Charley Crockett’s standing at the counter paying for his lunch when he answers the phone, greeting me like an old pal, “Aaron! What’s goin’ on, daddy!” In Macon, the sun is shining through my studio window on a warm spring day, but in Madison, Wisconsin where Charley and his Blue Drifters are scheduled to share the stage with friend and fellow Texan Vincent Neil Emerson, there’s still snow on the ground. At the time, I don’t remember that Otis Redding was on his way to Madison and The Factory to perform when his plane went down in Lake Monona in 1967, but I’d come to learn that, coincidentally, the building originally housing the club was being demolished even as we spoke about Crockett’s latest collection of hillbilly ephemera.
I first wrote about The King of the Gulf Coast Boogie back in July of ’17, a fair piece for In The Night (2016), his sophomore jaunt through bluesy originals and classic country, and mere months away from his full immersion on Lil G.L.’s Honky Tonk Jubilee. Since then, Charley has released seven more albums, sometimes thrilling with his own story– an epic perpetually in the making– and at other intervals, laying bare his love (nay, obsession) for diamond-dusty twangers and barroom ballads of a lost era.
Our conversations over the last few years have generally been continuations picking up where we left off with equal parts history lesson (for me) and dissection of the music business, the machinations of which the native of San Benito, TX holds at a rattlesnake’s length. I daresay, I’ve never met anyone with a more encyclopedic knowledge of golden age country music and all its intricacies and glorious faults, and when I bring that up, Charley just laughs, “Maybe that’s my dyslexia benefitin’ me somehow!”
At any rate, there’s no Seeburg or Wurlitzer on earth that’s ever been built to match Charley Crockett.
Jukebox Charley mines fourteen gems from obscurity, shoulda-woulda-coulda-been hits ahead of their time or simply, as Lucinda might decree, too cool to be forgotten. Replete with yearners & burners, beer-foamed bouncers, and heart-wrenchers from demigods like George Jones, Jerry Reed, Tom T. Hall, Willie Nelson, and of course, Johnny Paycheck, the album rifles through cuts like a nickel-fueled dancehall Saturday night. In the clutch of any other contemporary performer, there may be a hesitancy, a borderline karaoke-ness to such a flip through the 45s, perhaps even an urge to pepper in some 21st Century technique– not so with Crockett and producer Billy Horton. It doesn’t matter that every cut was written by a cherished or newly discovered hero half a century ago– Charley’s lived them all.
A standout track, not only on Jukebox Charley but from all of his eleven albums is Crockett’s interpretation of songwriting monster Dennis Linde’s “Where Have All The Average People Gone”. Eschewing average for honest, Charley divines (to this commentator’s ears) a new signature and a declaration more than a question that’s as appropriate for today’s country or Americana paradigm as it certainly was when Roger Miller recorded it in 1969.
AI- Let’s jump into the new album, Jukebox Charley— first off, where did you and the guys record this one?
CC- That’s another Billy Horton record out there in Wildwood, Texas!
Billy Horton back behind the glass! I know you’re workin’ with him all the time. Tell me a little bit about the dynamic between you and Billy when he’s helpin’ you put together a record.
Well, Aaron, he has played on or been a part of or recorded every single record I’ve put out besides A Stolen Jewel, that one made in the farmhouse in California. He has been a part of every single album. My friend Jay Moeller got me tied in with Billy back in 2014 maybe, and that’s been the whole key to my sound. Some other folks have come and gone and everybody’s helped out and I benefited from everything I’ve done in Memphis– and the Mark Neill records, obviously, have been tremendous for us– Billy played bass on those– but overall, he’s the one true constant in my recordin’ career.
With all of the songs, this massive collection of songs that you’re doing, do you and Billy sit down and go through those the same way that you and Mark do?
No, it’s different with Mark, you know? Because with Mark, those two records we’ve done with him were basically entirely originals. On Welcome To Hard Times, I wrote most of them when I was up in Mendocino County, maybe in a two or three-week period. And then on Music City USA, that one’s different than even Welcome To Hard Times because I basically wrote that whole record in a week with Mark at his studio there in Valdosta. So very different process, absolutely different process, but what’s interesting is Mark Neill is that guy that brought all the knowledge from the Golden Age into the modern era, and Billy learned, was mentored by Mark when Billy was just a teenager.
If you go to Dan Auerbach or Dave Cobb or JD McPherson, or any of those guys– and a whole host of other people– they’re all gonna cite Mark Neill as a fundamental part of their understanding of recording music, especially in a classic sense. I didn’t know that when I was working with Billy. I was workin’ with Billy Horton by meetin’ Jay Moeller through a memorial blues jam for a guy named Chuck Nevitt, who had passed away up in Dallas. The Dallas Blues Society was helpin’ his widow raise money to bury the man because she couldn’t afford it– as goes often for people in the music business, obscure blues and country artists that never quite made it. At that jam, I met Jay Moeller, and then I followed Jay down to Austin. I was playin’ him some Magic Sam stuff and some early George Jones, and he said, “Well, the only person in this town that could possibly do this for you is Billy Horton. He’s your man.” And so I’ve been working with Billy the whole time.
