Charley Crockett Tackles Blues Classics On New Album

Dec 30, 2018
Originally published on December 30, 2018 5:01 pm
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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Finally, today, we want to introduce you to Charley Crockett.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE AM I")

CHARLEY CROCKETT: (Singing) Here am I, all alone again. Here am I, all alone again.

GONYEA: Now, you've probably heard of the last name. Charley Crockett traces his ancestry back to the one and only Davy Crockett. So we note that, but let's put that aside for a moment because Charley Crockett is making a name for himself on his own right now by blurring the lines of traditional blues, jazz, country and gospel music. His latest album, "Lil GL's Blue Bonanza," pays tribute to some of the greats. And he joins us now from Oklahoma City, where he's on tour. Charley, welcome.

CROCKETT: Hey, brother Don. Thank you kindly for having me.

GONYEA: Glad to have you here. So you've got this album out. It's your second one this year. You're on tour. There's big stage, bright lights, all of that. But it wasn't all that long ago that you were playing on the streets in New Orleans and in the subways in New York City. Take us back to those early days for you. Did you have a place to live? Were you going to maybe a boring part-time job during the day and playing music on the streets because that's...

CROCKETT: Heck naw. Yeah, I didn't have no place to live. That's how - I was just playing on a street corner and squatting in warehouses and riding trains. And, you know, I did that for upwards of a decade.

GONYEA: So the cliche is that that's the part of your career where you were paying your dues. But I'm wondering - what did you learn, musically?

CROCKETT: Oh, man. I mean, it's everything I do, you know? I really ever - I really learned everything by playing for change out of a guitar case. And I really mean it, that the only thing that's really changed is the politics, and I have more responsibility. But everything that I'm doing onstage is all street antics, you know?

I learned how to talk to people. I learned how to keep them there. I learned how to ask for money. I learned how to move spots if that spot wasn't working. I learned to throw out the songs that wouldn't get people's attention. And one of the things that I really learned about myself is I found traditional music.

GONYEA: So this new album - it's your take on some blues classics. Some of these songs that you're talking about - what were you hoping to convey with these particular songs and your interpretations of them?

CROCKETT: You know, they've called me a stylistic chameleon. And, while I like the way that sounds, people find me hard to pin down. And that's something that - I've had to move forward knowing that that was the case because I don't want to - you know? I don't want to put down the blues to play country. I don't want to put down country music to play the blues. I want to do it together. And, as a street guy, I never saw that music divided up. But, you know, speaking of that music, why I'd do it, that first song of mine that you just played - that's a - well, I learned that off of Ray Charles. And...

GONYEA: That's "Here Am I."

CROCKETT: "Here Am I," yeah. That's an obscure cut of his that wasn't even a hit. But it's one of the greatest songs I ever heard the man do. His whole life, he refused to be categorized. You cannot categorize the man. He is soul. He is jazz. He's blues. He's country. And that's that thing to me. I don't know how to separate that music.

GONYEA: I want to highlight a couple of songs on this CD, two very different songs from very different songwriters. Let's take a listen, first, to your version of "How I Got To Memphis" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S HOW I GOT TO MEMPHIS")

CROCKETT: (Singing) If you love somebody enough, you'll follow wherever they go. That's how I got to Memphis. That's how I got to Memphis.

GONYEA: So that's an old Tom T. Hall song, "That's How I Got To Memphis." He's one of those classic country songwriters of the '60s and '70s. Let's just hear Tom T. Hall's version really quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S HOW I GOT TO MEMPHIS")

TOM T HALL: (Singing) If you love somebody enough, you'll go where your heart wants to go. That's how I got to Memphis. That's how I got to Memphis.

GONYEA: What is it about that song and Tom T. Hall's writing that draws you in?

CROCKETT: Well, just play them side-by-side, No. 1, it's obvious the man got me beat...

CROCKETT: (Laughter).

CROCKETT: ...Which is why I'm such a huge fan. So, last year, I was up for a Metropolitan Award, and they was doing a showcase the night before the ceremony at Blues City right there. And I went in there that night with my lady, watched a bunch of amazing artists get onstage that night.

And then, right near the end of the night, another Texan, who, to me, is probably the greatest unsung living honky-tonker in the world, is a man by the name of James Hand. And he got up onstage at the end of the night. And he called that song, and it just came in. And he started singing that song, and he had tears in his eyes.

And it - I was overcome by the power of the song, and I went back to Graceland that night. And you could ask my girl. I drove her crazy. I played that song 200 times in a row until I had it down. I didn't go to sleep till I learned it. And I started performing it the next day. And that started me down the road of Tom T. Hall.

