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Interview with Charley Crockett: “If you don’t know anything, you probably won’t write a great song”

I nearly fell out of the cab I was in – I had what we call a breakup!” laughs Charley Crockett, reminiscing about the day Willie Nelson casually FaceTimed the aspiring Texas singer-songwriter, um to congratulate him on his success. “He told me that he was proud of me and that he was careful. I can handle almost anything, but it was one of the coolest things that’s ever happened.”

That such a titan of classic country crockett is signing comes as no surprise. Crockett’s swinging “Gulf and Western” music—named for the stretch of southern United States coastline that stretches through Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas—is as down-to-earth as the sound Nelson has spent the last 60 years perfecting. Drawing on traditional hillbilly mountain music, vintage soul and R&B, Crockett’s old-school country music twang – as well as his supremely elegant dress sense – evokes another era and regularly includes faithful but flair-filled covers of Originals from the fifties and sixties.

The fact that Crockett comes off as a one-man homage to an iconic cowboy show rawhide — all fringed suede jackets and red-blooded Clint Eastwood-style poses — seem to be quite a niche. But in 2020, the buckskin blues are on Welcome to hard times managed to turn the former street musician into a star.

Since then, two more albums have been released, and another is on the way this week. A warm, inviting collection of obscure country covers, Lil’ GL Presents: Jukebox Charley includes everything from the late great Tom T Hall to lesser known like Larry Brasso and Red Sovine. It’s Crockett’s 11th album since 2015 and the 38-year-old says he’s not here to waste time.

“I don’t think it’s an extraordinary thing that I’m doing,” he shrugs, admitting his 12th album is already in the bag too. “If you look at the careers of Willie Nelson or Aretha Franklin, you’ll see that Willie didn’t really become a household name until his 15th or 16th studio album and Aretha didn’t really become a household name until his ninth or 10th.” Crockett’s output, which has always been a mix of originals and covers, also reminiscent of the days when big names used to release different versions of the same song. “What is an exception to the rule today would be how everyone used to do it.”

Polite and thoughtful, Crockett speaks in a deep, bass-heavy Southern accent, occasionally punctuating his sentences with “Ma’am.” He is guilty of what has come before him. Perhaps the most stylish man in his current home of Austin, Texas, he’s never seen without his sharply tailored Western attire, from his crisp Stetson hat to his perfectly polished cowboy boots. Vintage beaded shirts, brass-colored belt buckles, and tailored pants fill in the gaps in between, so he resembles a dapperly styled forties cowboy singer or a long-forgotten rodeo star.

It’s not just his looks, but also his story that makes you think of people like Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie. Crockett began hitchhiking and hopping trains to play folk music on street corners in states like Louisiana and New York. Crockett — a distant relative of famed frontiersman Davy Crockett — was born in the town of San Benito, Texas and raised by a single mother in a trailer park. Between the ages of eight and 13, he lived part-time with his uncle in New Orleans. “He worked in a restaurant in the French Quarter and in a gentlemen’s club on Bourbon Street,” he explains. “He was also a card dealer, so I grew up around casinos and bingo halls.”

In his twenties, Crockett began hoboing in the United States. During a stay in Manhattan, he first became aware of the cosmic country music of Gram Parsons, whose style of intuitive, heartfelt storytelling would inspire his own songwriting. After spending the morning on the subway, Crockett collected his tips and went to his favorite health food store in Greenwich Village for lunch.

He quickly made friends with a Rastafarian guy who worked at the juice counter. “He was obsessed with Gram Parsons and was in the process of putting a country band together,” says Crockett, calling from North Dakota in the middle of another cross-country tour. While crashing with him at his Lower East Side council house, Crockett’s new pal taught him tunes from Parsons’ band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. “Gram was one of those people who bridged the gap between the older generation of country music [fans] and a younger audience in the ’60s – and it resonated with me again,” explains Crockett.

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While traveling, Crockett recorded more songs, adding traditional numbers from the Carter Family and Lightnin Hopkins to his growing repertoire. “On the road, I was immersed in all the diverse cultural sounds that exist when you’re driving in America,” he explains. “I’ve been exposed to so many things.”

Gypsy King: “I don’t think it’s an extraordinary thing that I do,” says Crockett

(Bobby Cochran)

Though he made a steady – if not exceptional – living as a busker, Crockett didn’t really take things seriously until he met Americana songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 2020 at the age of 38. A Break Off the road, Crockett worked on a farm in Mendocino County, California, raising pigs and chickens and growing fruits, vegetables, and weeds. Crockett wasn’t there to make money, but to get some fresh air and make sure he wasn’t, as he rather ominously puts it, “swallowed by the night”.

There was a girl too. “I was with her and working for her, and she was chasing Justin around,” he says with a chuckle. “Then one day Justin showed up at the farmhouse to buy some ganja.” They were suspicious at first, but it wasn’t long before the two became friends. “He had a lot to do with me doing a real push to get off the road and [go from] a transition to becoming a professional recording artist,” he recalls.

In 2015, Crockett self-released his first album, A stolen jewel. It included the bluesy “Trinity River,” which was inspired by Earle’s own 2010 breakthrough hit “Harlem River Blues.” As well as his own material, Crockett’s debut album included a number of covers – “songs I learned on the streets of America when I was a gypsy”.

Covers have always been an important part of Crockett’s musical makeup, starting with his rendition of Gram Parsons’ “Juanita”. A stolen jewel for the whole of this year Lil’ GL Presents: Jukebox Charley. He learned from the big guys from the start. “When you’re writing songs, all you really do is show people your own version of all the stuff you know,” Crockett points out. “Well, if you don’t know anything, then you probably won’t write such a great song.”

His own impressive back catalog – packed with as many glorious Crockett originals as his distinctive interpretations of other artists’ material – proves how true that is.

“Lil GL Presents: Jukebox Charley” is out April 22 via Son of Davy/Thirty Tigers

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/charley-crockett-interview-new-album-b2056757.html Interview with Charley Crockett: “If you don’t know anything, you probably won’t write a great song”

JOE HERNANDEZ

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