Charley Crockett may have come to his artistry relatively late — “I’m a slow learner who started at age 31,” he says — but he’s making up for lost time. Boasting a buttery, yet crackling tenor that recalls iconic Texas artists from Willie Nelson to Freddy Fender, Crockett is releasing his 11th album since 2015 with Music City USA, out Friday (Sept. 17).
The project, out on Son of Davy/Thirty Tigers, is Crockett’s most relatable yet. Across his previous 10 albums, he’s amassed a significant following of blues-adoring country fans who have been waiting for a mainstream-aimed, neo-traditionalist revolt in the genre for a quarter century. However, here, instead of reviving the music of timeless blues performers like James “Slim” Hand (the subject of Crockett’s February album, 10 For Slim), Music City USA features songs like lead single “I Need Your Love,” a perfect mix of soul, country and classic blues that he infuses with deeply personal intonations.
The San Benito, Texas-born artist has quite the colorful backstory: a distant relative of Davy Crockett, he’s a twice-convicted ex-marijuana farmer and self-taught street corner musician whose specialty is murder ballads. But ask him about his aspirations and it’s clear he’s much more than a revivalist mimicking Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash.
Even now, despite being nominated for emerging act of the year at the Sept. 22 Americana Music Awards, Crockett says his most significant victory is that he finally believes himself to be proficient as a storyteller after two decades — a considerable achievement considering a tale he recalls from long ago when his performance was far from a bar proprietor’s expectations.
“This bar owner named Smokey Greenwald once threw me off a stage on Decatur Street in New Orleans and said, ‘Get the f–k out of here and don’t come back until you learn how to lead a band with a f—ing blues song!’ I got my feelings hurt that night,” says Crockett with a laugh. “I was as pissed as a motherf—er,” but I didn’t forget that.”
“Eventually,” he adds, “you learn blues, soul, country — hell, all the styles, because you want to get paid.”
He goes on to list his genre-spanning inspirations, from R&B artists like Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Bill Withers to “traditionalist favorites” like George Jones, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson.
“Waylon Jennings once said that R&B and country are about a beat apart — that’s true,” says Crockett. “That same era of the ’60s and Chet Atkins’ ‘Nashville sound’ — also an inspiration — is as much defined by R&B techniques and influences as it is an offshoot of traditional country.”
All those influences inform his new album, including current single “Round This World, which is based on mythological roots borne of the High Chisos region of the Chihuahua Desert near Crockett’s West Texas birthplace. “I focused on pouring my energy into the story that already existed,” Crockett says. “Then, I started adding my perspective from things I’ve already known from living my life. Then, I added a touch of fiction, which helps me get my point across even better sometimes.”
He digs just as deep into his favorite sounds when discussing the album’s most poignant anthem, “The World Just Broke My Heart. He says the title “came from a line I think I heard in a classic movie or something, and I held onto it. It’s easy to write a topical song and make very generic conclusions about society; however, I listened to a few songs by Roger Miller, like [1965’s] ‘The Last Word In Lonesome Is Me,’ and then I went to work. I had this incredible, grandiose title, and, like he often did, I wanted to attach that title to an unexpected perspective. That’s what I like to do — take something enormous, make it simple, then add something personal to it for a twist.”
In contemplating Music City USA as his potential breakout success, Crockett yet again recalls the greats who came before him, citing how George Jones released six records in 1966 alone, while it took Willie Nelson releasing 17 solo albums before signing with Columbia Records and crossing over with 1975’s Red Headed Stranger.
“I’m following a model like George or Willie,” says Crockett, “where with each album I release, I’m learning as I’m living — and making records throughout that process. Eventually, my level of creativity and my productivity will match my talent. Of course, by then I’ll be 60, but I know I would’ve told every story I know by then.”