Charley Crockett may well be the current generation’s single greatest champion of real-deal, gut-punch country music. An Austin-based singer-songwriter who honed his chops as a hitchhiking busker on the streets of Dallas, New Orleans, and New York, Crockett is a serious student of the old school—think sawdust floors, slip-note piano, and weeping steel guitar: precisely the world Willie inhabited in the sixties.
On the strength of his 2020 album Welcome to Hard Times, Crockett won last year’s Emerging Act of the Year award from the Americana Music Association, an honor given previously to artists such as Tyler Childers, Margo Price, and Sturgill Simpson—which he followed up this year with a slot on Willie’s Outlaw Music Festival Tour and his own headlining campaign in support of a new album out in September, The Man From Waco.
(Read a transcript of this episode below.)
On this second installment of One by Willie’s special Live From Luck! miniseason, Crockett reaches deep into Willie’s catalog to discuss his little-known 1961 recording of “Face of a Fighter.” It’s another of Willie’s famous old Pamper demos, a barroom weeper Willie never did cut for a proper album, but one Crockett considers so strong that had it been composed by just about any other country artist, it would have been the best song they ever wrote. From there, he describes the Willie songs that kept him company when he lived on the streets and a long-ago traffic stop by a Virginia state trooper that went wildly awry.
We’ve created an Apple Music playlist for this series that we’ll add to with each episode we publish. And if you like the show, please subscribe and drop us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
One by Willie is produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, with production by Isabella Van Trease and Patrick Michels. The show is produced by Megan Creydt. Graphic design is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.
John Spong (voice-over): Hey there, I’m John Spong with Texas Monthly magazine, and this is One by Willie, a podcast in which I talk each week to one notable Willie Nelson fan about one Willie song that they really love. The show is brought to you by Boot Barn.
This week, another installment in our special, four-episode miniseason of the podcast, that we are calling One by Willie: Live From Luck! That’s right—these are interviews taped this past March at Willie’s ranch–slash–golf course–slash–Old West town with four artists who’d come to play his annual Luck Reunion, and that we recorded in an old Boles Aero camper-trailer that Willie’s great-nephew, Joe, tricked out just for these conversations and parked about a hundred yards from the main stage. And if, by chance, you are having a hard time picturing how cool that was, you need to get to the next big show in Luck and check it out for yourself.
This week, Americana singer-songwriter Charley Crockett—who may well be the current generation’s single greatest champion of real-deal, old-school, gut-punch country music—talks about another of Willie’s old Pamper demos, “Face of a Fighter.” It’s a fairly forgotten weeper that Willie cut for his publishing company in 1961 and then, for whatever reason, never did get around to recording for a proper album. But as Charley opines, it’s a song so strong that if just about any other country artist had come up with it, it would have been the best song they ever wrote. From there, he’ll get into the Willie songs he used to listen to when he was a homeless guitar picker playing subway platforms in New York City, and the truly wonderful way that Willie’s music almost—not quite, but almost—helped him avoid a marijuana bust a few years later.
Let’s do it.
[Willie Nelson singing “Face of a Fighter”]
John Spong: You said you wanted to talk about the Willie song “Face of a Fighter.” A lot of people probably don’t even know that song. What is “Face of a Fighter”? And what’s so cool about it?
Charley Crockett: “Face of a Fighter” is one of those forgotten Willie Nelson songs that, you know, in my opinion, he had too many good songs, so they couldn’t all be hits. And especially before he broke through in the seventies as a front man, or you know, he had commercial success, went to a broad American audience, he wrote so many great songs that, I mean, really, he was always going against the current when it comes to country music. I just think he was ahead of his time, vocally, and as a performer, just both of those things. I think he was just ahead of his time—took America a long time to catch up, with him being the actual, you know, the singer. And so many of those songs, like “Face of a Fighter,” to me, would be the best song another artist would ever come up with. And I had a hard time thinking of all the ones I wanted to bring to you guys that nobody had mentioned. But I picked “Face of a Fighter” because I actually had one of the—it’s like a European kind of bootleg, Exact Records. You know all those?
