Certain details tend to get repeated over and over about Charley Crockett’s life: that the musician is a descendent of Davy, the complicated frontiersman; that he began his musical education in a Los Fresnos trailer park and advanced it while staying with an uncle in the French Quarter of New Orleans and busking; that he signed an ill-fated deal during his days performing on a subway platform; and that he grew very resourceful while subsisting outside the system and, at times, on the wrong side of the law. His life is a seemingly inexhaustible source of human interest material.
What often gets overlooked, though, is how Crockett’s long and winding journey to a somewhat more conventional music career has shaped so much about his approach to American roots music. He has a street performer’s openness to using all the tools available to him to grab a crowd’s attention, an itinerant’s healthy skepticism toward (and sly critique of) the promise of prosperity, and a self-aware savvy that updates the vintage styles in his repertoire.
On Welcome to Hard Times, his eighth official release—and first featuring the production touch of Mark Neill and songwriting contributions from Dan Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin—that’s out today, Crockett makes a beeline for the album’s central theme: wily survival in a socially, politically, and economically rigged system. On the face of it, there’s nothing especially new about the language and sounds he uses—for example, the bluesy, world-weary testimony, gambling metaphors, and sauntering, countrypolitan-style shuffle of the album-opening title track. In roots music, such fluency in older forms can register, above all, as the revival of a comfortably distant musical past. Here, Crockett accomplishes something else—conveying a contemporary outlook—by being fully present in his work and adopting a knowing, wryly stoic tone.
Texas Monthly spoke with the singing, songwriting guitarist about the sounds he makes.
Texas Monthly: You’ve packed quite a bit of album-making experience into just a few years. How does the process of making Welcome to Hard Times compare?
Charley Crockett: I played on the street for a long time, and I started recording myself because I felt like I couldn’t get a leg up, or the doors that I guess people usually walked through, maybe they weren’t available to me, or I just couldn’t find them. So I just started recording myself, and that’s the hard way of doing it. There was no quick gratification from going the way that I’ve gone.
Mark Neill called me up and said he wanted to make the new album with me, and he understood where I was coming from. I felt like the only reason that that had happened is because I’d made sure I had gone my own way. Something that I’ve learned over the years is if you don’t know what your sound is, what happens when you change producers? What happens is you sound like whoever’s producing you. Welcome to Hard Times, it was like taking everything I’d learned out there on the street and trial and error making records, and combining my experience with Mark’s. I ended up making a record that sounds like it fits right in the middle of everything that I’ve made before, but it’s like the best of all of it.
TM: In your version of trial and error, you’ve been figuring out how to showcase the different performing personas you take on, the different sides of your musicianship, honky-tonk, blues, or otherwise, from album to album. That seems like a pretty effective way to sharpen your skill set in the studio.
CC: I wouldn’t call myself a producer or anything like that, ’cause I don’t feel like I am. But very much like how I learned how to play music, or playing out of the guitar case on subway platforms and streets in New Orleans and standing on the side of the highway out in the West and playing in parks and doing everything that way, I’ve done a lot of things that people told me I couldn’t do. Like, “You can’t play guitar that way. That’s not the right way to play guitar. You shouldn’t sing like that. That’s not the proper way to sing. You can’t mix these sounds together. If you don’t play at this venue or get with this agent, you’ll never get where you’re trying to go.” All of those things that I was told the entire way, none of them turned out to be true. Maybe that’s the big secret. It’s not that everybody’s wrong—it’s that if you believe in what you’re doing, you’re probably right.
TM: How’d you develop your singing style?
CC: When you’re young, you imitate the people that you hear. You try to sound exactly like them. George Jones didn’t sound like George Jones when he started out; he sounded identical to Hank Williams. Same thing with Miles Davis. In the very beginning he played note for note exactly like Louis Armstrong. B.B. King was quoted in a Delta blues book. He was talking about how bluesicologists come down to Mississippi and they want to dissect the Delta and say, “Well, these boys over here sound like this because these reasons. We figured it out. And this is how they sound in Clarksdale, because of this. And they sound like this in Friars Point because of these things,” and so on. But B.B. King in that book says, “As a Delta boy, I’m here to tell you that I was flat-out copying Blind Lemon Jefferson off the radio. I was flat-out copying Lonnie Johnson off the radio.”
