Rooms get brighter and moods lighten when you say Charley Crockett’s name. If you’ve met him or even if you’ve only seen him live, Charley has a way with folks. He’s always ready with a smile or a song, and it’s not tough to imagine a teenage version of the Texan buskin’ and slingin’ rhythm on street corners, soliciting greenbacks and grins while making somebody’s day just a tune’s worth better. And that’s Charley– the music, the attitude, the desire to reach as many people as he can– that’s what drives him to release multiple records a year while crisscrossing the country to play as many stages as will have him.
The thing I like most about Charley is that he’s a hardcore fan, a student of recorded music from nearly every genre. I can talk to him about obscure rockabilly records from the ’50s, Tejano soul bands from the ’60s, South Florida funk from the ’70s, and of course, his beloved country music. Is there a more dedicated practitioner of the art?
Charley’s latest effort, Welcome to Hard Times, was produced by Mark Neill and partially recorded at the veteran engineer’s Soil of the South Studios in Valdosta, GA. Like much of Charley’s work over the last few years, it pays homage to the hillbilly sounds of yesteryear while still finding plenty of space to maneuver in the 21st Century. The album features tracks co-written with Neill as well as Dan Auerbach, Vincent Neil Emerson, Dallas Burrow, and his newest writing partner, his lady love Taylor Grace.
Like his last album, The Valley, WTHT wanders into the shadows and struts back with narratives inspired by his own struggles as well as the desperate times we’re all currently enduring. As he would tell me during the course of our conversation, Charley “didn’t need the revelations of 2020 to write about the things goin’ on in America,” and again, that’s Charley. He sees the world from the highway and the stage and doesn’t miss much.
Live music remains on lockdown courtesy of COVID-19, but Charley Crockett can’t sit still for long. The last time we spoke on the phone, he was rollin’ down I-40 in Arizona, and on this day, he’s meandering through the mountains of Colorado with Taylor beside him and presumably a melody on his mind. Many are regarding Welcome to Hard Times as his best work to date, but the King o’ the Gulf Coast Boogie is already motivatin’ to the next horizon… And that too is just Charley.
AI- I want to talk about Mark Neill… ‘Cause you were right down the road in Valdosta, Georgia to make this record with Mark. How’d you get hooked up with him?
CC- Oh, man! He’s like this mythical figure I kept hearing these guys whisper about in Nashville and Memphis. I’m serious! I’d hear ’em whisperin’ about him like the guru. I was like, “Man, who is this guy?” And I was mad at first! I was like, “How come I don’t know this guy?” I’ve talked to a lot of folks, a lot of people with a lot of different interests and people wantin’ to work with me on cuttin’ a record, and well, I guess he musta known I was thinkin’ about him! ‘Cause Mark called me out of the blue last summer and he said, “Are you ready to make that dark ’60s country record that only you can make?” And I was like, “Are the Kennedys gun-shy?”
And that was it, man! We just speak the same language, you know? In my mind, he’s like Don Law or Jack Clement or Billy Sherrill or Bill Porter. I just think he’s one of the very best in the world at bringin’ the best out of the type of music that I do. He invited me to Valdosta and that little town… There’s just somethin’ in Georgia, man! There’s just somethin’ down there, especially in that little South Georgia town. And he’d been telling me that! He was real good friends with Rick Hall and comes out of that school.
You walk into the front of that little building and it’s like some kind of 3-person, 1960 insurance office. And then you come out the backside and you’re in a bait & tackle shop or something! It just poured out of me, man, the combination of workin’ with him and where I was at in my life, and just the magic of bein’ under those Spanish moss trees… Somethin’ ’bout South Georgia, man… The spirit just took over!