John Spong: I know some of those companies. And when someone brings up one I haven’t, I’m like, “Well, yeah, there’s a lot. And it’s obscure, isn’t it?”
Charley Crockett: Yeah. Well, and—
John Spong: Exact.
Charley Crockett: Yeah. I don’t think those came out on—I don’t think “Face of a Fighter” ever appeared on an LP, or that got pushed by a label. At the time it wasn’t on Liberty, none of the RCA stuff. And I heard it through . . . I just buy, especially if I see vinyl of his—it’s all repackaged stuff, but if it’s that early sixties stuff, I always buy it. And a lot of those might even have outlaw, bandanna-wearing Willie Nelson . . .
John Spong: Willie on the cover.
Charley Crockett: . . . on the cover. And it’ll be a lot of his earliest recordings. “Everything but You.” He has “Blame It on the Times.” All of these songs, I believe, would be hits for other artists. I think they could be hits right now. And “Face of a Fighter,” to me, it reminds me—I just picture Willie Nelson driving down a highway in the middle of the night in Houston, Texas, coming up with “Face of a Fighter,” right alongside “Night Life.” I think it’s that good. “Mine is the face of a fighter . . . My heart has just lost the fight.” There’s just something that he captured in, I don’t know, the way that it could be so devastatingly sad, but the way he delivered it made it, I don’t know, almost, it’s comforting. “Face of a Fighter,” to me, is a very sad song that is delivered in a way that it comforts you in your sadness, in a way that nobody else ever achieved that in country music—not quite.
John Spong: I say, let’s spin it.
[Willie Nelson singing “Face of a Fighter”]
John Spong: What’s that do to you?
Charley Crockett: Reminds me of why I sing and write country music. Puts me in . . . tells me that everything I’ve been doing to get this far, you know, puts my mind at ease about doing it. I feel like I’m chasing Willie down that same late-night Houston, Texas, freeway.
John Spong: There you go.
Charley Crockett: You know what I mean? I want to stay on that freeway.
John Spong: Well, that’s it. This is kinda the golden era of country songwriting, which I think of, at least, as the early sixties and, you know, right after Harlan Howard, and Hank Cochran, and Willie, and Roger Miller, and Mel Tillis, and those people get there. When people talk about you, for whatever reason, when I read about it, they always want to compare you to the late sixties, early seventies, which is a slightly different time and different sound. But, lyrically, you’re this. Because for me, like when I look at this, when I look at an old Willie song, or any song that I dig, I guess, from that period, where did it start with? And this started—they usually start with a line or a metaphor. And the line you just quoted, you know: “Mine is the face of a fighter / But my heart has just lost the fight.” You know this song started with that line. And he said, “Oh, we’re going to turn the whole thing into a fight metaphor.” And so you have “round one,” and you have “my heart.” What does he say? “I fought for your love with all my might.” That’s a song that shows up in a hundred songs, I’m sure. But here, it’s got that extra thing, with the old-school country metaphor. It’s interesting—with Willie songs, there’s others that have more thought. I don’t want to say deeper thought, but they might have a little more going on. This is pretty basic. Sixty-one, he had just got there. He’s just doing it.
Charley Crockett: I mean, I’ve heard him say in movies that if you can get the point across without saying anything, do that. And I would argue that it’d be awful hard to paint a picture of the idea in this song better than this. And you know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of Bob Dylan. It reminds me of the way that Dylan took a song like “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and used the culture around boxing, and attached all these metaphors to larger American society and a lot of the issues within the country. This reminds me of that, but it’s more universal. He’s singing about love, and that’s the one thing that everybody listening can relate to. Because, maybe not—I love songs that are making points about culture and society. But those points don’t always come across. And this is, to me—I like songs like this, whether it’s Willie Nelson or Bill Withers, where I can put everything that I’m going through, maybe the really deep stuff in the dark corners, that maybe I’m going to get misunderstood for, I can pour it into those simple lines. And that says it all. And my girl, Taylor Grace, has said this a lot about him. The phrasing on a song like this reminds me of—she said this, and I agree—Dinah Washington. You know, that type of jazz phrasing. I mean, the Ray Charles comparisons are there, and we know that the Sinatra and Ray Price and all these people, you can hear those influences. But his unusual and amazing—I mean, nobody in country music ever phrased like that, in that era, period. Not before that and not since. It reminds me so much of Dinah Washington. And she also was a firebrand that was, what’s the word? Incomparable.
