“I’m from San Benito, Texas, down a dirty, dusty road, there was sugar cane and cotton, how I used to watch it grow,” sang Texas country artist Charley Crockett. The autobiographical title track off Crockett’s 2019 album, The Valley, chronicles a life of hardship and transformation. From a broken-down trailer in the Rio Grande Valley where he was born, to homelessness on the streets of New Orleans and New York, to a growing success as a musician, Crockett has lived the music he makes. He absorbed a multifaceted sound that defies labels not by imitating artists he admired while living comfortably in his parent’s basement, but through gritty experience with hard knocks and small, steady triumphs. Like his life itself, Crockett’s music is an evolving experience where nothing expected happens, and a mosaic of influences converge to build something new.
At the age of 10, Crockett moved to Dallas with his single mother, sister (who would later die of a drug overdose), and brother. His summers were often spent with an uncle in New Orleans, where as a teenager, Crockett developed a love for music and for going his own way. “I’ve lived a pretty eclectic life. I played on the street for most all of my 20s – really all the way through my 20s. If you play music on the street in New Orleans, or like I did in New York City, the atmosphere is full of such a diverse sound. That sound can be shaped by the time of day that you’re hanging out and playing. So, I would be around brass bands, old-time jazz bands, jug bands, blues players blasting music out of the clubs, country folk . . . anything you can think of. People would ask me why I lived in New York City, and the answer is I lived everywhere. When you don’t have a stable address, that’s what you do.”
Many artists begin by imitating a genre or musical hero and eventually find their own sound there. By necessity, Crockett lived the music. The influences that shaped him as a person and an artist were the people he met on streets and their music. “People will look at my life, and it’s romantic to them to imagine that type of gentleman gypsy kind of troubadour lifestyle, but most people don’t do it because of the uncertainty of where you’re going to lay your head. That’s what keeps people from doing it, because security is everything to us, and that’s just nature. But if you do live such a life that’s shaped by circumstances that put you in a position like I have been in, the benefit of that is all the different types of people you’re going to be around. By being around so many different kinds of people, I’ve been exposed to so many different sounds, so many cultures.”
“In my life on a normal day touring, I got people at the show that are millionaires, that want me to come back to their condo and see all the fancy stuff they’ve got and have me play for them, show their friends, which is fine,” Crockett said. “Then maybe at that same show – this is true, this actually happened one night – at that same show I’d have a young, Native American man standing by the side of the building, in between the backdoor and bus, trying to give me a bracelet that his father made for him as a graduation present. It had more turquoise in it than you’ve ever seen. He was telling me that he had a dream that he needed to give me this. I don’t know, I would guess, it is probably worth two or three grand. So I invited him onto the bus because I was so interested, because of course you can’t just say ‘thank you for this bracelet.’ How could I just take this from this young man? He refused to accept anything but me taking it. I asked him about his story. He was a Navajo man. He proceeded to tell me how he didn’t have running water on the reservation until he was 17 years old. He was probably maybe 21 or 22 at the time. When you’ve got millionaires who are paying you ten grand to play in their backyard, and then you’ve got a man who might not be worth a whole lot more than the bracelet he is trying to give you, [who is] coming off a reservation . . . you have everything in between.”
Although influenced by a great variety of music from his time living on the streets of New York City and New Orleans, Crockett classifies his genre as country music. “Learning the type of music that I have, I just put it all together. And that is why I have come to be proud to call it country music. Despite whatever anybody else calls it, I can’t control how people are going to interpret my influences that bring it to country music, but I would argue anybody who is worth their salt is pretty dang eclectic . . . I know, but you gotta put a label on it. I’m not even complaining about that, but it is what it is.”
Of mixed race, Crockett is a descendant of Davy Crockett, and had mixed feelings about Texas and his heritage for years. “My grandparents, particularly my grandmother, was really proud of that fact [of being related to Davy Crockett] when I was a young boy. To grow up in Texas and have that, you can’t escape it. It shaped me heavily. Sometimes I wonder how much, just knowing the relation and the actual blood in me, how much of that has had to do with the type of life that I have led . . . What’s interesting about him is how much of an underdog’s champion he really was. Whenever that big machine showed up, out there on the frontier, whenever they showed up and brought the big machine with them, he fought it and he left. He could actually speak to common folks. You have to remember, these people weren’t down in Texas on behalf of some bureaucracy back East. They were in Texas to escape it. That is why Texas was a nation and why we still see ourselves that way. It’s our own deal culturally, and it’s loved or hated anywhere you go, but there’s an opinion about it. I’ve been all over this world, and there’s an opinion about Texas wherever you go. Not everybody’s talking about Ohio. Davy and the Alamo and all, you have to remember just how outlaw those people were. Davy Crockett is clearly a figure for personal independence,” Crockett said with a satisfied drawl.
In the final lines of The Valley, Crockett sings about transformation. “Now you know my story / I bet you’ve got one like it too / May your curse become a blessing / There ain’t nothin’ else to do.” he transformation of suffering into something positive is deep soul alchemy, knowledge that comes with the experience of living. Crockett has obtained success in his work, with his 2020 album, Welcome to Hard Times, topping charts in Texas, but his real success lies in learning to turn difficult circumstances into opportunities. “For me, I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble in my life. I’ve dealt with health issues that I didn’t see coming, I’ve had my longstanding run-ins with the legal system in America, I have dealt with all these things. If you are born into poverty, you got no choice but toplay the hand. I remember this old man one time on the street, a homeless guy, I passed him and I said, ‘How are you doing today?’ . . . and he said, ‘Well I’d have to say the answer is, I’m doing good.’ And I thought about that, because if you have it hard, if you’ve been given a raw deal, you only got two choices: you can lay down and die, or you can turn the curse into a blessing. That’s it; that’s really all it.”