I just about fell out of the cab I was riding in – I had what we call a come-apart!” laughs Charley Crockett, recalling the day Willie Nelson casually FaceTimed the rising Texas singer-songwriter to congratulate him on his success. “He told me he was proud of me and that he was paying attention. I can handle just about anything, but it was one of the coolest things that’s ever happened.”
That such a titan of classic country is co-signing Crockett is no surprise. Crockett’s swinging “Gulf and Western” music – named after the southern US coastal tract that runs across Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas – is every bit as homespun as the sound Nelson has perfected over the past 60 years. Drawing from traditional hillbilly mountain music, vintage soul and R&B, Crockett’s old-school country music twang – as well as his exceedingly dapper dress sense – harks back to another era, and regularly includes faithful but flair-filled cover versions of Fifties and Sixties originals .
The fact that Crockett comes on like a one-man tribute to the cult cowboy show Rawhide – all fringed suede jackets and red-blooded Clint Eastwood-style posturing – might seem pretty niche. But in 2020, the buckskin blues of Welcome to Hard Times managed to turn this former busker into a star.
There have been two more albums since then, and another one is on the way this week. A warm, welcoming collection of obscure country covers, Lil’ GL Presents: Jukebox Charley encompasses everything from the late, great Tom T Hall to the lesser-known likes of Larry Brasso and Red Sovine. It’s Crockett’s 11th album since 2015, and the 38-year-old says that he isn’t here to waste time.
“I don’t think it’s an extraordinary thing that I’m doing,” he shrugs, admitting that his 12th album is already in the bag, too. “If you were to look at the career of Willie Nelson or Aretha Franklin, you’ll find that Willie didn’t really become a successful household name until his 15th or 16th studio album, and Aretha didn’t break through until her ninth or 10th.” Crockett’s output, which has always been a mixture of originals and covers, also brings to mind the days when big names would habitually release different versions of the same song. “What’s an exception to the rule nowadays would be how everybody did it before.”
Courteous and reflective, Crockett speaks in a deep, bassy Southern accent, peppering his sentences with the occasional “Ma’am”. He’s indebted to what’s come before him. Perhaps the most stylish man in his current home of Austin, Texas, he is never seen out of sharply tailored Western wear, from his crisp Stetson hat down to his perfectly polished cowboy boots. Pearl-snapped vintage shirts, brassy belt buckles and tailored slacks fill up the gaps in between so that he resembles a slickly styled Forties cowboy crooner or a long-forgotten rodeo star.
It’s not just his look but his story that brings to mind the likes of Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie. Crockett started out by hitchhiking and jumping trains to play folk music on street corners in states such as Louisiana and New York. Born in the city of San Benito, Texas, and raised by a single mother in a trailer park, Crockett – a distant relation of famed frontiersman Davy Crockett – lived on and off with his uncle in New Orleans between the ages of eight and 13. “He worked at a restaurant in the French Quarter and at a gentlemen’s club on Bourbon Street,” he explains. “He was also a card dealer, so I grew up in casinos and bingo halls.”
In his twenties, Crockett began “hobo-ing” around the US. During a stint in Manhattan, he first became aware of the cosmic country music of Gram Parsons, whose style of intuitive, heartfelt storytelling would inspire his own songwriting. After mornings spent busking on the subway, Crockett would collect his tips from him and visit his favorite health food store in Greenwich Village for lunch.
He quickly made friends with a Rastafarian guy who worked on the juice counter. “He was obsessed with Gram Parsons and was in the middle of putting a country band together,” says Crockett, calling from North Dakota in the middle of another cross-country tour. While crashing with him at his public housing development on the Lower East Side, Crockett’s new pal would teach him tunes by Parsons’ band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. “Gram was one of those people bridging the gap between the older generation of country music [fans] and a younger audience in the Sixties – and it worked again on me,” Crockett explains.
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As he travelled, Crockett picked up more songs, adding traditional numbers by the Carter Family and Lightnin Hopkins to his growing repertoire. “Being on the street, I was soaking in all of the diverse cultural sounds that exist when you’re an itinerant in America,” he explains. “I was exposed to so much stuff.”
Though he was making a steady – if not exceptional – living by busking, Crockett didn’t start to take things seriously until he met American songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died from an accidental overdose at the age of 38 in 2020. Taking a break from the road, Crockett was working at a farm in Mendocino County, California, which raised hogs and chickens and grew fruit, vegetables and weed. Crockett wasn’t there to earn money, but to take in some fresh air and make sure he wasn’t – as he somewhat ominously puts it – “swallowed up by the night”.
There was a girl there, too. “I was both dating and working for her and she was chasing Justin around,” he says with a chuckle. “Then Justin showed up at the farmhouse one day to buy some ganja.” They were initially wary of each other, but it didn’t take long for the pair to become friends. “He had a lot to do with me making a real push to get off the street and [go from] being a transient into being a professional recording artist,” he remembers.
In 2015, Crockett self-released his first album, A Stolen Jewel. It featured the bluesy “Trinity River”, which was inspired by Earle’s own 2010 breakthrough hit, “Harlem River Blues”. As well as his own material from him, Crockett’s debut album featured a number of cover versions – “songs I learned in the streets around America, when I was still a gypsy”.
Cover versions have always been an important part of Crockett’s musical make-up, from his take on Gram Parsons’ “Juanita” on A Stolen Jewel to the entirety of this year’s Lil’ GL Presents: Jukebox Charley. He’s been learning from the greats since the start. “When you write songs, all you’re really doing is showing people your own version of all the stuff that you know,” Crockett insists. “So if you don’t know anything, then you’re probably not gonna write that great a song.”
His own impressive back catalog – packed with just as many glorious Crockett originals as it is his distinctive takes on other artists’ material – is proof of just how true that is.
‘Lil’ GL Presents: Jukebox Charley’ is out on 22 April via Son of Davy/Thirty Tigers