Interview: Charley Crockett on playing to the ghosts of The Ryman

The debt owed to James “Slim” Hand and the juke joints and honky tonks of Texas.

He may have been playing music since he was seventeen years old, but it has taken until he is nearly forty for the complete Charley Crockett musical character to come through. Equally at home with classic country and the blues, with a dash of country soul, Charley Crockett hit a peak with his 2022 album ‘The Man From Waco’ which featured his road band for the first time in the studio. The tour supporting the album was recorded, and the band’s performance at The Ryman Auditorium was deemed to be one of the best and it had a supporting video. It was an ideal way to make Charley Crockett and the Blue Drifters’ live experience available to the wider listening public and it has been released as ‘Live From The Ryman’, though Charlie Crockett would have ideally preferred his first live show to have been recorded in Texas. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Charley Crocket over Zoom when he was in Idaho to discuss his first live album, and his time in the blues clubs and honky tonks of Texas, including in Dallas’s Deep Ellum. He explains that his career as a touring musician is a career of last resort from his point of view, and he explains his views on what makes a successful musician. The breakthrough live albums of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings in the late ‘60s and ‘70s provided inspiration for him to release his own first live recording, and he hints that ‘Live From The Ryman’ won’t be his last live recording. Finally, he confirms he prefers a cowboy hat to the coonskin cap of his distant relative, Davey Crockett.

How are you, and where are you?

I’m great, I’m in Idaho at the moment.

Why did you think now is the time to release a live album?

Well, we’ve never done one before, and we recorded all ‘The Man From Waco’ album tour shows which brought us to a lot of stages, most of which we’d never been on before, and one of them being the Ryman there in Nashville. We went back and listened to it and there was just some kind of spirit in that room, and you can pick the ghost that you think might be in there from a lot of them. We also filmed that show, that was the one show that actually got filmed, so it has the music documentary aspect to it with video and a good show. So, looking back at it we decided to put it out, and a lot of times people refer to me as a live act, a lot of people say you have to see us play to understand it. I think we are hoping that putting out a live album at this part of my career is good timing for where I’m kind of at. I was looking at guys like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, those sorts of guys putting out live records in their Renaissance period. They were around my age, Johnny Cash was coming back, Waylon Jennings was finally breaking through, and Willie Nelson was finally breaking through at older than 39 and 40. I think I’m kind of in a similar place.

As you listened to the live tapes and pulled the album together, did you learn anything about yourself and your band?

We are a great live band, and I’ve known that for some time. We’ve always been a live act, the only marketing we’ve put into records for many years was playing shows all year long, and ‘The Man From Waco’ was me especially trying to figure out that I wanted to record with the road band, and do it more live. I just believe in capturing the magic of live performance, whether it’s recording the show or in the studio. I really think there is a special magic to the performance you can get from guys who are inspired, are professional, are creative and you put them on the spot to perform, and you capture that. That is something we do well, I think, perform live, and I record everything to tape, and I do like the way the tape itself sounds. It is more than that, it is not the way tape sounds it is what tape represents, and back in the day tape represented the fact that the magic had to be captured. With the financial and technological constraints, it meant the band had to perform and you had to capture that essence in the moment there. That’s what tape represents to me and why I really like to use it.I think it creates an immediacy in the studio, that same kind of immediacy you have to bring on stage every night I believe can really translate if you learn to use those techniques when you are recording an album. I think I’ve got those things pretty close together these days. We turned the Ryman into a juke joint, a honky tonk that night and you can feel it and hear it. It was something I was really surprised by, and I looked at the video of us playing that night, and I recognised us and I know that’s me, but what’s that guy doing because I don’t remember any of that.

How did you get your road band together and who’s in it?

I got every one of them out of blues clubs and beer joints around Texas when I was transitioning out of playing street corners. I started off playing on street corners picking up on all kinds of music, country, blues, traditional New Orleans jazz, drinking songs, old-time folk music. lots of jazz, soul, hip-hop influences, brass bands, you name it. I did that for a long time, Man, for about ten years. My transition from the street to playing on stage came about largely through my participation in blues jams, and open format blues jams with a band leader running it who got people up on stage. That’s how I started to learn to play electrified, trial by fire on how to lead a band. That slowly but surely started getting me paid gigs, or gigs with bar deals, and I started picking up guys who would play with me. That was happening primarily around neighbourhoods like Deep Ellum in Dallas, Texas, and out there in West 7th in Fort Worth, Magnolia and all those districts, and then on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, and around the blues clubs and honky tonks of Central Texas, and also New Orleans. At that time I was going back and forth between Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and New Orleans picking up gigs where you could get some form of guarantee or a good percentage of the bar sales.