When Mark Neill eventually came into the picture and contacted me, that was fully organic. Initially, Mark didn’t even realize that I’d been workin’ with Billy– and then, of course, Billy came in and played bass on both of the Valdosta records. So he and I started in a much more long-range, organic way. I still had one foot on the street! I was bringin’ in my “cavalcade of stars” as Billy liked to call ’em– street players– to record on the records! Let’s just put it this way– I wasn’t payin’ people to record on those records with cash or anything like that if you know what I mean! It was back when I was still real rough around the edges, and Billy’d been there with me as I went from somebody who was unfamiliar with the studio and really unseasoned and really recordin’ classic country and blues. Of course, I had all the tools in my bag from gettin’ out there and surveyin’ the land the hard way, but it’s been with Billy over the process of the last eight years that I’ve really, really learned how to record.
I think what’s special about him versus other people that I’ve worked with is that he recognizes that it’s about the performance and that you gotta roll that tape and even if you’re not exactly sure why it works, you just need to capture it. You don’t need to necessarily always understand what it is that’s makin’ that magic in terms of the performance. That’s what really sets him apart from everyone else. And with each record I’ve worked on him with, he’s gotten better and better. I think he is the best in the world at recording classic country and blues. I think he’s the best in the world at this point. Maybe I’m biased (laughs)!
The lead single, Jerry Reed’s “I Feel For You”, you appeared performing that song on CBS for a Saturday Session. First off, that was really cool! Second off, that’s a fine way to segue into the album going from those early days into what you’re doing now– because that is a giant leap from taking those street players in to record with Billy to being on CBS on a Saturday morning!
Hooo boy, you said it, man! Yeah, it’s been a trip, to say the least, Aaron– and you know it, you’ve been watching me the whole time too! I’m thankful for that, real thankful for y’all in general. Georgia overall has been just as good to us as Texas!
Whose idea was it to broadcast from Gruene Hall?
That was Bruce’s [Robison] idea! I was hesitant at first, and then we got over there and I thought, “Man, I’m glad I’m not makin’ all the decisions,” ’cause we really enjoyed it! It was a ball!
Talkin’ about Billy and then Mark, what Mark did the first time I ever went into Valdosta with him, we sat down in the studio and he put on Jerry Reed’s very first record he cut for RCA, 1967’s The Unbelievable Guitar and Voice of Jerry Reed. Now that record didn’t sell anything– as a lot of great records go! Willie never sold anything on RCA and look at how great that material is! Same thing with Jerry Reed– that ’67 album is unbelievable! Mark played me through that and it really, really knocked me out, man! I was beside myself with the whole album and how fresh it sounded! I think that’s what blew my mind about “I Feel For You”, which he wrote.
Mark put that on and was really showin’ me Jerry Reed sayin’, “I’m gonna show you somethin’ that sounds like where you’re at, that you probably haven’t been told before,” and sure enough, listenin’ to Jerry Reed, I thought, “Wow, man, I hear it, I feel it, I can connect to this, and no, no one had ever mentioned it, and I’d never considered it!” When I heard, “I Feel For You”, I thought, “This could come out right now.” And I held it on there! It wasn’t something that Mark was suggesting we record or anything, he just wanted me to hear the style. He was always tellin’ me that I was somewhere between a Jerry Reed and an Arthur Alexander.
You’ve said that song kinda hung around– and I think “guiding light” was the words you used– for Welcome To Hard Times and Music City USA. So you’d been planning to record that song for a while?
Yeah, I just didn’t know! You never know when it’s gonna be the right time or when it’s gonna come back in your mind. I gotta bad habit of takin’ songs that producers show me as a guidin’ light and runnin’ off and recordin’ the actual song they showed me itself (laughs)! I probably ruffled a few feathers doin’ that, but it just felt like the right time, man. I was just goin’ through some stuff in my life when he showed me that tune. There’s a lotta good ones on there– “Woman Shy”, “It Don’t Work That Way”, just killer stuff, man! Eventually, Jerry Reed would hit on Smokey and the Bandit and all that kind of stuff for the movies, but somebody like Jerry Reed is like Willie Nelson– or maybe Bob Dylan’s a good example of that too– where it’s like these guys get signed and they’re three to five years ahead of the curve, you know?
In Jerry’s case, he used such strange keys and different time signatures, like what even you do on “I Feel For You”. You’re absolutely right about that– he always felt like he was years ahead of what everybody else was doin’.
