Charley Crockett knows the value of a good story. He's been living one for most his life, a poor kid from south Texas whose ancestry traces back to Davy Crockett. He got his start busking on the streets of New Orleans and the subway platforms of New York City, but it was only recently that Crockett's story began to look like it might have a happy ending.
"You know how you get to be a street performer?" Crockett asks rhetorically, with his raspy, Cajun drawl. He sits in the back of his tour bus, which once belonged to Willie Nelson, in Dallas, Texas, his piercing blue eyes gazing out steadily from beneath his cowboy hat. "A lot of hard fucking luck," he says. "You don't usually just choose your way there."
After more than a decade of trying to pull himself up from the gutter, Crockett is ready to tell his story on his own terms via his new LP Lonesome As a Shadow, a rollicking mix of classic folk, soul, jazz, honky-tonk and blues released last week by Thirty Tigers. He's poised to play over 200 shows across the United States and Europe in 2018, but a few short years ago he was scraping by playing open-mic nights.
"I made the decision a long time ago that I was going to sleep in the park, I was going to steal from stores, and I was going to stay with everybody I fucking could – forever, if I had to," Crockett says, jabbing his finger on the bench for emphasis. "I was really dirty, I didn't have any money, and I was running people out of rooms a lot of the time. Even in Dallas, we back-doored this motherfucker."
An easy entrance was probably never in the cards for Crockett. Born in San Benito, Texas, along the Gulf Coast, he was raised by a single mother in a trailer park outside Los Fresnos, deep in the Rio Grande Valley. "Out there it's all cotton and grapefruit and oranges, everywhere," Crockett says, his voice taking on a wistful tone as he transports himself back in time. "It's very simple living. Very poor, but beautiful. It's weird, my whole life, it's amazing how much I'm there in my mind."
Crockett grew up listening not to the roots music that his own sound would suggest but to chopped-and-screwed hip-hop. "Those white boys from the farm all grew up listening to hip-hop, even if the hip-hop they were listening to was mostly garbage," he says. Tejano legend Freddy Fender, who was also born in San Benito, was another fixture in the region, although Crockett didn't internalize it till much later. "He was massive down there, like Selena. As a young kid, I'd hear his music in Spanish and English at the same time," he says.
Neither of Crockett's older siblings, a sister and brother, finished high school, but his mother – hellbent on seeing her youngest son succeed – took him north to Dallas. Moving to the city only enhanced his own awareness of being poor, and he never made it to college as his mother had hoped. Worse yet, trouble followed him, thanks to his brother, who pulled Crockett into a stock fraud operation. Though Crockett, whose name was forged onto documents, escaped prosecution, his brother was sentenced to seven years in prison for more than $40 million in stock fraud.
Nearly 10 years later, Crockett chooses his words carefully on the matter, which he's never spoken of publicly before. "I can't do anything but put it into the music," he says with a shrug, after a long pause. "People think my story is far-fetched, but the thing is, I've toned it down."
Legal issues continued to haunt Crockett, even as he left Dallas and crisscrossed the country hitchhiking. Resorting to "selling weed left and right," he was busted for possession in 2014 and remains under probation. There were other unlikely turns of events, including a record contract that he walked away from in New York City after being discovered busking on the subway. Gradually, however, the music that he picked up on the streets – from Fender to T-Bone Walker to Blind Lemon Jefferson – began to resonate with his own life, and ultimately bring him back to Texas. "That [music] was a hundred years ago, but man, we have a lot of problems in this country that we are not at all able to get over, on any level, that are way older than that," he says.
Today, Crockett has honed a colorful stage persona with a distinctly retro flair, complete with vintage pearl-snap shirts, high-waisted slacks and a homespun, irreverent sense of humor. But below that quaint surface is a studied revisionism. In conversation, he jumps between talking about Sergio Leone or Jean-Michel Basquiat to quoting Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton. "I can't tell you how many venues I go into where there's something in there on the wall that shocks me that I don't want to see there," he says. "But I think to myself, these people want me to be here, I can effect change here. What good is it to me to talk only to the people who already agree with me?"
Crockett's rootsy take on traditional American music fits neatly into the Americana field, but he bristles at the label, preferring to think of it instead as Texas soul or simply the blues. "I write songs as a resolution to conflict. That's what I think the blues is. That's why I'm always calling it the blues," he says. "The blues is singing about bad feelings, and the way you sing about bad feelings is that you get rid of that baggage and you feel better for having gotten it out."
Lonesome As a Shadow, which Crockett cut at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis with his band the Blue Drifters and producer Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price), dives headlong into that hardship: Spritely opening track "I Wanna Cry" was written for his sister — who never got out of south Texas — after she died from a meth overdose. Following on the heels of last fall's Lil' G.L.'s Honky Tonk Jubilee, a collection of old-school country covers, there's plenty of steel pedal and barrelhouse piano. But on songs like the title track and album closer "Change Yo' Mind," trumpet and accordion flourishes add some ragtime and Tex-Mex color that often gets scrubbed away by the whitewashing of popular music.
For Crockett, though, no song on Lonesome As a Shadow — his first album of entirely original material — sums up his story better than "Oh So Shaky," a fear-and-trembling tale of trying to escape a broken system. "That's my whole message. It's the only thing I sing about in any of my fucking songs. That's all anybody's doing, really," Crockett says. "You have one song. There's just a lot of different ways to sing it."