For Charley Crockett, the first stop of his 2023 European tour was a personal milestone.
Playing on the main stage at End of the Road Festival in Wiltshire, England – the annual closing party of UK festival season loved for its hedonistic atmosphere and eclectic line-up – Crockett’s billing landed him warming up for one of his lifelong idols, soul legend Lee Fields.
“The first time I ever played in England, we opened up for JD McPherson at Shepherds Bush Empire”, he reflected as we sat backstage in the late summer sun. “I thought, it don't get no better than this. But to be here now, on the same stage as Mr. Lee Fields... Shit. That's the best you can hope for in this world. That's a lifetime journeyman.”
It takes one to know one. From years spent busking streets around the US to now touring globally, journeying is something Crockett has become well versed in. The last few months alone have seen him play near back-to-back nights across the States, supporting country heavyweights Tyler Childers, Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton and Orville Peck. The shows follow the release of his critically acclaimed 2022 The Man From Waco concept album, his twelfth LP since his debut in 2015.
Crockett’s is an undeniably prolific career, one born from thick-skinned resilience and utmost loyalty to his own sound.
“They call me ‘country’ now”, he says, a road-worn wisdom carrying through his Texan drawl. “But I was just a street corner player, I didn't put any label on it. The last thing I wanted was to get pigeonholed; I used to fight anybody that tried to categorise me at all. But eventually I just said, ‘You know what? Let the critics and the academics decide what we are’. The only thing I can do is put my own stamp on it, do it my way and try to get to hold a little slice of the pie”.
Becoming more open to categorisation worked favourably for Crockett’s industry trajectory. In 2021, he won the Americana Music Award for Emerging Artist of the Year. This year, he earned three nominations, contending in the Artist, Album and Song of the Year categories. Though conversation around genre is increasingly contentious – particularly between country and Americana artists – Crockett now has “nothing but gratitude” for his inclusion in Americana - whatever it may be.
“Before I heard of the genre at all, the only thing I associated with Americana was a breed of chicken. That is what’s kind of funny about it… Chicken-pickin’ - that’s all I’m doing!”, he laughs. “But all jokes aside. For us folks coming at it from an itinerant background or unconventional way, if it weren’t for Americana, the AAA charts and that kind of shit, there wouldn’t be no place for us to show up on the map at all. In retrospect, I think guys like Waylon Jennings and Joe Tex would’ve said that too”.
Though retrospect is something he’s reluctant to get too caught up in, there is something decidedly reminiscent about Crockett’s brand. His sound calls upon that of his idols James ‘Slim’ Hand, Charley Pride, Curtis Mayfield and Arthur Alexander, weaving traditional country and western, blues, soul and jazz. But his old school approach to dropping multiple albums a year, he says, is simply a way of accomplishing the task at hand.
“What I’ve found is that I have to set deadlines for myself. And the only deadline that I've gotten even half good at keeping up with is recording sessions. I gotta record these albums in order to get any of this shit done. That's the irony of how they would work back then, too. You signed a deal with anybody - especially those smaller labels - and would be contractually obligated to put out two, three, four records a year. Aretha Franklin didn't hit ‘til her ninth or tenth. She made all them records in New York City with big bands and crazy budgets, saddling her with debt. But she finally took it down to Muscle Shoals, and that's when it changed.”
Alongside life’s inevitable adversities – of which Crockett has had his fair share, including run-ins with the law and two open-heart surgeries – does the pressure of such a remarkably productive output lead to anxiety or burnout? “Hell yes”, he answers candidly. “But this music wasn't born out of good times, it was born out of hard times”.
“In that sense”, he continues, “there's no such thing as the ‘good old days’. When I was learning how to lead bands or playing on the streets, at any corner I showed up on, any club I was trying to push my way into, they'd say, ‘Oh, Charley, man, you just missed it. The good old days are gone. You’re just a minute too late’. But that's not true. I would not accept that. That’s the reason why I have to think about life that way”.
Crockett’s years of standing his ground and breaking down walls met another milestone in November 2022, when he made his debut at a sold-out Ryman Auditorium. In a letter penned to fans, he notes that after years of busking on Nashville’s Broadway with little-to-no attention, his faith in playing country’s mother church had just about evaporated.
“After a while I was afraid to even stand near the Ryman – I’d look down that alley that leads to Robert’s Western World and think, ‘I’m not supposed to be here’. I wanted to play on that stage so badly, but I didn’t know how it would ever happen”, he writes. Once he got out onto the stage that once-in-a-lifetime night, however, it was as though “something otherworldly was going on. Like all those ghosts from out in the alley were up there onstage with us… Everything felt like a dream”.
Nearly a year on from the momentous show, this Friday (Sept. 29) Crockett will release Live from the Ryman, documenting the full-circle event, available as an album and concert film. The 23-song set offers hits spanning his discography, with additional covers of George Jones, Tanya Tucker, James ‘Slim’ Hand, Jerry Reed, T-Bone Walker and Townes Van Zandt. Both the album and film beautifully capture Crockett and his Blue Drifters, ever the performers, at a true career high.
Just like his set at End of the Road, the release caps off yet another illustrious year for Crockett, who in true form is still as humble and focussed as ever. “I'm not old but I ain't no spring chicken. I've been around and I'm damn grateful. As much as we're competitive, if it is a race, in the end we're just racing ourselves”, he says.
What’s next? I ask, moments before we watch Lee Fields grace the gleeful festival crowd. “Shit”, he grins. “We're just getting started.”
Charley Crockett’s 2023 Live from The Ryman Auditorium album and concert film are out on Friday September 29 via Son of Davy / Thirty Tigers.
For more on Charley Crockett, see below: