Two recent albums by country music singer Charley Crockett: Welcome to Hard Times and 10 for Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand

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Charley Crockett is a country music performer from the farming community of San Benito, South Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. Six years ago, at age 31, he started releasing albums on independent labels. In this short time, he managed to release 11 albums of this type. For much of the decade leading up to 2015, he performed and performed shows in North America and Europe.

Charley Crockett (Photo credit – Bobby Cochran)

Mainstream contemporary country music is dominated by business calculations and often has number production and hackneyed imagery. Crockett’s musical approach is a welcome alternative to the largely stereotypical material. His best songs convey an underlying dynamism and seriousness that deserve attention.

It is above all the voice of Crockett, influenced as much by soul, Cajun, rock and R&B as by traditional country sounds, which gives his work an intriguing and distinctive character. His website says his early musical experiences included New Orleans jazz, hip hop, and soul, and some of that is reflected in his intonations and phrasing. Her singing and the pushing of her songs have a firmness and confidence, suggesting someone who has spent their career performing on street corners and in bars, needing to grab and hold the attention of a unknown audience, even passing through.

Crockett’s latest albums Welcome to hard times (2020) and 10 for Slim: Charley Crockett sings James’ hand (2021) offer the opportunity to take a closer look at the music of this interesting new artist.

Welcome to hard times

At Welcome to hard times, Crockett performs 13 songs that focus largely on the struggles of romantic love, personal loss, and individuals facing impossible situations. The song’s content was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the “hard times” are mostly crafted in the “drifting” tradition of what is often referred to as “outlaw” country music. This style is generally associated with Texan singer-songwriters of the 1970s like Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, and Waylon Jennings. On Crockett’s album, country blues ballads mingle with more lively “honky-tonk” songs about characters consistently on the bad side of luck.

Welcome to the hard times

The results of the songs strike at their best, but not without complications. Crockett’s country soul vocals underpin several songs that don’t make a big impression on the lyric. On the title track “Welcome to Hard Times”, performed to lively bar-style piano chords, Crockett begins by singing “Life is a casino, I tell you / And everyone plays: boys and girls / Women, kids , me, and you / The ice is loaded and everything is fixed / Even a bum would tell you.

The “hard times” that Crockett sings about are never fully highlighted. Her baritone song about “not being fair” life certainly resonates with millions of people, and her voice hints at the hardships of life. But the content of the song never convincingly or emotionally captures why life is so difficult. Where can these pains come from, or from whom, we never learn.

A similar pattern is repeated on other “outlaw” ballads such as “Paint It Blue” and “Blackjack County Chain”. Each is spellbinding, built around the weary voice of Crockett’s world and the highly proficient guitar playing of his band. But neither has a deep emotional impact. The characters don’t go beyond familiar country music tropes, like a runaway bandit or a chain gang beating a cruel guardian to death.

The only song in this ballad vein that goes further is “The Poplar Tree”, the album’s last number, anchored to the banjo. The song is about a character in love with the “Old West” who is lynched by a mob motivated by revenge, in a case of mistaken identity. Crockett’s last lines, sung plaintively, make a memorable and eerie impression.

Songs about grief and loneliness produce the most profound impact, although there are too many such songs on Welcome to hard times.

Dark tunes like “Fool Somebody Else” could almost pass for rhythmic and bluesy ballads, although interesting underpinned by steel guitar and harpsichord.

On “Heads You Win,” Crockett’s high-end vocal effort is an unusually refreshing take on the “bad luck” love song, carried by his inventive phrasing and vulnerability in the chorus.

Overall, the uneven quality of the songs is related to their lack of concreteness. Crockett often sings about vagrants and figures on the run about something – heartache, a sloppy relationship, a broken promise. But the songs often lack the familiar and truthful details of today’s life. His remarkable singing masks this weakness on some numbers but diminishes during the whole of the 13.

10 for Slim: Charley Crockett sings James’ hand

On the most recent 10 For Slim: Charley Crockett sings James’ Hand, the songs are again largely focused on men and women who are out of luck. The album is a tribute to the relatively unknown Texan country singer-songwriter James Hand, who died of a heart attack in 2020 at the age of 67.

James “Slim” Hand (Photo credit–jamesslimhand.com)

Hand has been hailed by figures like Willie Nelson and Dale Watson as one of the great “unannounced” country singers of decades past. He tirelessly began to write and perform songs at the age of 47, which may have contributed to his poor health. Live recordings of Hand’s efforts, such as “In the Corner, At the Table, By the Jukebox”, influenced by Hank Williams, give an idea of ​​his heartfelt singing style and vulnerability.

Crockett opens 10 for thin with an introduction reminiscent of the evenings he watched Hand perform “on stage with tears in his eyes… before he vanished into the hot Texas night again”.

Most of Hand’s songs are written from the perspective of an elderly person who has been through difficult relationships of one variety or another. While there is a repetitive quality to this theme, the emotions conveyed by the lyrics can be vivid. It feels like Hand’s grief has been “hard earned”.

With Crockett, the musical quality of Hand’s songs becomes more engaging than in the originals. The guitar playing is often inventive and straightforward. Crockett’s version of Hand’s “In the Corner”, for example, swings and bounces, becoming an engaging dance hall song.

A musical highlight of the album in this regard is the “road song” “Midnight Run,” which is driven by Crockett’s crooning and evocative guitar licking.

Sometimes there is a sharper quality in Hand’s lyrics. Certain phrases and moments catch the ear, like on the breakup song “So Did I”: “When you stopped loving me, then I have / Ain’t it strange, now we both see eye to eye . “

Some recognizable characters strike a chord as well, such as the barroom “lowlifes” on “Over There That’s Frank”. The characters in the song are hand-treated in human vignettes, and it’s understandable why they appeal to the heartbroken narrator, who doesn’t try to paint a rosy picture of the frame itself.

Again, all in all, the music mostly focuses on “unlucky” love songs – too much. Crockett does an admirable job in serving Hand’s songs, improving their musical quality and sometimes emphasizing the strengths of the songwriter. But the listener is a little tired towards the end by the limited world, so to speak, represented in the songs.

Crockett’s unconventional vocals are intriguing and refreshing. But songwriting must catch up with singing and musical talent. There is more to life than heartache in love. The interpreter is a little too easy on himself. The pain people feel ultimately has its roots beyond empty bars and lounges, in the social and economic conditions in which we live. If he pursues these other aspects of life, music will be well served by Crockett’s very obvious talents.


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