Let’s talk about where you’re at in your life. ‘Cause the last time you and I spoke was right around the time when Lonesome as a Shadow was comin’ out. You were comin’ through Macon, and something that we discussed at that point in time was how much faster you prefer to work than the industry generally allows. You released The Valley and I think it’s probably just shy of a month until it reaches its year anniversary. That coincided with what I would have to imagine was one of the greatest and most terrifying events of your life– the open heart surgery to repair issues you’ve had from Wolf Parkinson’s White. As soon as you start gettin’ back into feelin’ good and wantin’ to get back out, we get hit with COVID-19. You’re rollin’ through the Colorado mountains right now– but how have you been dealin’ with the inactivity?
It’s been hard. I’m sure you’ve heard it from other guys and gals that do this for a livin’. I haven’t been off stage this long or [not] performed for an audience since I picked up the guitar! I have never ever taken a leave like this. So it’s been difficult in a lot of ways, man. But I guess the other side of that coin is I was really able to put all my energy into rollin’ out this record, Welcome to Hard Times. In a strange way, that’s been a blessin’ because, well, as you know, I like to work fast and I rapid-fire release these albums. The only downside to that is that you don’t have a lot of time. We work with a small crew, and we’ve not put a lot of effort into gettin’ the word out about the records besides recordin’ ’em cheap and then pushin’ them hard on the road. That’s what I’m used to doin’, and that can be the challenging part of not havin’ a big machine crankin’ out a lot of records.
It’s like a lot of that country and blues stuff in the ’50s and ’60s. We look up to that music. We look at George Jones and Willie Nelson and Ray Charles and all these folks. We revere that stuff that they was doin’ earlier in their career– but a lot of that stuff didn’t sell well and they weren’t makin’ a lot of money. But when history looks back at it, those records like Willie Nelson was makin’– short-haired Willie in Nashville– to me, that’s his best stuff. That George Jones stuff back in the mid-’60s was the best to me.
You gotta remember that stuff never crossed out of the country chart! Willie Nelson wasn’t sellin’ records period, but George Jones never crossed over off the country charts in his life. Same thing with Loretta Lynn! She never crossed over to pop. Which I’m not complaining about because I think we all love the music that they was makin’. Or somebody like Joe Tex, for example, he had a hard time crossin’ over off the Chitlin’ Circuit to a larger American audience. He suffered and struggled for that, but the music was really good! I guess the difference with Welcome to Hard Times is I put more effort into the videos, the visuals that went alongside it, and we were forced to work harder to market the record because myself and my team couldn’t rely on me playin’ 215 shows. And that’s ended up in the record triplin’ it’s numbers or something like that. I owe that to folks like y’all at the Creek for playin’ the tar out of it! Because somebody liked me? If y’all wasn’t spinnin’ it hard [with me not] on the road, it might just slip through the cracks!
Did you feel more focused going into the studio?
I did. I felt that the folks listenin’ to me was expectin’ somethin’ great. I think there was a lot of pressure for me to go more commercial. And also at the same time, folks out there around America, listenin’ to me, expectin’ me to bring that tradition with me like I always have. I really want to walk that line and make that good music, and I think that’s why Mark Neill was really the only man that could help me do that. I wrote the record in November of last year. I got out of surgery, man, and I was back on the road 60 days outta open heart surgery!
We know! We were worried about you!
Yeah– you, me, e’rybody and my mama too! It was a difficult situation ’cause I wasn’t the type of person to really sit back on anything that I’d saved up. So I hit that road and it was my hardest working year! And 2020 would have made 2019 look like a cakewalk if not for the pandemic. I wrote Welcome to Hard Times, really, in two weeks at the end of last year, and I didn’t need the revelations of 2020 to write about the things goin’ on in America that I have felt. I don’t know how you can’t feel for your brothers and sisters of all different backgrounds as a performer, living on the road in this country and abroad. I just write about what I go through and what I see and the folks that tell me stories at my shows. I hear from every type of person, whether it’s ol’ boys in the oil field, young, native teenagers out there on the Navajo reservation, single mamas waitin’ tables, takin’ care of two or three kids… You hear from all types of folks and I poured those stories and that feelin’ into Welcome to Hard Times.