One of a kind, man! And the folks at the shows– they love the song! I think maybe it hits people the way that it hit me, where it’s deeply personal lyrics about the one thing that everybody goes through, which is the struggle of love. Of course, you know, they need somethin’ that they can take to the radio, and as much as it pisses me off, they don’t want nothin’ to do with steel guitar! Ain’t that a damn shame?
Well, you know what? I was gonna get to this later, but let me go ahead and ask this question. You’ve always got a favorite or at least a track that you would push given the opportunity that maybe radio wouldn’t push. What is it this time around on Jukebox Charley?
First of all, I think “Jukebox Charley”, the song itself. We’re startin’ off the show each night right now with that song, and the folks are goin’ buck wild for that one! And I think it’s because my name is Charley– you know, it’s my life too, the way that Paycheck sang it!
You ain’t gotta sell it to me! I love Johnny Paycheck!
But that’s the reason I cut it is ’cause what he was singin’ about was just what he was livin’ and now I’m singin’ it because I’m livin’ it too! It’s like when I cut “Good Time Charley’s Got The Blues”— of course, it’s a great song, but it’s gonna mean something different if the person singin’ it, his name is Charley! So I think that one has been washed anew in a lot of ways. It reminds me of Dwight Yoakam or George Strait, the way that those guys had so much success with cuttin’ classic country in a way where young people had never heard it before– it was brand new to them. That’s one of my favorites on there!
The one that I would’ve pushed is the last track on the record. It’s an obscure George Jones number called “Between My House And Town”. He didn’t write it– that was Whitey Shafer– anyway, that was my pick. But of course, with the steel guitar and the dobro and stuff, it’s like go figure! Country and Americana radio, they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s got steel on it! What are we gonna do?”
Spin it– that’s what I’m gonna do!
Exactly! You can’t listen to those folks! Yeah, man, it’s my favorite record that we’ve done just because I’ve grown into a place where, especially after singin’ James Hand’s songs, I feel grown up enough that maybe I could do a little bit of justice to those songs. You already know this, man, but don’t ask the boot size– if you ain’t paid the dues, you can’t fit the shoes! And I’m still payin’ ’em! I also like the other George Jones song on there, “Out Of Control”. That was one of the earliest ones that he penned, and it’s such a visual barroom painting. The portrait that he paints on that song is just killer!
You have two Tom T. Hall tunes on the album and to my years, they’re both extremely poignant choices– “Lonely In Person” and “I Hope It Rains At My Funeral”, which I just love that song– such a great song! Now, the last time you and I spoke, it was just a few days after Tom had passed. And then it would be some months later we learned that the cause of death was suicide. Did that influence your choice of songs? I mean, I know you were already a Tom T. Hall fan– as an artist, as a writer– but what kind of influence…
Let me tell you somethin’, man– we cut that record before he passed away! It was right before he passed away! That’s what really got to me about it was that I’d heard “I Hope It Rains At My Funeral”, and I thought, “Talk about a song to live by! Talk about a song that can teach you somethin’!” It just spoke to me and what I was goin’ through, and it just made the record ’cause I think it’s just one of those songs… No one ever has quite written one like that, you know? I just love that line, man! One of my favorite lines on that album is, “I hit town or you could say that it hit me,” or the very last line of the song, “I hope it rains at my funeral / For once, I’d like to be the only one dry…” And it’s every verse, every line, you know? Every line! And then when he passed, I just couldn’t believe it!
Here’s the trip about “Lonley In Person”, that’s another one of my favorite songs. That’d be another one that I would’ve pushed to the radio myself– but I’m ignorant, what do I know about what they’ll spin, HA! But we didn’t know that was a Tom T. Hall song! Taylor Grace found that on this very obscure box set of recordings from this label called Rice Records [The Rice Records Story], and she goes, “This is your song. You gotta sing this.”
The only version we’d ever heard was Buddy Meredith– really obscure Midwest country singer, I believe. He’s got a recording of it and they play it at a quicker tempo than we did. Billy really felt strongly that we should slow it down a little bit, which we did and he was right, although Buddy’s is fantastic. In goin’ through dealin’ with the publishin’, they were lookin’ at the old 45s, and sometime in the early ’60s, what’s it say on that 45 right there on the label? It says Tom Hall! I thought, “There’s no way it’s the same guy,” but of course, when they went to go clear it– and Bruce knows all those guys– sure enough, it was him!
I remember readin’ something that he said about how him and Willie and Roger and all of those guys, before they all broke out and did things their own ways, they’d written hundreds of those kinds of songs– a lot of the tear-in-your-beer, bubble gum songs– but that one really– without even knowing it was his– really stuck out to me. Sometimes what I like the most is the stuff that those guys are writing earlier in their career. That song reminds me of Willie’s “Night Life” where they’re these very personal songs about what they are goin’ through as hard grindin’ country musicians, blues and soul musicians out there on the circuit puttin’ in the work. I like those deeply personal ones.
