Just like Davy Crockett, his wild frontier-roaming ancestor, Charley Crockett has done an awful lot of living. Every bit the lonesome drifter who saunters through his sumptuous brand of vintage Americana, the 36-year-old was raised by a single mother in a Texas trailer park before leaving for Paris, Morocco and Spain. There were stints farming in California, busking in New Orleans and getting his first break when gigging in the subway carriages of New York. “I have such an eclectic, colourful background that I think people get overwhelmed – but truth is stranger than fiction,” says Crockett of a life that also includes its unfair share of tragedy: a sister lost to addiction, an incarcerated brother and his own life-saving heart surgery at the start of 2019.
It is a journey that has made Crockett even more dedicated to leaving his mark. Releasing eight albums in just five years, Crockett’s latest – the sweeping, soulful Welcome to Hard Times – is his gothic masterpiece. Striding through the moodiest moments of Nick Cave and the smooth stylings of Crockett’s Texan contemporary Leon Bridges, it also lays bare America’s haunting history, with lynchings and chain gangs woven into his deft storytelling.
Of mixed black, Cajun, Creole and Jewish heritage, Crockett is aware that he is a rare presence in old-school-sounding country. “I don’t look like what a traditional country audience expects or maybe wants to see,” he states. But his outsider status is part of what makes his music so vital. “When Hank Williams started making country music, they said very similar things about him that they said to me,” says Crockett, who last year made his debut on country music’s most famous stage, the Grand Ole Opry. “Back then it was either country bumpkins or it was high society and that was it.”
Crockett might seem wildly productive by modern standards, but his output is another thing that links him to a different time, when country stars would have been contracted to make four or five records a year. “It’s just the business has changed,” explains Crockett, who says he has more in common with today’s fruitful rap generation. “If you’re talking to a hip-hop artist in this era, they’re putting out several mixtapes a year, they’re putting up tracks every week.”
And so last year’s The Valley was followed this April by the rustic Field Recordings, Vol 1, 30 tracks of Chuck Berry and Carter Family covers and originals that dig deep into his “American Gypsy troubadour” roots. If anyone’s thrown by its crackly, dusty sound, Crockett says it’s not a problem: “If people are trying to understand why the recording quality is so bad, don’t worry, I probably got another one coming out in 10 minutes!”
Welcome to Hard Times is out 31 Jul on Thirty Tigers