GONYEA: Let's switch it up now and hear some Chicago blues and the great Jimmy Reed, born in 1925 on the Mississippi Delta.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY REED SONG, "BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY")

CROCKETT: Don't even got to hear him sing. You know who that is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY")

JIMMY REED: (Singing) Bright light, big city gone to my baby's head, whoa.

GONYEA: "Bright Lights, Big City," 1961. We heard you react. But tell us about that song and what speaks to you.

CROCKETT: Oh, man. It's the - maybe it's - the oldest story ever told - you know? - in the time of man, you know, is that story he's saying there. Bright lights, big city went to my baby's head. Well, you know it went to his head, too (laughter).

GONYEA: And we'll hear a little bit of you singing it here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY")

CROCKETT: (Singing) It's all right, little darling. You're going to need my help some day. You're going to wish that you'd a listened to some of them things I said.

GONYEA: So, Charley Crockett, living side-by-side on your new record, we have these two very different writers. We have Tom T. Hall from Nashville. We have Jimmy Reed, the great bluesman. But they live really comfortably.

CROCKETT: I guess that's my whole bag. What I'm trying to say is that - that's why, sometimes, I'm always so surprised by, you know, maybe the divide that can be seen between what is considered blues, music or country because I just don't hear much of a difference. With that Jimmy Reed song, there's something that's so happy about it in its sorrow, you know? There's something about it that's so warm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY")

CROCKETT: (Singing) Bright light, big city all up in my darling's head. I hope that you remember some of them things I said.

GONYEA: I understand you're talking to us just before you take a bit of a break to deal with some health issues. Doctors discovered a heart condition that's going to keep you off the road for a bit?

CROCKETT: Yeah, man. So what happened with me is I was born with a congenital heart disease called Wolff-Parkinson-White that I was aware of from birth, you know? I died a couple times when I was born, and they brought me back. And it had to do with these electrical issues in my heart. But, then, I overcame that and have been, you know, strong throughout my life.

But when I was overseas, I had a hernia, and I was dealing with it for years, you know? I had never had health insurance as an adult. And, you know, you don't need health insurance till you do. I got a little money, you know, these last couple years touring real hard. And I had this - my hernia was starting to bother me onstage. It had been seven years.

And so I went in to get the - see the doc about getting a surgery down there. And, often, they ask if you've got any condition. I went ahead and wrote down Wolff-Parkinson-White. The creator stepped in and saved me because when I wrote that down, the surgeon for the hernia sent me to a cardiologist to get cleared for surgery because it turns out people with Wolff-Parkinson-White need to get the clearance because the risk of the anesthetic. And they sent me over there, and I got pictures of my heart taken. And it turned out that I've been in my whole life missing one of my three valves. You got valves over the top of your heart that...

GONYEA: Yeah.

CROCKETT: ...Go in and out of there. And that's caused my heart to increase in size. And it's a scary thing to be thinking about. I feel too young, you know, to be dealing with this. But, at the same time, had I not had that hernia - it's the strangest thing, man. If I had not had that hernia, what most likely would've happen and what those doctors told me is that I would've been looking at heart failure that I wouldn't have seen coming within the next 12 months.

GONYEA: Well, we thank you for sharing that. And we wish you well and rest and speedy recovery through all of that.

CROCKETT: Well, you know what, man? I've been able to take nothing and turn it into something. And that type of adversity just makes a person stronger. And I'm honestly - you know, I'm grateful, you know? I really am seeing it. I feel blessed that I even know about it.

GONYEA: Let's end with your take on a big 1970s hit from Danny O'Keefe. It's called "Good Time Charley's Got The Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIME CHARLEY'S GOT THE BLUES")

CROCKETT: (Singing) Everybody's going away. See, they're going this time to stay. There's not a soul I've known around. Everybody's leaving town.

I feel like, musically, I want to speak to people that I otherwise wouldn't be able to draw-in close to me, you know? And I feel like that about life, you know, that if you're only speaking to people that already agree with you, what are you really doing, you know? And I'm trying to do that with my music. And I guess "Good Time Charley's" - it just - you know? It just - the clock struck, you know, midnight right on that song for me. And I fell in love with it, you know? Of course, I have my name in it. And by the time we cut the song and it came out and I was going through all this medical stuff, it just meant even more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIME CHARLEY'S GOT THE BLUES")

CROCKETT: (Singing) Good-time Charley's got the blues.

GONYEA: That's Charley Crockett. His new album "Lil GL's Blue Bonanza" is out now. He's wrapping up his 2018 tour. Charley Crockett, thanks. And best of luck to you.

CROCKETT: I so appreciate you fellas for having me. And I hope you'll come and see a show. I'll be twice as good if you do.

GONYEA: I think we'll do that (laughter).

CROCKETT: Come on.

GONYEA: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLEY CROCKETT SONG, "GOOD TIME CHARLEY'S GOT THE BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.