So I guess that shows up a few times on this record. “Lonely In Person” would be a good example of that, and then of course, “Jukebox Charley”. Even though it’s a guy sittin’ in the bar– he’s a drunkard and everybody in the honky tonk crowd knows him– when Johnny Paycheck sings or if I’m singing it, when you’re sayin’, “I’m well known throughout the honky tonk crowd,” we’re literally up on stage singing to a honky tonk crowd! I love music that reveals what the performer is going through. That stuff really speaks to me– revealin’ to the audience what it’s like to be standin’ up there.
You and I have never talked about this– you bring up discovering that when you’re goin’ through the publishing. Tell me about when you get ready to do and record these songs, and the challenges of legally being able to do them. And what happens when you’re not? Have you got some that you’re still hopin’ that one day you’re gonna be able to cut?
Oh shit, yeah! I’ll tell you this, man– I think it used to be a lot harder. I think the trials and tribulations of gettin’ this stuff approved back in the day, that could really get hairy. Nowadays, I think what is probably a wonderful situation for songwriters and the publishers is that the way that it’s all set up electronically, literally, the money is findin’ its way right to their pockets because people are signin’ up, recordin’ these songs, and going right to ’em. All they’re doin’ is clickin’ and goin’, “Yep, we’ll take that cash, thank you!” It used to be so much harder. We have had no trouble at all with that kind of stuff. In fact, when they’re goin’ through and dealin’ with it, the only time I had any trouble is when you’re dealin’ with maybe an estate that’s contested, like with James Hand. When the estate is not at peace, then you can run into trouble no matter how much easier it’s gotten due to the internet.
That brings me to “Where Have All The Honest People Gone”, your rendition, your retooling of the Dennis Linde song. And I have to say that if it’s not already, that should be your new signature song. I had not heard that song before, and when I heard you do it, I thought, “This has to be a Charley Crockett original,” because that’s your song. Tell me about your relationship with it and the decision to change the title in lyrics.
I really appreciate you sayin’ that– that means a lot comin’ from you, it really does. I heard Roger Miller sing it and similar to what you just said, I didn’t even hesitate in assuming that Roger wrote that because it sounds like Roger Miller– the verses, the story that’s unfolding. As anybody who’s a Roger Miller fan, which I’m a big one, he might be the granddaddy of all those guys in a lot of ways! He lived every word of that song, which is I’m sure why he cut it. And then of course, we came to find out that he didn’t write it, and I was so surprised! People say that about me, I always say that about Willie Nelson– if you’re sure he wrote the song you find out he didn’t, and when you think there’s no way he could have, he wrote it! I got a long way to go on writin’ songs, which is why I try to record all this stuff, hopin’ that maybe a little bit of it’ll rub off.
The thing about it, and I don’t think everybody’d feel the same about it that has an attachment to this number, it’s not that it bothered me that he was using the word average people– I understood why it was written that way– but as I grew to really, really identify with the song, maybe it’s meant to be ironic, but I thought, “This person that this song is about is anything but an average person. This is somebody who’s absolutely not average. This is somebody that is, to quote Johnny Cash, ‘walkin’ the line’, that’s walkin’ that tight rope.”
I always say that the freedom that they sell you in America, that’s an illusion, but there’s another kind of freedom that exists with being in that gray area, being out there, one foot on the train, one foot on the platform. Nobody’s really an island, everybody’s bound– but there are ways to be freer, and that song is talkin’ ’bout somebody like that. It’s been said by a lot of people, but I think it was Dylan who said, “To live outside the law, you gotta be honest.” I had been messin’ with that song for a long time and came up with several ideas of changin’ it, and I just couldn’t come up with a better word than honest. I was hopin’ that it would unlock the meaning of that song to more people. Maybe I’m not correct in that– maybe average is better– but that’s what we came up with and I’m stickin’ to it.
Do you still feel like you’re living that way– one foot on the platform, one foot on the train? Even with all the success you’re having?
Oh yeah, man! I think you and I’ve talked about this! It’s like, I’m still out here on the street all day, even if I’m in the back of a bus. Hell, I got two of ’em now, you know? But I don’t feel any different. I don’t know how you could really. You’d have to be blind or let it all go to your head, and then when it goes to your head, you’d be out of touch and then you wouldn’t be able to come up with the songs or maybe sing ’em as good anymore. I started out walkin’ across this country, hitchin’ across it, ridin’ trains across it, tourin’ across it in a two-door Dodge Avenger that a friend was drivin’ us in, then in a van, then in a million RVs, and then in some Mad Max broken-down buses… Now, I’m in some buses that run better, but the means of transportation, those may change, but the hobo writin’ lean and hungry mournful songs? Well, that remains.