Back in 2020, alt-country singer-songwriter Charley Crockett took out a few billboards to promote his album Welcome to Hard Times. Paying out of his own pocket, he defied convention, something Crockett, a guy who got his start as a street musician, has done throughout a career that could be defined as a rags-to-riches story, especially if you consider the “riches” to be the musical gold he regularly delivers on his well-crafted records.
“I played on the streets for a long time and am used to promoting myself on the street corner,” he says via phone from Nashville, where he’s rehearsing and trying to work out some additional stage lights and curtains to make a proper-looking stage (“nothing fancy — all real classic stuff”). Charley Crockett performs at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 23, at House of Blues. “People were looking at me like I was crazy [for taking out billboards] especially because it was early in the pandemic and everyone was putting everything on the shelf. Not only was I unwilling to put my record on hold, but we moved its release from September to July in 2020, actually. I’m over here, and everyone is runnin’ that way, and I was runnin’ right into the storm.”
Crockett says the first billboard he bought in L.A. was marked down by 75 percent, making it a real steal.
“Nobody was buying shit,” he says. “It was a 30-day deal. We did that in L.A., New York, Nashville, Austin and Houston. All of them stayed up for three or four months. In a couple of towns, they stayed up for six months because nobody was coming in behind me and buying them. It might seem like a funny thing for an independent guy like me, but it comes from the street corner mentality.”
Famously, Crockett hit the road when he was only 17. Armed with nothing more than his acoustic guitar, he traveled the country playing street corners and dive bars before recording his first official album, 2015's A Stolen Jewel.
“My momma got me a Hohner guitar out of a pawn shop in South Irving, TX,” he says. “I started playing outside immediately because we lived in this tiny townhome condo unit. It was real tiny. I didn’t feel like I could play in there. I immediately started teaching myself to play outside in parks. I wasn’t even intending to make money or anything. I was just looking for a place to play and not get bothered. Someone came and threw some change in my guitar case when I was sitting on the bleachers at a baseball field in a park.”
At about that same time, his brother came to him with what he describes as “a money-making scheme.” Since the proposal wasn’t strictly legal, Crockett found himself in a bit of trouble as his brother's plan "put heat on us with the law."
“Once I got in trouble with the law, that made walking out of town with a guitar case and a backpack the best idea," he says. "That’s really what it was. I started hoboing early on. I was playing outside, but I was hitchhiking more and trying to find places to stay. That’s how I ended up on the West Coast and working on farms in Colorado and small mountain towns and playing at barn parties and shit like that. It slowly progressed. I landed in New York, and things tend to speed up in New York.”
He started going from New York to New Orleans on what he calls the “drifter trail.” While working on a farm he recorded the aforementioned A Stolen Jewel.
“I had recorded a million things before that, but it was all so informal that none of it really registered,” he says. “[A Stolen Jewel] is the first thing that landed on the map. It had distribution through CD Baby. I was working on ganja farms and ranches around Northern California. We completed the harvest in Potter Valley in Mendocino County. The rainy winter season had set in, so me and this guy who was working with this other farmer decided to record this album on a Tascam four-track he had. We spent a month making that record. This old girl who was running that farm had left for the month. We didn’t think about it that much. I had recorded some of the songs I had done on the street. We just played whatever came to mind. All the people who played on it were rural people. Everybody out there was some kind of creative person who was doing something in farming — not many professional musicians on that record. It was just all good vibes.”
Crockett says he aimed to recapture some of that magic on his latest effort, The Man from Waco.
"It opens with the theme and goes into ‘Cowboy Candy,’ which paints this picture of a guy who’s barely holding on, literally and figuratively, in the rodeo," he says. "It goes into ‘Cottonwood Trees’ and from there each song is part of the story.”
Benefitting from spirited horns and its soulful vibe, “I’m Just a Clown” stands out as one of the album's many highlights.
“I watched The Joker, and I wrote that song as a result,” says Crockett when asked about the tune. “It started out as a George Jones thing, a simple major key country song. I was doing that in the morning, and by lunchtime, I decided to flip the beat and go soul with it and kicked into a minor key. It wrote the rest of itself real-quick. [The Joker] was a movie I didn’t think I would like. I have a hard time with those kinds of films. I was so taken in by the character study and what can turn somebody into such an outsider. It’s like a study in mental health. I just thought it was such a powerful study of society.”
For the live show, a six-piece band will back Crockett, who says the live gig will make a believer out of anyone skeptical about just how genuine he is.
“Well, shit, I’ll hold up my end of the deal,” he says. “For a lot of people who look at me and are confused or have a hard time understanding me when they hear the record, when they come see me, I think it changes things. That’s where I’m best.”
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].