"I'm from San Benito, TX down a dirty dusty road," sings Charley Crockett on the title track of his upcoming album The Valley. As he goes on, we learn of an absentee father, a hard-working mamma, dangerous gambles, gun barrels and "trouble everywhere I turned." There's not an untrue or embellished line in the song. Yet as literal as it is, the narrative sounds more like something from Woody Guthrie's time than 21st century America. Crockett's country blues is neither appropriated nor contrived.
LISTEN TO CHARLEY CROCKETT ON 'THE STRING' HERE
"If this was 1955, my story wouldn't matter at all," Crocket says. "Because of how good (country/roots artists) were back then, and how many of them came from the street like me. I would not be notable. But in 2019, man, you find a cat that came here the way that I did."
It's not bragging if it's true. Roots country and blues have become institutionalized to a degree, in a trajectory that mirrors the journey of jazz from southern bordellos to scholarly research and the Kennedy Center. Hundreds of songwriters come out of university songwriting programs. This is all fine, basically inevitable and good for the culture. But Americana is supposed to honor authenticity (slippery as that notion is), so it's good to see it has its doors open when a certified, street-smart rambler and songster comes along.
San Benito (also the hometown of Freddy Fender) is at the very southern tip of Texas, a fertile place that Crockett associates with cotton fields and orange groves. After his mother moved to Dallas to make ends meet, Charley began spending parts of every year in and around New Orleans with an uncle. At 17 he started traveling with a cheap guitar, learning songs by ear, busking around the country and even overseas, with substantial stays in New York and New Orleans before moving to Dallas, where he began releasing albums in 2015. By then, he'd become known as part of the revival of the Deep Ellum nightlife neighborhood. Right away, the area press hailed his timeless artistry and his swing. Since then, he's been prolific on record and on the road, releasing two new LPs and two additional albums of classic and obscure country music covers under the name Lil G.L. He's played well over 200 shows a year including prominent festivals like Austin City Limits.
All that momentum had to be put on hold when he was diagnosed with a serious heart problem in 2018. But after several surgeries over the winter, Crockett - now 35 years old - got back on track adn enjoyed his Grand Ole Opry debut in late June. That's where I sat down with him for this episode of The String.
In our interview, Crockett talks about his complex heritage;
"I never felt white but I've always had to identify as white. But I've never felt black; I couldn't claim that neither. I've always felt uncomfortable racially in my skin, just identifying with any race. That might be a big part of how I got here, is kind of the confused identity that I've felt pretty much all my life. Having all that culture raging in my blood - if you listen to my music, I play all the stuff. I play the blues, country, Cajun, Creole, Tex-Mex, soul. I play stuff that sounds like it's got hip-hop in it. Traditional folk."
about developing the voice and presence that established him as a street musician;
"I was scared to death being out there. And there was other people, being territorial. You don't just get to set up and get paid. I think I was very introverted in terms of trying to deal with the street at first. I very quickly though to learn how to talk to people. Playing out in front of Cafe Du Monde, it wasn't enough to be playing good songs. I had to get the audience's attention. All over New Orleans. I had to build a rapport with these people."
and about shifting gears in Dallas from busker to showman.
"A lot of the older generation on the street that had turned into great were telling us the same thing, which was to embrace heritage music. It's not going to change your modern take on the world. it's going to make you communicate it better. It just all clicked for me. You can see that in my life, that I just changed direction. I started dressing up sharp in the old school way. To be taken serious, because I didn't want to be seen as a hobo or another train hopper or a gutter punk. And literally I'd been living out of the guitar case for my whole adult life."
The Valley will be released Sept. 20 on Thirty Tigers. Here's the title track: