Near the end of The Road to Music City USA, a forty-five-minute documentary that accompanies Charley Crockett’s tenth full-length album, Music City USA, the fashionable Texas crooner lets us all in for a reflective moment. While Crockett’s cool, calm demeanor has always been welcoming and approachable, this revelation is brimming with vulnerability and candidness.
“I’m looking at it in this way, where it’s like, well maybe the reason that I got lucky is because I really stayed true to myself,” says an introspective Crockett. “You know, I’ll have ten records out by the end of this year. [They’ve] all been done my way.”
Coming off two successful open-heart surgeries two short years ago, Crockett’s gratitude for the present is resoundingly plentiful. Even when undoubtedly appreciative, Crockett knows that years of hard work and a touch of good luck are what have helped him become one of country music’s most promising breakout artists. Crockett’s meteoric rise isn’t an overnight success story. He has ten full-length albums—some 156 songs recorded in a six-year span—under his belt.
Before announcing Music City USA, Crockett’s 2021 was already shaping up to be a banner year. Back in February, he released 10 For Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand, his honky-tonk homage to the late James “Slim” Hand, a Texas Hill Country icon who quickly became one of Crockett’s guiding country stars. He taped his Austin City Limits TV debut during the summer and was part of a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit featuring fellow Rio Grande Valley native Freddy Fender.
Still, there’s no time quite like the present for Charley Crockett, hence the release of Music City USA, a sixteen-song Crockett highlight reel. Like they did for Welcome to Hard Times, Crockett and company once again returned to Soil of the South Productions in Valdosta, Georgia, to work with famed album producer Mark Neill (The Black Keys, Theo Lawrence).
Some of that East Texas rust and West Texas dust—a sentiment first expressed by legendary Texas songwriter Doug Sahm—is something Crockett undoubtedly has in spades. Like 2020’s Western epic Welcome to Hard Times, Music City USA finds Crockett traversing the grand open ranges of the West, but also in some sense returning to the robust and tender soundscape of home territory.
Often dubbed “Gulf and Western,” Crockett’s sound is a vibrant kaleidoscope that constantly morphs, shifts, and melds an assortment of country soul, cajun folk, stirring blues, effortless R&B, and a multitude of other American roots music as fresh as it is familiar. His range is rich and boundless and steeped in tradition.
Previous gems such as Lil G.L.’s Honky Tonk Jubilee, Lil G.L’s Blue Bonanza, and a string of one-off covers along the way show that Crockett’s a well-versed student of the past. Even here, the inclusion of the Henson Cargill classic “Skip a Rope” is a prime example of Crockett’s talent for delivering spot-on interpretations of the standards of yesterday and finding a modern nuance that still holds relevance. However, Crockett’s keen sense of history and reverence for the past are rarely, if ever, hindrances to his ability to forge his own path forward. He’s informed by his roots, but never constrained by them.
The standout “I Need Your Love” is a cinematic sway with a cool and breezy aura, despite being a desperate lover’s plea to return. “Many days I took for granted / How I wish I could turn back time / I can’t ask to move the mountain, so just give me the strength to climb,” sings Crockett. It’s plainspoken poetry at its finest, and demonstrates that uncomplicated lines can be just as heartfelt and potent as complex ones.
“Round This World” is a fervent, rollicking banjo number that revs the engines and picks up speed with every twist and turn. It hearkens back to Crockett’s years as a banjo-picking rambling man playing New York City subways and the bustling street corners of New Orleans.
Crockett effortlessly strolls through the countrypolitan-leaning “Lies and Regret” into the warm R&B waters of “I Won’t Cry,” before seamlessly wandering back through the swinging barroom doors of “Smoky.”
Sharp storytellers such as the opening “Honest Fight,” the earthy, idiom-rich “Muddy Water,” and the quippy, solid-country-gold tale “Music City USA” provide some of Crockett’s most revealing moments. He lets loose in “Honest Fight” with the bending cadence of “Where I come from, we live down Old Port Road / A place you wouldn’t know unless you knew.” Meanwhile, lines from “Music City USA” such as “I think I’ll ask you just one question / How would you like to pay my dues?” come with a winking nod and playful jab at the Nashville machine.
Still, perhaps Crockett’s greatest strength is his unapologetic vocal delivery, which consistently rings the bell. He creates tension and emotional swells on forlorn love ballads, swoons over jukebox tearjerkers like “518,” and broods on the sweltering strutter “This Foolish Game.”
Crockett doesn’t bog down Music City USA with mail-in performances or dilute it with rehashed ideas, old tricks, or bad habits. Rather, he continues to prove Charley Crockett still has something worth saying.