"I’m a Texas and Louisiana man, and that means I got that gumbo flavor - just had to cut this record in Memphis to cook it up just right."
Coastal Cajun flavor grown in the heart of Texas, deep southern blues built on higher ground, and urban spins on rural country music. It’s those unique mixes that makes music an art rather than a science – of which Charley Crockett is a perfect example.
Photo credit: Lyza Renee
Crockett's life as a journeyman spills into his music, from playing Zydeco in the French Market in New Orleans to Texas blues on the R train in New York City. He pays tribute to his life on the road in his upcoming album, Lonesome As a Shadow, which will be available everywhere on April 20th.
Prior to the album's release, I was able to catch up with the man himself to discuss his latest project, travels, and musical influences.
CC: Brother Michael - It’s an honor to have you take interest in what I’m doing. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I’m damn grateful for these opportunities. I’ll see you for those beers at Stubbs'...might ride my bike over from the house over on Poquito!
MG: Of course, my friend! Congratulations on the upcoming album, Lonesome As a Shadow – I’m a big fan of the pre-released single “I Wanna Cry”. Is there an underlying theme to this album? How does its development differ from your previous projects?
CC: Thank you for the kind words brother. I’m glad you like that tune. It’s my personal favorite. This record's different in a couple ways. It’s my first album of all originals. It’s also the first time I’ve recorded with my full road band in the studio. I guess when I really think about it, the theme of this record fits the title track well. It’s about always being on the move - the longing that comes from isolation in faraway places. Also, I think it’s my strongest effort at bringing together country, soul, and blues. I’m a Texas and Louisiana man, and that means I got that gumbo flavor - just had to cut this record in Memphis to cook it up just right.
MG: Can you touch on growing up in Texas as well as your early days as a traveling musician? What brought you back home?
CC: I was born down in The Rio Grande Valley. We lived on South Padre Island and then outside of Los Fresnos, TX later. We were poor, but we lived out in the country - and I was happy with that...grapefruit and oranges everywhere. That gulf coast lifestyle can be special, and it’s a unique culture in America. Me and my Mama moved up to Dallas so she could find work and I could go to school. South Texas is pretty isolated, and Dallas is a big ole modern city with more opportunity...but it was always hard for us. All I wanted to do was get away. I was splitting time between Dallas with my Mama and New Orleans with my uncle. That’s when I got into street-playing and then into hitchhiking and wandering around America. That became my way of life for nearly a decade.
I hadn’t seen my mother much in a few years after being in New York City in the subways and over here in Europe playing the streets of Paris. I’d signed a record deal that didn’t work out and ended up farming out in Northern California trying to get on my feet and off the street. That life was easy enough in my twenties, but I was getting tired of sleeping on floors and squatting in warehouses. That’s when I decided to start cutting my own records and push them harder myself. I was already doing that in New Orleans, NYC, and elsewhere, but I wanted to be more official. Trying to break into the scene in San Francisco was really difficult, especially since I was living a couple hours north of the Bay Area.
In 2014, I was in Dallas visiting my Mama and playing local blues joints when two things happened...first, I realized Deep Ellum was making a comeback, and second, I made friends with Alexis Sanchez, who now plays guitar with me. He introduced me to Leon Bridges, who has given me endless inspiration and been someone I can look to for motivation as an artist and friend. I pushed my album A Stolen Jewel all over the streets of Dallas/Fort Worth and down in Austin until people started to take notice. The Deep Ellum thing was really just one part of recognizing the opportunity throughout Texas. People talk a lot about Nashville, Tennessee and I love it up there, but the talent coming out of the Lone Star State is unmatched without question.
MG: How has your background molded your sound?
CC: My background is my sound. I learned the blues the slow and hard way. I picked up songs from jug bands in The Quarter. I’d watch their hands until I could memorize and recognize the chord shapes. I’ve been thrown off a lot of stages for clearing out rooms because the band couldn’t follow the weird stuff I was playing. That’ll make you better real fast if you wanna get back on that stage - and that’s exactly what I did. There were several years where I’d put in 8-10 hours of performing in front of people everyday for tips - in front of Cafe Du Monde, Rouses on Royal, the Metropolitan Avenue stop on the G train in Brooklyn, playing on the R train in Manhattan, busking in the steps of Le Sacre Couer in Paris, France...pretty much only playing either songs I heard from other players and could manage to remember or a combination of three songs into one to make it work!