Sometimes the situations in America, you can’t control them, and it has everything to do with makin’ an artist relevant or irrelevant. And I think the timin’ of the strugglin’ in America and the subject matter of the record, man, it just lined up for me. And I’m real grateful because havin’ this record out here and people listenin’ to it and it reachin’ out like it is, that’s definitely given me comfort. I’m always worried about my heart. I try not to let it dominate my life, thinkin’ about it with the scar and stuff. It makes it a lot easier when I feel like the album’s doin’ real good and the folks are goin’ to be there to come see us play when they give us that green light.
When you talked about the music back in the ’50s and ’60s, a lot of that was very regional. That early George Jones stuff, man, that Starday stuff never really got out of Texas. But you basically write your own ticket and run wherever you want to run. Your philosophy of country music, that it is for everyone and that it should be for everyone… I don’t know that there is another artist that feels that way about the music and about the audience that they can reach with it.
I hear you on that. I think it has a lot to do with bein’ a child of my generation. I am of the millennial generation and I grew up lovin’ Bill Withers and Hank Williams and lovin’ conscious hip hop and rock n’ roll and alternative stuff that was dominatin’ on the radio. I know you know this with the young folks in Macon– they listen to everything! I don’t know anybody young, anybody, under 30, that listens to one kind of music. Because I have ’em come to the shows! I stand out at the merchandise line every night– or I used to– and they would tell me all that! I would have a father and a son standing’ in the merchandise line buyin’ a couple of my albums. The son would shake my hand and tell me how much he loved my music and my life story– and then his father’d come in behind him and say, “Thank you so much for coming, your music is the only thing me and my son agree on. He’s a hip hop head, but he loves your music. Thank you so much!” I hear that a lot and that means a lot to me because that’s what I’m talkin’ about when I say that I’m a man of my time. But I’m bringing tradition to the front. I think anybody that’s doing somethin’ unique and powerful that can transcend audiences, that’s always what they’re doin’– no matter what the style of music is. There’s a lot of great women in America doin’ that stuff today in music, a lot of men doin’ this with different backgrounds.
One of the reasons I want to say that I can write my own ticket is, first of all, I played on the street and I built myself up for 10 years that way. I live my life from the standpoint that I learned how to stand behind my guitar. The things that I learned on the street corner are what I apply in my life every day to every aspect of the business. I got my hands in everything going on with me. Everybody involved with me’s gotta run it by Charley Crockett. But David Macias and Thirty Tigers, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much they allow me to write my own ticket.
When I hand in records like The Valley or those old honky tonk records, David Macias’ll be like, “Look now, you know they ain’t gonna play this on AAA? This ain’t commercial.” And I said, “I know.” And he goes, “Okay, just so you know.” And then we push it (laughs)! Would that be the case at Universal? I don’t think so. Would that be the case at RCA? I don’t believe it would be. Jon Folk at Red 11 Music, he saw me play in Nashville and he said, “Man, you’re so eclectic. I don’t know anybody like you, I will work hard for you. Please let me work for you and your band.” And he ain’t done nothin’ but help me create a lane for myself where I can do anything I want to as long as I’m bein’ true and honest and really workin’ hard on the circuit. We talk about George Jones– and Mark Neill and I talk a lot about this– even in the mid or later ’60s, when he started going into like “A Good Year for the Roses” and some of that darker, heavier stuff, even that was challenging to the record business, of what those guys were doin’ when they really started hittin’ on those deep emotions.
Country music really started changing. Really all of it– the blues and jazz, the popular stuff. I really feel like a lot of that coincided with the Vietnam War era. By ’66 you can see George is gettin’ more severe. His country records are gettin’ more severe and heavy– and the war is buildin’ up. By the time Vietnam is over and Nixon steps out of office, we had gone totally to commercial. Country music as we knew it– blues and all that kind of stuff– was gone. Waylon and Willie and all those guys were doin’ outlaw and I’m grateful for what they was doing, but that quickly it was movin’ in the direction of where I think we started maybe losin’ some of those elements. I don’t know about you, but for Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, the stuff that they were recorded in the ’60s is what influences me.
That’s what Mark and I were talking’ ’bout last summer when we started talkin’ about makin’ this record and I was dealin’ with all the other folks comin’ at me in Nashville and New York and LA. We decided we was goin’ to make a severe country record that represented the heritage of the Gulf Coast sound which encompasses Georgia and Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas– and then that western feelin’ of the gunfighter ballads and the drifter on the fringes of society. Something between Arthur Alexander and Joe Tex, Jerry Reed, and some of that Willie and that George Jones.
You think about how wild it is because there’s all these people out here talkin’ about country music and the heritage of country music– and I come from the street, man! And so when I talk about country, I’m talking about rhythm & blues. And if you’re listenin’ to all those great records that they was makin’ in Nashville– back when Nashville made good music– that was closer to what was comin’ outta Georgia and what was comin’ outta Muscle Shoals. That sound comin’ together, to me, is country music. Whether people nowadays agree with that or not, I would argue that most of the folks debatin’ about what is good country music and not, I would argue that almost all of those people who’re supposedly crusading for it, they’re not even reachin’ back to this era of the ’60s. They’re not reachin’ back any further than the mid-’70s. But you’ve got to do that.
You’ve got a knack for being able to take that classic sound and still remain progressive with it. I don’t think the majority of people that you’re mentioning know that you can do that.
Well, it’s just tough, man. With country music and with hip hop and R&B, it’s hard to get that cross over. A lot of people that sing country music, and I mean this with respect, but a lot of these folks that are singin’ it, they’re not bringin’ new people into country. They’re all more divided. I like the idea that I can get the old ladies sayin’, “Man, you remind me of it when I was a kid listening’ to this stuff on the radio!” And I like the young people who are like, “Man, I can’t stand country music, but this is fire!”
I like that, man! Because that’s how I saw Johnny Cash. That’s how I saw Otis Redding. Bill Withers and these folks, I saw these as country folks who came and recorded in the city and made music that transcended race and genre classification. That is really always what I have wanted to do. When I played on the street, my audience was all kinds of Americans– anybody that was waitin’ on the subway, anybody walkin’ down Royal Street in New Orleans, anybody in downtown San Francisco, down on Market Street, anybody that would pick me up and let me stay with them on a Colorado highway.
That audience isn’t always so diverse buyin’ tickets out here in these theaters. Although, I don’t care who buys the tickets just as long as they do. I’m really grateful for that, but I like the idea of puttin’ music out there– I appreciate you sayin’ that– where you can have that tradition and you can make it new again and make it accessible to people. I just don’t want to be in this one lane of only bein’ looked at as this Red Dirt, blue-collar country, or these other folks that are just like hipsters out here– I want all those people! I don’t think a lot of artists are able to bring those folks together, but that’s why I bring up Johnny Cash or Otis Redding because I just don’t think there was anybody that they couldn’t reach.
You brought up the gunfighter ballads. You’ve got a couple of ’em on [Welcome to Hard Times]. Specifically, you’ve got “Paint It Blue” which is evocative of a Sanford Clark western song, and then I’d say “Run Horse Run” also fits into that category as well. I know you’re a big old school, classic western fan. What got you ready to write those songs?
I watch so much of that stuff– and all different kinds! I watch a lot of the spaghetti westerns, and I like a lot of the mid-’50s stuff with Glenn Ford. Really love all that Glenn Ford stuff. The film that I had watched that inspired the title track, Welcome to Hard Times, was a movie that came out in ’67 or ’68 starrin’ Henry Fonda. It’s about this washed up minin’ town in this old isolated mountain valley. It’s being terrorized by this kind of “bad man of Borneo” type of figure. The whole film is really about that sheriff’s struggle with this guy that just has his way with the people in that town, just runnin’ amuck and settin’ it ablaze.