When I got out onto the street, there were several things that happened. Number one, I was imitating a lot of the blues and country sounds that I was hearing off of other street kids, not knowing who they were, then falling in love with these old recordings. But then the other thing that started happening is I played with brass bands in the street unamplified. So you start hollering. If you’re singing in a train car in New York City with fifty people in it, and it’s moving forty miles an hour, you know how loud those things are. You’re hollering over them. I became known for throwing away words or leaning on my lisp, in order to hit higher notes. Because it’s harder to hit notes when you’re loud. You lose control of your voice as you sing louder. But when you’re a street person, you have to sing loud to get people’s attention, especially if you are unamplified.
Once I made records, journalists and people started critiquing me for the “Black” sound that I was making, or the throwing away words or shaping them or leaning on my lisp…particularly in front of country music journalists, I was really ridiculed for that or criticized, people being like, “Man, this guy sounds like shit. Who cut the end of his tongue off?” That’s shaped how I sound now, because I’ve become more and more known for country music, and in country music, that lack of pronunciation is highly frowned upon. I don’t want to say I’m cleaning myself up, but a lot of what I’ve been doing is refining my street hustle in my pronunciation of words. I’ve worked hard at that. And as I’ve gotten into my thirties and off the street, I’ve been learning to sing down in my baritone register, which may be more natural for me.
TM: Between contemporary performers and vintage recordings, you really have taken in a generation-spanning assortment of singers.
CC: That eclectic sound that thrust Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie onto the national stage came from this way of traveling the countryside. If you stand out on the street and play all over America for ten years, and you’re not just a completely naive asshole, you’re going to absorb all the kinds of music that are out there. I know that I did, because I was playing alongside hip-hop folks a big part of the day, playing in and with jug bands, getting thrown off or some days getting lucky and holding my own on at blues clubs, in the evening, going back out into the street, maybe playing with a judge with a gypsy jazz group. I used to hitchhike and ride freight trains with fiddle players. I would hear gospel and really kind of every kind of music. The thing about playing in the street for real is there truly is a difference between somebody that has made their way earning money on the street and those who have it. I’m not necessarily saying that you can’t be good if you don’t play the street. A lot of people I know who are better than me never played the street. But there is something to the exposure to the wide platform of American music that is unavoidable by playing on the street. In Austin, they have called me a stylistic chameleon.
TM: Do you agree with that characterization, or find it dismissive?
CC: I agree with it, and it’s dismissive. They’re right, and I don’t like it. [laughs] People often describe me in this way of comparing me to animals, you know, a lizard, or somebody with such an eclectic background that it’s only forgivable because I’m able to bring it together. Like, why do I need to be forgiven? I don’t understand.
… I’ve built a following, especially for my live show, that’s based around that eclectic sound where I have a full band kind of acoustic thing that’s more country and folk, and then I have like an electric set that’s more R&B boogie and electric blues. And then I have a solo section, and then we do even a bluegrass section around one mic. These are the things that to some people looking at me at first kind of maybe is off-putting, because it’s like, “Damn, he’s all over the place.” But if those people were able to see a snapshot into what I was exposed to as a young man on the street, it would make a lot of sense. I’m still just trying to refine that into a record that could be acceptable to a more general audience.
TM: What headspace were you in when you wrote and collected songs for Welcome to Hard Times?