Photo credit: Lyza Renee
MG: Staying on that note, it’s easy to hear blends of blues, zydeco, and honky tonk in your music – anywhere from the The Byrds to Gary Clark Jr. How do you describe your sound? Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
CC: Man I don’t know! It’s hard...Gulf Coast Boogie? We say Texas and Louisiana music, but that doesn’t mean anything to most people! Probably the best I’ve heard anybody call it is Country Soul. Clifton Chenier and Lazy Lester are really important to me. Loretta Lynn, Hank Willams, Ernest Tubb. Mel Tillis, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Magic Sam, Wendy Rene. Traditional Cajun music has a deep place in my heart - Carter Family, The Mississippi Sheiks...
MG: Can you give us a background on your other band members? How did you all come together?
CC: Originally, this thing started out with me and Charlie Mills Jr. playing - just the two of us - on Royal Street in The French Quarter 10 years back. Charlie just recently decided to take a break from touring to focus on his family, but he’s been on every record I’ve put out, including the forthcoming joint from Memphis.
Like I was saying, I met Alexis Sanchez in Deep Ellum a few years back - that’s really where the Texas band came together. I went from jumping on stage with anyone that would have me to Alexis getting us gigs as a two-piece and then hooking up with the North Texas booking agency, 13th Floor Music. From there we worked the bars and beer joints hard...two or three gigs a day every damn day. That’s where we found Mario Valdez, who plays drums for us.
Kullen Fox came on through a session for In The Night over at Billy Horton’s place. I needed an accordion lickety-split, so Jay Moeller (who played drums on and co-produced In The Night) called his brother Johnny Moeller, who hit up Kullen to jump in on the session. A year later, when things were just right, he came on full-time. He’s real tight with Colin Colby - when we needed a sub at Floore’s Country store, Colin jumped in...he’s been rockin' with us ever since.
The truth is, I’ve had a lot of help in the last few years from some of Texas’ best players - especially the blues community. It’s a family of great musicians. The road is hard though, and it just ends up working out in its own strange way...because the highway is for gamblers.
MG: It seems like you are constantly on the road – how do you manage to write and record new music in between such a busy tour schedule?
CC: I’ve been living on the highway my whole adult life, with random stretches out on the farm. I never was the kind of artist to sit down and “write” songs as a focus itself. To be honest, I’ve never even really written any of it down. I used to come up with songs in between playing on subway cars waiting for the next train. Busking all day long, you come up with all kinds of stuff, especially when there’s nobody really around. I write tunes out behind venues a lot. We learn songs in the van all the time.
I think the more songs you learn, the more you can come up with your own. I guess the answer is that I’m inspired at random all the time. I’ve got thousands of ideas sitting around on these evil smart phones. Hell, some of my best recordings are on a phone!
(I stop taking notes on my evil smart phone to ask another question)
MG: I hear that! You've also toured with a number of notable groups, including JD McPherson and The Turnpike Troubadours – how does that set-up differ from touring solo, both from a performance standpoint as well as the touring process?
CC: Man, it’s wild going between our little headline gigs and then jumping on stage for a sold-out crowd of 3,000 with Turnpike. Or going from opening for BJ Barham or Sean Hayes as a solo acoustic performer to being out here with JD in Europe where every club is sold-out and jam-packed to the max. For me, it’s just a blessing to be able to have these opportunities to learn from bands that can stand the test of time - and that’s what all those boys have in common. Coming from the street mentality - which is all about the hustle - I feel pretty comfortable in almost any setting as far as touring venues of different sizes. Since I blend a lot of styles, I can adjust my set to fit crowds better. When I’m with Turnpike, we might go more honky-tonk and western swing. With JD, we might do more chicken pickin’ heaters and jump blues numbers. Some gigs you got a dressing room, others you’re kicking it in the alley...it don’t make no difference! It’s all about the music.
MG: Finally – what’s next for Charley Crockett? Where did you see yourself at this point five years ago? Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
CC: I’d just like to sell tickets in all these cities we’ve been hitting hard - in America, Europe, and hopefully outside the Western world. My goal is to keep putting out records. It’ll take a long time to catch up to the output of ole E.T.!
Honestly, six years ago as a subway performer in NYC, I just happened to have on old manager take me to see JD McPherson at a free concert at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. It was 2012, and JD was on his way up. I’d never heard of him, but when I saw his show it just knocked me out. I wanted to do what he was doing, and I knew it was the path for me. I never knew that in 2017 we’d meet at a festival in Oklahoma, and that he’d ask me come out on the road with him. I’ve been lucky. I’m right where’d I like to be. Now if in the next five years I could just get through a few of the doors my boy Leon Bridges has opened up, I’d be sitting in top of the world!
Don't forget to pre-order Lonesome As a Shadow, which is set to hit the shelves on April 20th. With a star-studded tour schedule that includes nights with Jason Isbell, Shovels & Rope, and The Turnpike Troubadours, be sure to catch a live show in a city near you.