians know that God works in mysterious ways. It just so happened that Dr. Cleveland became Debra’s doctor and has a background of music ministry. He not only became her doctor, but another voice of reason for her.  

It was soon after the struggle began that Debra realized this was more of a spiritual struggle than a physical struggle. When nothing was helping and the problem with her voice persisted, Debra’s daughter Lauren began explaining to her that it was time to “accept what is.” Debra then began to work on herself, as well as her relationship with Christ. Her first step was beginning Christian counseling. This would be the place where she would soon learn that her personal struggle may have been caused by emotions she has kept in for so long.

Debra soon realized it was time to deal with those emotions. Emotions from home life struggles to a 10-year-long struggle with her husband Roger’s parents declining rapidly, all the way to the prayer requests she was receiving from the people they were interacting with through their music and concerts. All of these served as triggers that, as they increased, made Debra’s muscle dysphonia condition worse.

“What was affecting my voice was what was going on in the inside of me,” Debra says.

Lauren and Debra Talley
Lauren and Debra Talley

Since she was young, she has felt she has always been a fixer. When someone is struggling, Debra takes those things to heart and wants to fix anyone and everyone’s situations. People feel comfortable bringing their prayer requests to her, and she would instantly feel so burdened for people that she herself became disheartened when she couldn’t find their answer. During this process, her counselor gave her exercises, like journaling, to perform in order to regain her strength. Another great exercise she found was finding triggers. This resulted in a solution that all Christians can greatly benefit from. When approached by someone with a need, pray with them right then, but then give it to God completely. Realize that you were called to this moment for a purpose, so you must do what He is asking and then let Him have it.

Her advice from her counselor has also resulted in a routine that Debra has now adopted as the way she ends a performance.

“When I get back on the bus, I close the door behind me and I stand back and see that closed door as a message that I came and did what God would have me do, and then I know I am done there,” explains Debra. “I’m realizing it’s a way of managing my emotions and that Jesus carries all the weight that I can’t. This process has given me a voice when I felt like I didn’t have one.”

Through this journey, the Talleys have all had to make adjustments. There were parts Debra physically couldn’t sing anymore and so the group had to switch some things up. In the eyes of Debra Talley, this struggle has been a whole new outlook on surrender. Debra surrendered her heart to Jesus when she was just nine years old, and at the young age of 19, she surrendered her life to music ministry.  

“Surrender is not just today or tomorrow, but it’s everything, even if that means my voice,” Debra points out. “When I said yes to God to do His will, He let me get in on what He’s doing, and it was for my benefit. If God gets more glory from my voice this way, then I need to accept that.”  

The Talleys
The Talleys. photo by Craig Harris

With a career like music ministry, answering the call means being an encourager for those around you. Debra explained that she feels like she wants to “spill her guts out” when she takes the stage because everyone is looking for encouragement. There have also been times she asked God why He put this in her path. However, she has quickly realized that no experience is wasted and that we as Christians will never arrive … we just keep learning. Debra explained that she is still learning that God is truly in control of everything.

Debra realizes that just because we are Christians, it doesn’t mean we won’t face problems. This journey has included learning lessons for the Talleys, but it still hasn’t been easy.  Debra remembers when she was given the song “I Need You More” by Bill Gaither.  

“It was written to the tune of ‘Love Me Tender,’ and I remember listening to the words and not wanting to sing or record it,” Debra shares. “I didn’t like the way my voice sounded recording it, and I had a hard time with it because I was struggling very badly at that time. But then, it was like God was wanting me to say, ‘I need my voice, but I need Him more.’  I have realized that every time we take the stage, I need Him more each time.”

The Talleys
Photo by Craig Harris

Debra explains that empathy isn’t a bad thing, but it can paralyze you. We must acknowledge our problems, and then move on from them. Debra is now in a place where she is okay if her voice doesn’t get any better because she’s not out to impress people but to bring God glory instead.

The Talleys have been singing together as a family for almost 21 years. Debra and her husband Roger have been singing together for 44 years. The Talleys feel their accomplishments during these years is God saying, “People are listening, and I am working through these things.”

“I wouldn’t tell the world anything about the Talleys,” Debra says. “I would tell them that God is everything you will ever need. He’s everything I’ll ever need and that I’ll ever want.  Whatever your struggle is, reach out for help.”

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By Sarah Murray

First published by SGNScoops Magazine in June 2017.

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