That’s where I met the guys, and the first two guys who joined this band were guys I met in those honky tonks and blues clubs in Deep Ellum, and that would be Mario Valdez who plays drums with me and Alexis Sanchez who plays guitar, those guys came up in the same back rooms in Dallas and Fort Worth, and Charley Mills, who no longer plays with me, started on the street in the French Quarter of New Orleans with me many years prior. He played in the bars with us down there on Frenchmen and Esplanade, and he played with us for the first four years in New Orleans, and they were all bar gigs, all juke joints, all honky tonks, that kind of stuff. There was a guy booking local bands, and he had a company called 13th Floor Music, and he was booking all bar bands around Dallas, Forth Worth, and a little bit down in Austin, and I got hooked up with him and we kind of got on top of his little circuit, his racket, pretty quick there. To cut a long story short, after doing that for a couple of years, that’s when my first agent, who’s a Texan but working out of Nashville, Jon Folk, found out about us ringing the bell in those bars, and he picked me up and put me on what I call the Hank Williams circuit and he was my first national agent.

Your music mixes blues, country, soul, jazz and Western Swing. Is this a melting pot of the influence of Texas with a bit of Louisiana?

All my life, that’s all I am, I sure hope so.

As you said you had a long apprenticeship, but when you started to break through success was pretty rapid. What do you put that down to?

I don’t know. When you start out playing in public you find out what works, you find out ways to keep people’s attention, and you do it automatically without really thinking about it simply so you can hold it down and keep doing it. I think that’s where it comes from, and also I really do feel I came by this as a career of last resort through hard luck and circumstances. I’ve said this before, but I don’t really think you choose to make a living as an itinerant musician, it is really something you fall into. You are always a good way into it before you look around and realise what you are doing, and I think if you look around and look at Willie Nelson, or James Brown or Robert Johnson, or Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams, all these kind of guys, George Jones, you are thrown into it. Hank Williams was selling peanuts and shining shoes on street corners as a teenage boy, and before he knew it he was in the medicine show following the carnival around.

That’s what happened to me, and that’s what I would say about a guy like Willie Nelson and his sister Bobbie, it was just an automatic thing. You fall into it and one day you look around and you go I guess I’m a professional musician. I remember when I was still playing the bars I was watching the young cats just coming up and getting into those bars, and I was fairly young then around thirty, and I would see these guys coming in in their late teens and early twenties asking me what the secret was to getting by and making it in a really basic way. If twenty years go by and you are still doing it, it doesn’t really matter what level you are at, you are a song-and-dance man. If that’s how you are supporting yourself, even if you are just getting by, you’ve made it in my opinion, whether it is those guys scrapping by playing country and blues in the back rooms in Texas, working only certain towns or just in Texas, working the national circuit with just a small agent, those are all different versions of making it pay, of making it.

You recorded a great tribute album to Slim Hand  ’10 For Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand’. What did you get out of recording the album?

All the things we’ve been talking about, it is the same thing. The first time I ever heard his name was in Deep Ellum, I had a place called The All Good Café down there on Main Street, and it was just a poster promoting a show of his, and that was several years before I encountered him. The first time I ever saw him was when I walked in the backdoor of this honky tonk in Austin called Jenny’s Little Longhorn, and I was in there for a few minutes and it was really crowded, a little shotgun bar with lots of cowboy hats, and you could hear the old boy on the bandstand but not see him, and I knew he was good the second I walked in, whoever he was. After being there for twenty or thirty minutes, trying to get a beer at the bar, I realised it was Slim, it was James Hand. He just washed over me, and I was nervous and excited, and I felt competitive and I was scared of him he was so good. I’ve said this to a lot of people before, that within the idea of country music, he was the most believable, he was the most otherworldly performer I’d ever seen before, ever heard before, in country music.