John Spong: Yeah. Well, it’s funny, ’cause a lot of the people that come on here to talk about Willie with us have sung with him. But to be more accurate, I would have to say, tried to sing with him, because they even talk about, like, “Jesus Christ, that’s impossible.”
Charley Crockett: Yeah. You can’t phrase with him. You can sit there and practice all year, and you can’t phrase with him. And that, to me, is an achievement. And then, of course, when he gets in the seventies, and a lot of the songs that he’s singing are a lot easier to sing along to. But you’d be mistaken in thinking that just because those are easier to sing along to, that you can write those or you can do it like that, because he’s carrying all of these songs all the way there with him. And the reason that everybody always wants to talk about the late sixties and the seventies is because that’s the era that everybody’s aware of.
John Spong: Right. That’s him breaking.
Charley Crockett: That’s him, and a lot of people. That’s country music going mainstream in a way that it never had before. So Willie, and Waylon, and the boys . . . I’m a huge fan of all of that material, especially Willie’s stuff. And he was saying on Shotgun Willie, the first record he cut at Atlantic, right?
John Spong: Yeah.
Charley Crockett: He later described recording that record as him clearing his throat. And you can see that. It’s like Willie’s got his hands on the wheel at that point, and he’s starting to drive to this place where he changed the face of American music. But I always tell people that are always talking about all this type of stuff, I’m like, “There’s no sense in asking Willie Nelson what size boot he wears,” because you can’t fit the shoe if you haven’t paid the dues. And so Red Headed Stranger, and Shotgun Willie, and Phases and Stages, and Yesterday’s Wine, and Stardust, and all that stuff, you know, you’re hearing—he’s singing through the face of a fighter. He’s the guy that wrote all those songs, man. And he was ahead of his time. Dylan said that. Dylan said when he first got signed to the publishing deal—I can’t remember which one of those old-timers it was that said it to him, but they said, “If you’re any good, you’re probably going to be three to five years ahead of the public. And that’s yet to be seen with you, young man.” And then, of course, Dylan was absolutely ahead of his time.
John Spong: He went on ahead and hit.
Charley Crockett: And so did Willie. And Willie’s so interesting because Willie was writing some of the greatest songs that would become American standards right from the beginning, in terms of when he shows up in Nashville. And that’s a testament to how hard he played the Texas circuit—the Texas beer joint, the Texas dance hall.
[Willie Nelson singing “Face of a Fighter”]
John Spong: Well, so, I forget exactly what you said a second ago, but you were talking about life being hard and needing music like this. I know this much about your biography. What Willie do you listen to when you’re living on the street, supporting yourself, playing the guitar in a subway station?
Charley Crockett: On the street, man, I was listening to so much. I was just living so hand in mouth. It was so many different sounds. I had a Greatest Hits . . . one of his random greatest-hits compilation CDs. And I had, at that time, in terms of dealing with Willie, I was in a bad way with the law. I got in a lot of trouble transitioning out of street life, trying to make it onto a stage, and be electrified, and be taken seriously. And I really, at that time, when it comes to Willie, I was really gravitating towards two songs, “Me and Paul,” and “Bloody Mary Morning.” And actually, I got in a lot of trouble in Virginia.
John Spong: [Laughs] Sorry, I shouldn’t be laughing.
Charley Crockett: Oh, no. It’s all right.
John Spong: Well, I should let you finish before I laugh. This might not be funny at all.
