SPOTLIGHT: Truth, Fiction, and Charley Crockett
Photo by Bobby Cochran
EDITOR’S NOTE: Charley Crockett is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for September. Learn more about him and his new album, Music City USA (out today), in our feature story, and look for more from Crockett all month long.
Charley Crockett is a one hell of a storyteller, something that’s on full display with his new record, Music City USA, out today. “My life experience is making it to where I can tell fictional stories or learn how to sing someone else’s story in a way that is almost more rewarding to me,” he says. “Like Loretta Lynn, learning how to sing her story about being a coal miner’s daughter … that makes me more interested in writing and telling stories about these fictional characters that I can pour my life experience into because I’ve just done so much … Sometimes you can be even more honest or maybe tell even more truth through fiction when it comes to storytelling.”
In honor of his new collection of semi-autobiographical stories, here are a few more about the legend of Charley Crockett, in his own words.
On coming up in Nashville …
The first time I ever played at the American Legion [in Nashville], several years ago, we were supposed to play at like, 10:30 p.m. And nobody had ever heard of us, so we were not a priority. And I remember going on at like 1:30 a.m. and there was literally no one there anymore except my agent and the old Legion ladies workin’ the hall. And I was so fuckin’ pissed off because we had to come through there and these people were gonna come see us play and all this bullshit, you know, the story you hear in Nashville all the time. But we got off the stage and the old ladies that worked there all wanted CDs. And I thought, damn, well, you know what? They see everything, so that really means a lot to me. And I had some experiences the last few years around Nashville with the bartenders at all the honky-tonks [who] were always so supportive. In any kind of big music town, whether its Austin or LA or Nashville, everybody’s too cool to recognize you comin’ up, until you’re somebody big enough that maybe could help them out. And that’s nothin new.
On getting a lesson in “AU-THEN-TI-CI-TY … ”
Al Bell from Stax Records, a guy that I got to be around a little bit, would come out to some shows in Arkansas a couple years back. He really was the A&R force behind Stax in its heyday. Before he ran the company, he was really the one scouting the talent, and what he said to me one night in Little Rock: We were playing at this little dive place called Sticky’s Chicken Shack, and he was there and he had a bunch of people that he knew out with him. I was nervous as hell that he was there, and I didn’t really understand why he was interested in me and I felt like I had a pretty bad night in front of him. [I] got off the stage and he was there to talk to me and I was apologizing — and he was like, “Man don’t apologize to me, we really enjoyed this.” And I was like, “Well, I felt really off,” and he was like, “Let me tell you something, it might sound like a cliché, but in my day at Stax Records we focused on authenticity.” And he said it slow: “auth-en-tic-ity.”
On that infamous distant relative …
The wilder my story is and the more people go to look at it, the more all over the place people are gonna be. But you’re asking for that when you put yourself out in public. My grandfather was so proud of being related to Davy Crockett my whole life. You’re afraid of it and then later you wanna sell it. That’s what I grew up with in my family, that’s what we were proud of. It’s the first line in my grandfather’s obituary. How much of it’s a tall tale? I’m not really sure, but it exists in my family’s story of who we are for generations. You choose to take that on when you talk about it. What I do struggle with is this thing that’s happening in independent music where the magic in art is gone because it’s all hyper reality … Anybody being able to carve out their path is amazing, but nowadays I see that in an element of country music where a lot of people aren’t looking for somebody that’s really actually unique. They’re looking for somebody that’s exactly them … I think that’s what makes what I’m doing maybe very polarizing to some people.
On his inspiration for album art …
Initially I wasn’t collecting vinyl, I was just always staying with random people. And a lot of the cool, eclectic people that would let me stay with them when I was a street person in New Orleans and Paris and these places would have these amazing record collections. I didn’t grow up around records, it wasn’t my era, but I would look at these people’s records and they were so interesting to me. And I think because of the modern era, everything like that was gone. CDs used to be a thing and then they were gone, and now everything is digital. So when we started touring and I got an agent, because of my throwback kind of sound, I’m associated with all of that stuff and immediately we were selling vinyl at a higher rate than CDs. I’m kind of one of those acts where the vinyl heads are particularly looking for our shit. I guess that’s kinda what it must have been like when my mama or people of that generation were buying records. That’s back again because when you’re dealing with an artist, there’s nothing tangible, there’s nothing you can hold in your hands except like, T-shirts and koozies and shit. Now if you have vinyl, even more than back in those days, it’s like, here’s this thing that young people especially can buy that’s big … I’ve always been obsessed with classic records, country and blues albums, always been infatuated with classic film and everything about it, the title cards, the color, all that type of shit. That’s why I love to focus on it. It’s this thing that I get to do, come up with these album covers.
On how a little R&R got him back on his feet …
In the beginning of the pandemic, probably like a lot of people, I was just in kind of paralysis. Me and my lady spent most of the pandemic in the desert mountain west, around nobody, which is a place I always wanna be. It was always like that. When I played in NYC off and on for like a five-year period, or in New Orleans, my lifestyle would be like, six months of straight urban street playing. You’d just be completely depleted by it. And [after], I always landed on farms, in rural areas, and that was always how I got over the grind. Whenever you’re grinding really hard, whether it’s playing on a street corner or on a tour bus, there’s always the longing, at least for me, to be isolated in the mountains or in the desert around agriculture. I’m from a very rural place in South Texas, but we moved to cities. Through being an itinerant, I was reacquainted with farming and learning how to farm … as a way of getting something out of life that even hustling music doesn’t provide. Working with animals, working with plants, the wisdom of farmers, the way that you can learn from older people in agricultural communities. Once we got into the rhythm of being out there, because I could be and wasn’t being constantly called back to the road to tour, all this pressure released and then once we made the videos for Welcome to Hard Times, then suddenly that dry spell from the paralysis was gone. And it was all back. And then I wrote Music City USA.