CC: I had two heart surgeries at the beginning of last year. One of them was an open heart for a congenital heart defect that I didn’t know I had, and the other one was something that I was born with that I knew I had that had to get taken care of first. I got through that, and then it was really difficult, just the mental recovery. I changed up a lot of the things in my life after the heart surgery, and just saw a lot of things for what they were. That was kind of the biggest blessing about it, was I was able to see some stuff real clearly that I was a little bit blind to before. I didn’t realize that my heart was dying because I was playing 207 shows a year. I thought I was just tired from the grind, from the hustle. We as Americans, I think, tend to ignore pain because of the grind, or ignore suffering because we’re taught to work so hard, and I just didn’t see it. And then I did and I got through it and I was damn grateful to wake up on the other side of it. But I had been struck by a new level of sadness that would get me every once in a while, that I had never known in my life.
I wrote all that record in November. I watched a lot of classic films. I love the Western genre for the things it says that it doesn’t know it’s saying about society. I watched a film that Henry Fonda starred in in ’67 called Welcome to Hard Times. It’s the sheriff of this boomtown that has died because the mine in these mountains is tapped out. So the town is broken down, and you have these classic archetypes. There’s this wild-man, evil character that dominates this town, that comes and goes when he pleases. His abuse in total domination and oppressing this town is complete. He has absolute power over this town. It’s beaten Henry Fonda’s character into a spineless, boneless kind of sheriff that doesn’t stand up for shit, because he’s just trying to make it. By the end of the film, he has to overcome this bad man that he doesn’t want to deal with.
I just liked the title and I liked the film and it stuck with me. I talk about this in so many songs: the dice are loaded or life is hard and all I can do is play my cards. That is how I feel about America. The joke isn’t that you’re in a casino. The joke is on you, that you don’t realize you’re in a damn casino, and that’s America.
TM: A couple of songs on the album, “The Poplar Tree” and “Blackjack County Chain,” tell dramatic stories of people encountering systems that don’t value their lives. You just wrote the former song, but the latter’s been around since the late sixties, when Charley Pride considered recording it but decided it was too controversial. What sort of contemporary resonances do you feel those tales have?
CC: “Blackjack County Chain,” see, Willie Nelson did cut it and it was a top twenty hit for him, and then as it was climbing the charts, they banned it. I can’t speak for Charley Pride, but my guess is that as a Black man in 1968, the idea of selling a song to a white audience in country music about killing a sheriff, even though the sheriff is enslaving you, was something that I think he would have feared for his safety and feared for his career over that. I like “Blackjack County Chain” for the way that the man on the side of the road, who was enslaved for nothing besides being a vagrant, he overcame it. That’s the thing about it. It is a dark song, but he won. He lived.
“The Poplar Tree,” I wrote that one. I worked in these ganja farms deep in the mountains of Northern California. I saw financial freedom through ganja as my way. In exchange for working for the farmer the entire season, four of us were given our own garden to split six plants each. But we had to carve that garden out of rock on the side of the mountain. Hollowing out the holes with a pickax was really difficult. It took forever. In the middle of the season, with the plants growing, the government came in and raided that land. I remember going up in that garden and sitting down in the middle of it and being so angry and so sad and so lost and looking around and being like, “Man, what use was all the work I just put into this damn garden, if this is where it was going to lead?”
I guess that’s what “The Poplar Tree” is: if that’s your end, for all those rivers that you cross, all those valleys that you endure, all of the encounters of the love that you had and that you lost, and the gunfights and you seeing young people getting killed that don’t deserve to get killed, and you fight the good fight and then you end up yourself under the noose, does it mean that everything you did was for nothing? When the song starts out, you don’t realize what’s happening. You realize that he’s been hung from the poplar tree at the end of the song, that he’s speaking from the grave.
I wrote all this stuff last year. It didn’t have anything to do with 2020. I didn’t need the social media movement of 2020 to tell me what was going on in America. But I’m glad that it’s happening and it’s an amazing awakening. The younger generations need this to have any kind of control over our own destiny, rather than it being decided by people on their way out. I think we’re tired of that. I think young people are correct to rage against that. I think we’d better, or we’re going to be in a lot more trouble than we are now.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.