Charley Crockett spent a decade on the street, making a living off tips he earned as a busker. He played the “old sounds of struggle” that he identifies with even now as a touring musician making a good living. Times were tough. His life was so sparse, he was grateful for a friend’s couch when he could get it.
But at 35, Crockett looks back on those years with the same thoughtful nature that marks his lyrics and his life. He was born to live off the street, at least for a while, he said in a phone interview for BandWagon, and he’s grateful for the experience.
“When you see people who make a living off the street for a long period of time, the thing they usually have in common is these extraordinary circumstances,” Crockett said. “I was living a rough life and getting into trouble at a young age. I was too rough around the edges to be on stages, have an agent and be on the road in a bus like I am now. That’s nothing I could have held together when I was younger. I was full of the fire.”
Those circumstances include growing up in a trailer with his single mother in rural Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. He did his best to stay out of the fate that befell many of the early musicians he played with, mainly because of an alcoholic father he didn’t know well and a sister who died of a meth overdose.
But he had his own share of hard times. That made the decision to be poor, surf couches and lay his head in random places until he made it in the music business, an easy one. His mother’s trailer, he said, was always in his mind.
“I would be in that place for so many years,” Crockett said of the trailer, “and the farther away I would get from it, the more I would find myself in that place – a place I couldn’t be.”
Crockett’s recent struggles with a heart defect, something he’d carried around his whole life, seem pale by comparison. He makes decent money now, records frequently and is one of the most highly respected “old country” musicians in the business. But that’s until you consider he wasn’t sure he would even make it out of hearty surgery and was getting dizzy spells on stage. He’s just now feeling better, he said, and wants to keep working hard – an ethic, he said, he got from his mama and those extraordinary circumstances.
“Part of that can really scare a man,” Crockett said. “It makes you want to slow down. But for me, the prospect of letting the foot off the gas and where that would leave me is scarier than continuing to stay on the road. I don’t want to go back to sleeping on farms and hitchhiking around. I will if I have to, but I don’t want to do that anymore.”
That’s why Crockett will soon release another album, despite releasing two in 2018, including Lonesome as a Shadow which was admired by idols such as Willie Nelson and named one of Rolling Stone’s top 25 country albums of the year.
The street gave him his unique sound: an old-time mix of cajun, country, americana and maybe some pop, which Crockett simply calls the blues. He had opportunities to sign with a label years ago, but most were offers to be plugged into a pop factory he didn’t want to be around.
“I spent so much time learning songs and writing them. I’m always coming up with them,” he said. “I’m the one producing and recording my own stuff. I don’t do anything that isn’t me. There’s no one out there clipping my wings.”
He uses this freedom to write and release whatever he wants to resolve the conflicts he feels from his past, his present and the future of our country.
“They take me over,” Crockett said. “It’s just something I have to do. I don’t know how to stop.”
He named the new album The Valley (after the place he grew up) and the songs detail what life was like in such a desolate place. It comes out September 20. Every song, he said, is a variation of his story, but he does not believe he’s alone.
“I think everyone goes through that stuff,” Crocket said. “I’ve yet to know of an American family that’s not struggling.” It’s those struggles, those circumstances, he said, that make people who they are, and Crockett’s thankful he’s lives a life around them.
“People are always on this crazy journey,” he said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be remarkable.”
Charley Cockett’s The Valley is due out September 20. Catch him live in Fort Collins August 7 at The Aggie Theater as well as August 6 at Globe Hall in Denver.