Charley Crockett: I was listening to that great—I was driving through southwest Virginia, and I was listening to that Greatest Hits compilation. And I was listening to “Bloody Mary Morning” when I got pulled over by this state police officer. And when they pulled me out of the car, and they busted me, and they found all this stuff on me I shouldn’t have had, and I knew I was going to jail, right before they busted this suitcase open that, you know, I knew I was done, they were making fun of me, these cops. They were making fun of me because they knew they had me, and they saw how nervous I was. And we were on the back side of this little car on the side of the freeway—it was off of 81, but on like a exit ramp—and they were like . . . and I was just doing my best. I was telling them, “I’m a country music performer. I’m on my way to a show. I got to make this show, man.” They said, “Well, you don’t even have a driver’s license. You ain’t taking this car nowhere.” And I said, “Okay.” And I had a Telecaster, that I’d bought off a guy on the street in New York City several years prior, in its case. And they were like, “Yeah, boy, you’re a country music singer. I’ll bet you are. Why don’t you play something for us right now.” And I swear on my mother’s soul—and she’s the best person in this country, greatest person I know. So I swear on her soul this is true. I pulled out that guitar, nervous as hell, and the only song that I could think to play, that, I swear to God, was “The Party’s Over,” man. I could not think of anything. [singing] “Turn out the lights / The party’s over / They say all / Good things must end.”
[Willie Nelson singing “The Party’s Over”]
Charley Crockett: And they were like, “Hey, that’s a really fitting song, boy.” And then that dude busted the suitcase open, and, you know, a bunch of medicinal plants in there—and that really happened. But there was nobody but those state policemen there to witness that that happened. So I had that damn Greatest Hits CD in the passenger seat, and the only song I could play on my Telecaster was “Party’s Over.”
John Spong: Holy s—.
Charley Crockett: Yeah. I’ll have to tell Willie that one myself. I’ve been waiting a long time to tell him that one.
John Spong: Find him tonight. That’s good.
[Willie Nelson singing “The Party’s Over”]
John Spong: For you, because you’re my new best friend, what I have for you is—so this is one of the famous Pamper demos, “Face of a Fighter” is. And the deal was, when Willie gets there, Hank Cochran hears him singing—it’s all that famous stuff . . . you know, they’re at Tootsie’s, or wherever it is, and Willie plays a couple songs, and Hank says—
Charley Crockett: Yeah, and how he got hooked up with them . . .
John Spong: Yeah. “You got to come with us.” And when Pamper Music, which was owned by Ray Price and a dude named Hal Smith—and this is better if you want to tell the story. If it’s stuff you know, stop me.
Charley Crockett: No, I didn’t really know that. Yeah.
John Spong: Well, so what they did is, Hank—they don’t have money to hire another writer. And Hank’s supposed to be due for a fifty-dollar-a-week raise. And so he says, “Give my fifty dollars to this kid, Willie. He’s good.” So that’s how Willie gets the job. And he goes to work making these demos. And one of the things that’s so special about these demos is that everybody in Nashville loved Willie. So it’s not some slackers playing with him. On this, I’m almost sure that’s Pig Robbins on piano, Jimmy Day on steel. Probably Bob Moore on bass. I mean, this is, that’s the A Team.
Charley Crockett: I always hear all these people always telling me that they were purposely made as demos so they could be picked apart. And I just never heard it that way. But I always thought that every . . . Are we talking about Liberty?
John Spong: Well, this is before. I don’t think he was signed to anybody.
Charley Crockett: Before Liberty. He’s just saying it’s just the Pamper demos. He’s not on label or anything. Just the publishing demos.
John Spong: This is just to get the songs in front of people—
Charley Crockett: Yeah, but it’s amazing how—
John Spong: —for them to record. Yeah.
Charley Crockett: —that’s my favorite stuff. I like the way that it’s recorded.
John Spong: Yeah. It’s great. And the thing is, a lot of times, if you’re just a songwriter, you will get a singer to do your demo for you. Especially if it’s a song that you think will work for a female singer, and you’re a dude that wrote it, and you get a female to sing it. Willie does his own demos that way. And that’s one other reason that they’re so great. So what happens is, they sit, and they sit, and in 1970, Willie’s house burns down, famously—the pig farm in Ridgetop. And the next day, or a couple days later, his dad is going through the ruins, and in the basement, finds these four canisters of tapes. It’s twenty-two songs. And Willie’s career happens. And his dad, Ira, took the tapes home and . . . Willie breaks. As you said, he clears his throat with Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages. Red Headed Stranger makes him a big star. Suddenly he is marketable in a way he never has been. He’s like, “Let’s get those Pamper demos out in the world.” And so they put twenty of them on a record that was released just in Texas. It was called Willie Nelson: 1961. And that came out in ’77. And then they said, “Let’s put a smaller—instead of a double-record set, let’s put out some more.” And so they put it out on a record called Face of a Fighter that Mercury distributed. Nobody bought it, you know. You can probably find it at Goodwills and stuff now. Or you can find the way you did, because of course this stuff just lived on and on. There’s about eighty or ninety Pamper demos, total.
Charley Crockett: Yeah. I mean, it’s really crazy how many different ways they’ve cut it up and packaged it.
John Spong: And that’s the thing. Somebody comes to Willie and says, “Hey man, you got anything? Here’s twenty-thousand dollars.” He goes, “Yeah, here, take these.” And so that’s the way it kept going. But, so those songs are out there, and they’ve got this mythical story behind them—I mean, it’s all rescued out of the fire by Willie’s dad. There needs to be . . . as great as your covers albums have been—like, the Slim Hand one is so great—Charley Crockett Does the Pamper Demos: that’s a pretty cool idea.
Charley Crockett: Well, I want to do it. I just don’t want to hack through it.
John Spong: True.
Charley Crockett: You know what I mean? My girl’s like, “Well, you ought to try to do the And Then I Wrote album, and I’m like, “Man, that stuff’s untouchable.” I believe that it’s untouchable. I really, truly believe that. You know, it’s like that song—so what do you know about that tune “Opportunity to Cry”?
John Spong: Next to nothing. I first heard it when he did it on that—
Charley Crockett: The Panther Hall?
John Spong: —duet album. I first heard it on the Merle Haggard duet album. I’m from the eighties. So I heard it when that album was on the radio, and then went back later, and found Panther Hall. Bruce Robison, who manages you—? Or is just a buddy?
Charley Crockett: Yeah.
John Spong: Yeah, Bruce. All of us who are friends with Bruce learned about a s— ton of music by being friends with Bruce. And the first big find—well, the first one was, he said, “I know you like Red Headed Stranger. Work your way back. Phases and Stages and Shotgun Willie. That’s a three-record thing happening at once, right there.”
Charley Crockett: He’s right.
John Spong: And he’s right. And Panther Hall Ballroom was one. We had T Bone Burnett on the show, and he had been in the crowd that night. And he picked a song off that album. And that was pretty cool. But you’re talking “Opportunity to Cry.” Make me stop.
Charley Crockett: Well, the reason I was is that I’ve got that LP, actually. I found it. I’d been looking for an original copy of that Panther Hall live record. And I found it in downtown San Angelo, and I’ve got that thing, and I carry it around with me. It’s like a Bible. And it’s a medley he does right there with “Opportunity to Cry.” And it fits into this era of his writing. But he was always there. He’s always . . . what’s that word? It’s so visual, his writing. This is so visual. “Face of a Fighter” is so visual. You know, it’s that Hank Williams thing. It’s like you don’t have to write these crazy, complex lyrical songs to change the direction of music. You just have to really make people believe and feel it. And “Opportunity to Cry” is one of those, and I love how informal it is. And I love the sound of that Cowtown audience.
John Spong: Yeah. And you can hear the beer sloshing around, and you can hear one girl—
Charley Crockett: Women yelling. And yeah, yeah. You hear it. And I mean . . . it’s not the good life; it’s our life. And I live in that sound.
[Willie Nelson singing “Opportunity to Cry”]
John Spong: Is this your first time out to Luck?
Charley Crockett: My first time playing it. They invited . . . Scott Marsh invited me out here in 2016, and they didn’t have no spots for me, because it was last minute. But he invited me as a guest. And that was my first . . . that was my only time seeing—that’s the only time in my life I’ve seen Willie play—
John Spong: Really?
Charley Crockett: —was in 2016. And I got to stand over in that side area and watch him. And so, this is my first . . . well, I did the Fourth of July Picnic, but it was in the middle of the pandemic. And so it was all livestream. There was no one here. It was strange.
John Spong: Y’all did a great job. But no, that wasn’t the same thing.
Charley Crockett: No, it was a really strange situation. So this is my first real Luck, you know.
John Spong: Wow. Well, it’s cool, ’cause, I mean, if that was the first time you saw Willie, was here . . . this is his yard. And so, you’ve seen him that first time, here, in his yard, at his home. That would be a great first way to do it.
Charley Crockett: Well, I’m late to everything. I’m damn sure always late to the party, you know—coming up digging a hole up through the basement. But Willie’s been real good to me this year, in a lot of ways that I just could never expected him, getting to play a lot with him this year.
John Spong: Really?
Charley Crockett: Yeah. He’s put me on a lot of shows with him, and I would have never thought that’d be possible.
John Spong: And you’re a kid. You’re in your thirties?
Charley Crockett: Yeah. If turning thirty-eight next week is a kid, then I guess I am. Yeah.
John Spong: Sorry. You’re a kid.
Charley Crockett: You got the right to say it.
John Spong: Screw off. You’re a kid. But no: he’s helping you out, and you feel that much, that he can still matter that much. Not just because you’re listening to the music and it’s inspirational, but that he can be helpful with you in your career, at this stage in his life, and at this stage in yours? That’s pretty cool. It’s a hand up from a hero.
Charley Crockett: Big time, man. I mean, I probably got fifty Willie Nelson records. I mean, I buy every one I can find. And it could—because, like you’re saying, and I appreciate you educating me on some of that Pamper stuff. I was wondering how many of those there were, because I always feel like I’m finding one more. And I just think that most of that material—most of that material could have charted in the right situation, with the right artists, at that time. Not just the handful that he’s known for. I mean, that other one, “Everything but You,” [singing] “I’ve got everything, everything but you.” That’s what it is. [singing] “And they say that I’m a man who’s got everything / I’ve got everything, everything but you.”
John Spong: I would segue right into it, but we have to wrap up.
Charley Crockett: Good.
John Spong: You want to listen to that on the way out?
Charley Crockett: Yeah. Can we?
John Spong: Yeah. Hell yeah, we can.
Charley Crockett: You got it right there?
[Willie Nelson singing “Everything But You”]
Charley Crockett: Listen to that piano. This is a hell of a song.
John Spong: Oh, s—.
John: I’m sure they’re done, and you have to get out of here, but the thing that gets me, it’s something you said—
Charley Crockett: Nobody can sing like that. I dare them to try.
John Spong: All right, go do your thing. Enjoy your festival. And this was a lot of fun. I cannot wait to hear you tonight—this afternoon.
Charley Crockett: Man, the pleasure belongs to me. Yeah.
John Spong: Yeah.
Charley Crockett: I play at six-something.
John Spong: Cool.
[Willie Nelson singing “Face of a Fighter”]
John Spong (voice-over): All right, Willie fans. That was Charley Crockett, talking about “Face of a Fighter.” A huge thanks to him for coming on the show; a big thanks to our sponsor, Boot Barn; and a big thanks to you for tuning in. If you dig the show, please subscribe, maybe tell a couple friends, and visit our page at Apple Podcasts and give us some stars. Oh, and please also check out our One by Willie playlist at Apple Music.
So tune back in in two weeks to hear Brooklyn-based songwriter and virtuoso guitar player Steve Gunn talk about his favorite song on Red Headed Stranger, “Hands on the Wheel.” That’s on One by Willie: Live From Luck! We’ll see y’all in a couple weeks.