I’d seen other guys, and I’d seen many, many, older men within the blues around America that could do that, but not with the aura of James Hand. He had created a vivid cult reputation around himself, whether he knew it or not. Again, I’ve always said this, I didn’t get a chance to see Hank Williams Snr. I didn’t know George Jones, but I’ve touched hands with James Hand. I knew James Hand and in that way, I touched hands with the greats, and I think he came directly from that line, 100%, he came from the same line. You hear that for a lot of people, it is like a young person seeing Ray Charles or Loretta Lynn or somebody, or Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley when they are a young kid. How many artists that we know and love, have a story of seeing one of those iconoclastic performers as a young person, and being kind of radicalised themselves to make a name for themselves like that artist that they witnessed? That’s what James Hand ended up being to me, and he was like that until the day he died. Every time I saw that man play a show he just took you out of the room, he made it all go away. Hank Williams used to say that in his short life, “I want people to know they can bring their troubles to me, and leave their troubles with me”. I know what that means, it means when people walk through the door and pay to see you, can you make them forget, can you make them forget their sorrow, forget their trouble, can you make someone stop worrying about time for just a little while. I know I’m looking for that in the people who inspire me that I like to listen to, dead or alive.

I’m going to apologise for this upfront, but I can’t resist asking if being a distant relative of Davey Crockett has made any difference to your life, and do you have a coonskin cap?

Well fella, I always keep a coonskin cap with me because I don’t want to be unlucky. I’m proud to wear the name, I’m proud to have something to do with the name and the lineage, and I hope as a proud son of Texas, I’m doing something to live up to it. The name is everywhere you go in Texas, and it carried quite a lot of weight when I was a kid, you were going to catch a lot of heat for it at school, no matter what. I have decided though, that I think I look a little bit better in a cowboy hat.

I think you’re right on that, I think most people do. We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

We’ve got a lot of records on the bus, we buy a lot of vinyl on the road for our listening enjoyment. I listen to a lot of Waylon Jennings’ earlier recordings, and I’m a big fan of Arthur Alexander, the great country soul pioneer.

He was amazing.

He was amazing, and he is one of those guys I found out about because people said I reminded them of him, so I looked him up.

He was a big influence on a lot of people, including the Beatles and The Stones back in the ’60s.

Yeah, I didn’t know that until recently, I’ve just found that out. It’s kind of unbelievable, you know. He is the only artist in history to have The Stones, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan record one of his songs. God, he’s got a lot of good ones. ‘Mr. John’ is a really cool song about a man getting shot while being in the war in Vietnam, and he was trying to marry this gal and her father wouldn’t accept him. When he dies in the war, his brother comes to the father who rejected him and tells him his brother didn’t have any hard feelings against him. A really, really, powerful song, a beautiful song. There’s another one he did on those Monument recordings called ‘Miles And Miles From Nowhere’ just a beautiful song, one of my favourites, ‘Me And Mine’ is another really good Arthur Alexander tune I’ve been listening to, off of Kent Records. As far as modern stuff goes, I’ve got to say that Colter Wall’s ‘Little Songs’ is a masterpiece. It is a really incredible piece of music, and I’m really proud of what he is doing and just his evolution so far. Me and him and our buddy Vincent Neil Emerson were cutting it up in Montana recently, and I really look to both of those boys and really anticipate anything they put out.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

I don’t know how y’all do it with 68 million people on that little island. The audiences over there are very, very attentive and they really listen, which is a cool thing. I’m not used to the crowdedness of the country and how little sunshine you seem to get compared to what I’m used to.

Plenty of rain as well, so don’t wear your best boots.

I found that out, my hat and boots, everything just gets wrecked. Maybe I should have worn that coonskin cap. I am excited about that Ryman record, Man. We are not putting it out to fill any holes, I’m sitting on a couple of full records right now. I really did get the idea from when Waylon put out that ‘Waylon Live’ in nineteen-seventy whatever it was. It was from three shows he played in Texas, two in Dallas, and one down there in Austin, and that went number one for him, which was a big deal even at that time. Waylon and Cash scoring number ones on the radio with live recordings, that was unusual. Those guys were smashing all the rules, just breaking all the walls down, undoing all the old guard stuff, Cash going number one with that live album as the man in black, and Waylon going number one with a live album recorded in small Texas honky tonks. I wouldn’t normally have put out a record from the Ryman, I’d rather have done the first one from Texas, had I not gone back and listened to that Ryman recording and felt there was something there. So, I’m excited to do it for people who have been following me or are just finding out about us now, and for the UK, who maybe have never seen us before, to listen to what we sound like live in a room like the Ryman. If somebody listens to that record they are going to know what I’m about. That’s why I’m doing it, people have been asking me to put out a live record for a long time, and I think I will do several more, but this one is important because it is the first one, and because of where I’m at and my age, and where we may go from here with touring and the studio albums that are coming right behind it.

Charley Crockett’s ‘Live From The Ryman’ is out now on Son of Davey/Thirty Tigers.

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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