Saturday, September 30, 2023

Charley Crockett at the El Rey


By L. Kent Wolgamott

“Jukebox Charley” isn’t really Charley Crockett’s moniker. It’s the title of his soon-to-be-
released 11th album. But it’s a fair description of the man who performs a jukebox full of
songs, like the Johnny Paycheck-penned title cut, that bring classic country back to vivid life.

The fourth album in his “Lil’ G.L. Presents:” series is intentionally packed with Crockett’s
versions of honky-tonk tunes that even the biggest vintage country fans won’t know.
“Folks nowadays don’t know any of the classic stuff at all,” Crockett said. “The
aficionados and guys I worked with recording this stuff, a song like Jim Ed Brown’s ‘Pop A Top,’ everybody knows that. We really wanted to do some stuff those guys might not know. Not just to stump them. That’s the real thing. So why not put stuff people haven’t heard before?”

There’s a very personal reason why Crockett unearths obscure gems like Jerry Reed’s
“Feel for You,” Willie Nelson’s “Home Motel,” George Jones’ “Out of Control” and Tom T. Hall’s “Lonely in Person” and “I Hope It Rains at My Funeral.”

“I’ve written a lot of songs," he said. “Sometimes I write good ones, sometimes I don’t. If
I’ve got any chance of writing a good song, it’s because I’m learning these songs.”

Writing good songs, Crockett admitted during an hour-long conversation about his
career, country music and songwriting, also comes from having immersed himself in Bob Dylan. “If you’re not looking at Dylan, you’re not thinking about songwriting,” Crockett said. “I know there’s a Grand Canyon for some folks between Bob Dylan and Tom T. Hall. I love Tom T. Hall. I recorded a couple of his songs on this (“Jukebox Charley”) album. The reality is if you took Tom T. Hall out of me, I’d still be good. But take Dylan out and I probably wouldn’t be doing it at all.

“I played on the streets, hoboed around, he was my way,” he said. “When I fell into
being a transient, I fell into all of it, what Dylan would talk about, having to play rhythm guitar and doing tons of folk songs. I picked up the old New Orleans jazz music I was hearing on the street corners.”

It was on the streets that Crockett honed the signature “Gulf & Western” sound that
blends blues, R&B, Cajun and western swing into his classic country, an approach that, like the songs on “Jukebox Charley,” has nothing whatsoever to do with the ’70s pop, Southern rock and hip-hop stylings that pervade much of contemporary country. “Jukebox Charley,” which will be released April 22, is a throwback to the 1950s and ’60s,
when country artists put out a couple records a year. 

“I’ve always been naive enough, bullheaded enough, wild enough to not pay any
attention to that,” Crockett said. “Maybe I’ve just gone down a lost highway. But the thing I
have to show for it is to be able to make a lot of recordings and find out where I am.
“Sometimes it’s hard to look back, but when I look at where I’ve been, from when I put
the first official one out in 2015, I find myself growing,” he said. “I think I’m a much better
singer than I was. Some of that comes from singing so much. But it’s not just that. It’s
repetition, but it’s also me doing it my way.”

For Crockett, “doing it his way” is rooted in his childhood. Of mixed Black, Cajun, Creole
and Jewish heritage, Crockett was raised by his single mother in a trailer park in a small Texas town. “I was born in 1984, I’m a millennial, an older one,” Crockett said. “I wasn’t born in 1931. No people in America were picking cotton in 1984. I was born in the middle of the orange groves and grapefruit fields in the Rio Grande Valley. I wasn’t picking cotton, but I sure would have if it had been the 1930s.”

At 17, after graduating from high school in Dallas, Crockett hit the road with his pawn
shop guitar, beginning a musical journey that has taken him to every corner of the United

“I’ve surveyed every inch of this country on foot, on rail, in a van, now I travel on two
buses," he said. “The first time I played music in front of people was on street corners and in parks. I was working for every cent they put in my case. Let that be a lesson: Do you want to pay the dues and can you recognize that burning bush in front of you when you see it?

“I signed a record deal as a street performer singing in the subway cars of New York City.
I was working in the (New Orleans) French Quarter, in Deep Ellum (in Dallas), in Austin on
Congress and in San Francisco,” Crockett said. “I worked on farms, doing day work for a place to sleep. The idea that doesn’t exist anymore is ridiculous. It would shock people to see how many young people are doing it.”

Crockett’s record deal didn’t last long. After six months, he’d had enough of it.
"I’m very grateful I got to see that up close,” he said. “It was heartbreaking. But I saw
the gears of the machine and knew I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I had to make records myself, find a different path and I did.”

Returning to Texas, Crockett self-released his debut album “A Stolen Jewel” in May
2015. A year later brought the bluesy “In The Night.” The next year came the first “Lil’ G.L” album, as Crockett started to hit his insurgent country stride, getting out of Texas to play venues nationwide with his band, the Blue Drifters. Open heart surgery in 2019 only slowed Crockett a bit – he still put out an album that year and made it back on the road shortly before the pandemic hit in 2020.

Crockett released two albums last year, “Lil’ G.L. Presents: 10 for Slim - Charley Crockett
Sings James Hand” and “Music City USA,” which debuted on 14 different “Billboard” magazine charts and stayed at No. 1 on the Americana radio charts for six weeks.

Too independent, too country and too distinctive for Nashville and country radio,
Crockett won Emerging Act of the Year at the 2021 Americana Honors & Awards.
“For me, coming out of complete obscurity, digging a hole through the floor, if not for
Americana, I don’t know where I’d be,” Crockett said.

Crockett made his “Austin City Limits” debut as well last year, a sign of his rising stardom
— more than half of his 155 million streams have come in the past year – and more evidence of how he’s followed in the footsteps of his honky-tonk heroes.

“If you look at how Johnny Cash got to be Johnny Cash, or Hank Williams, or George
Jones or Loretta or Dolly, any of the artists we love, they were driven by an extreme will to
succeed and an extreme will to succeed by singing and playing country music,” Crockett said.

And Crockett, proudly, is singing and playing real country music, introducing it to a
generation that doesn’t know much about Jones, Hall, Paycheck, Reed and the others whose songs are found on “Jukebox Charley.”

“I’ve got all these young people listening to me, getting excited about classic country
music,” Crockett said. “They don’t care where it came from. They just love it. That means a lot to me."


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