It’s like one of those dark comedies, you know? I had written down the title and I guess in a way, the whole record really kinda matches the theme of that film if you was just maybe to read over the summary of it. And then I guess, 2020 ends up lookin’ about just like it (laughs)! That’s where I was at. But like you mentioned, “Paint It Blue”, I remember writin’ that song, half of it out in Northern California, out in the mountains, and then I finished it ridin’ on the bus. We was drivin’ into Nashville. That line I’ve got in one of the verses about the “bright light shinin’ in the city, reminds me of the time when she was with me…” I was writin’ that pullin’ into Nashville in the middle of the night.
And don’t get me wrong, man, [those old films] are full of issues and flaws. Of course, they are! I like that about classic film and music because I love that the things they’re not saying in between the lines end up really reflecting America in the era it’s filmed or recorded. I always keep that stuff goin’ in the background. And I love the way that they [wrote] back then. I wish they put as much focus on the writing and the dialogue now as they did back then. One of the reasons that I really love westerns was I loved how much it had to do with attitude and how that any point you could get across without them talkin’ on screen, well, you just did that if you could. It’s that whole thing [that] less is more. The less you say, the more it means. That was really the point I was tryin’ to get across on the album. ‘Cause I’ve never been known for long songs. You’d have a hard time findin’ a song of mine that had four verses in it!
You got to write with your lady, with your woman, Taylor Grace. Tell me about that experience.
Well, Ms. Taylor, who’s sittin’ here next to me in the truck, she’s wavin’– she’s too shy to say anything. Taylor is a great songwriter in her own right. She’s writin’ all the time. And actually we were sittin’ down in Key West for Mile 0, sittin’ around the hotel room and I was just flippin’ around through some voice memos– ’cause I got thousands of them in there. I’m scannin’ through them, clickin’ on them, and, “Ahhh, that’s not goin’to work… Nah, that one’s no good…” And I was playin’ over this little half idea called “Wreck Me”. I’d played over it, and then I stopped and was gonna go on to the next one and that’s when she was like, “Wait, what was that right there?” And I was like, “That last one?” She’s like, “Yeah. That’s a hit.” So I pulled it back up, wrote down what I’d written and we finished it together! And you know, a lotta DJs are playin’ it! Some folks say it’s the best one on the record.
Is that the first one you’ve done together?
Yep, sure is! We’ve been writin’ other songs together that just haven’t been recorded, but there’s a lot of them out there. She’s gettin’ songs together for her own record, and I’ve got a couple of new ones– maybe for the new record– that she’s helped me write on. We’ve got this one, “Trouble”, we’ve been working on that we wrote together with the bass player, Colin Colby– we call ’em Coco. He’s crazier n’ hell! I can’t think of all it, but it goes [Charley sings “Trouble”]*. That’s a lil’ thing we got comin’! It’s soundin’ tight! Get ready!
We shall remain so! I also wanted to ask you about your pal Dallas Burrow. I got a copy of Southern Wind across my desk– this has been two years ago now I think. You’ve got a co-write with him on “The Poplar Tree” and if I’m not mistaken, you got him hooked up with Bruce Robison over at The Bunker to do some recording recently. Did you guys write some more music that’ll be poppin’ up on his new project?
I don’t think I’ve got any co-writes on that one as of yet, but Dallas and I, we’ve known each other for years, man. We met out in Mendocino County… Musta been about seven, eight years ago now. We was both playin’ at this wild little bar in Willits, California, deep in ganja country, and we become friends that way. We was like two Texans in the middle of all these hippies and mountain folk out there! We hit it off and, actually, if not for Dallas, I don’t think we’d be talkin’ right now! Because Dallas invited me down to his farm in New Braunfels… They got an old pecan farm right on the Guadalupe River down there. I think his grandmother might have inherited it or something. She was a shaman woman, really interesting lady. He’s the one that turned me on to Gruene Hall and took me around to everybody down there. I started handin’ out CDs on the street. And so that whole story about me givin’ Evan Felker from the Turnpike Troubadours a CD? If not for Dallas bringin’ me down there and showin’ me that and droppin’ me off and let me hand all that stuff off, I just don’t even know where I’d be right now! He’s come out on the road with us, and we’ve met up with each other all over the country over the years and Nashville, out on the road in the West Coast… We’ve been talkin’ about sometime in the next couple of months, he and I gettin’ out to New Mexico, out to the mountains, gettin’ on some horses and campin’ and writin’ a whole record together. Which I’d like to do.
I was out in the Davis Mountains, out in West Texas near Big Bend and the Chihuahuan Desert writin’ “The Poplar Tree”. I was sendin’ [Dallas] voice recordings of my ideas, and he was just firin’ back! I just blended his stuff in with mine, into that narrative and finished that one off. That’s probably some of the best writin’ that I’ve done. I think it shows you what you can do with a friend that you respect and believe in as a songwriter, what you can do together when you’ve got that kind of trust and respect.
There’s not a lot of folks that I know as songwriters that I can say that I really respect. I’m pretty naive, but Dallas Burrow and Vincent Neil Emerson, those are two of the finest songwriters to come out of Texas in this generation. And I’m grateful to call them friends. I’m grateful to be writin’ songs with ’em and I’m glad that I was able to get songs that we wrote together and my lady, Ms. Taylor, and quite a few other people and put ’em all on this record. If I’m being honest, I think me co-writin’ with people and sharin’ that and openin’ up a little bit to my friends helpin’ me paint a better picture might have a lot to do with why the record has the songwriting strength on it that it does.
As you mentioned earlier, I have spoken to a great number of people about where we sit right now in regards to the pandemic, in regards to live music, and where it’s goin’. I don’t know how many of them also might have what you’d call an underlying condition, but how do you personally feel about gettin’ back out on the road? Are you worried about doin’ that?
Havin’ the heart disease, it’s somethin’ that’s always on your mind. It’s a worrisome thing pandemic or not! Look, this is America, you know? We can’t lay down forever. We gotta take care of each other and we gotta do the things that we can do to keep each other healthy. And those things aren’t that difficult to do! The reason I say that is because I believe that America’s gotta go back to work. America’s got to go back to bein’ on the road, workin’ the farm. These single mamas, they gotta put food on the table.
The times are changin’. Everything in America is changin’. And I know that’s really hard. I know that’s really painful. Nobody really changes willfully, you know? It’s circumstances and adversity that makes folks change. What do they say? It’s time and pressure that change mountains– and that’s just where we’re at! And I guess instead of preachin’ to you, I can’t wait to get back out on the dang road. It’s what I do! Even if that means we’ve got to take all the precautions and play to less people. ‘Cause I want folks to be safe. I don’t wanna be the cause of people getting sick. But I think that the music is healin’, and we gotta figure out a way to play it. I hope that 2021 full of all those great times because whenever I think about what I’m missin’ out on in 2020, it’s hard. It really, really is hard. All the festivals and all the great times that was to be had… But other things that have happened this year. I think that it’s been a great time of reflection. People have had a lot of loss. I think people have been compelled to look at themselves in 2020. And 20/20 is clear vision! But clear vision when you’ve been blind is painful! My girl hears me sing this all the time, but there’s this old Jimmy Martin song that’s like, [Charley sings] “I’ve been to the doctor, he says I’m all right… But I know he’s lying, I’m losin’ my sight… He should’ve examined the eyes of my mind… 20/20 vision and I’m walkin’ ’round blind…” Leave it to Jimmy Martin out of Virginia to call it like it was in 1960!