Charley Crockett was destined to be an outsider. A mixed-race kid born into poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, he found refuge in the in-between spaces, first among the squatters of New Orleans and then as a busker in New York’s subways. He couldn’t have been anything but a blues musician.
After a decade spent on the lam, waiting out a bad record contract in Los Angeles, Crockett is back home in Texas. His new record, A Stolen Jewel, is rich with Southern flavor, a musical gumbo of Delta blues, honky-tonk, gospel and Cajun jazz. It’s the manifestation of a hard-lived life and it’s earned the attention of many in Dallas, including kindred spirit and current it-boy Leon Bridges.
Crockett grew up without a father. Soon after he was born, his blues-singing “single mother in a man’s world of advertising” moved the family to Dallas, where she worked 80-hour weeks. School was not a priority in the Crockett household. “I’ve learned more from bums and crackheads than in school,” Crockett says.
He’s “an eighth black,” but he wholly identifies with his Creole and Cajun ancestry. His great-grandfather, a Texas senator, raised Crockett’s grandmother as white, but Crockett was always most comfortable with his African American side, even though he often felt “too white to be black, too black to be white.” Themes of diaspora abound in his lyrics, and that struggle is grounded in verisimilitude; his spirit seems to carry the burden of centuries of racial persecution, unveiling a collective past that’s also very personal to Crockett, who recounts the history of “a conservative family in denial about their roots.”
In his early teens, Crockett was sent to spend half his time in New Orleans’ French Quarter, under the assumed watch of a gambling uncle who kept a very loose eye on him. It was there that he struck up friendships with street musicians who taught him how to play the guitar. He also met trumpet player Charlie Mills, who’s rejoined him today in Dallas. They’d been attracted to New Orleans, Crockett surmises, by the abandoned houses in the post-Hurricane Katrina wreckage: “As the middle class is decaying, the traveling kids’ culture is ever growing in America.”
Over the next 10 years, Crockett traveled the country, a wandering bluesman in the tradition of greats like Robert Johnson. “I started playing in the street and I learned from people coming through how to jump on freight trains, hitchhike on the highway, and generally learned how to squat, sleep in parks and really learned to hobo around,” he recalls. “I used my kindness and charm to stay with people.” Eventually he couch-surfed his way to the West Coast, “’cause it’s easier to sleep on the ocean.”
His adventures were endless, and almost too far-fetched to be believed: getting stuck in backwoods towns in Alabama, being held at gunpoint, getting tied up by ganja farmers in California or caught up in the “dirty underworld of Dallas sales.” He describes the drug-heavy North Texas suburbs as the darkest place he’s visited, though he now marvels at a scene revived with new venues and audiences.
Crockett thought he’d gotten his big break during a spell playing music on the New York subway, where he and Mills performed with a spoken word poet. “That’s where the cool crowd was, on the subway stops,” he says. On a train in Manhattan, the trio caught the eye of a Sony executive who signed them onto the label. One of the terms in the contract placed them as a talk show band, where they’d be asked to make up jingles about celebrity guests. While Crockett appreciated the opportunity, he was turned off by the idea. “My soul wasn’t in it,” he says. “So I went to California for two years to sit out my contract.”
His plan was to record solo in California and “flood Dallas with the album,” and he completed that plan this year. Because many of his blues heroes weren’t discovered until after their deaths, it’s important to him that he leave behind recordings of his music: “I don’t want to be 65 and not have recorded when I was young and able, and have waited for a record company to give me permission.”
A Stolen Jewel sounds like it belongs to the antebellum South, somewhere between Texas and Mississippi. It’s a swampy concept album full of suitable quirks, such as the ragtime piano interlude that appears halfway through. Evoking the scratchy blues of Skip James and the narrative style of Steinbeck -— celebrating and denouncing Southern values at the same time — the record has an undertone of benign voodoo magic.
Crockett’s strategy was to publish, distribute and market the album on his own, mostly giving the record away for free, in hopes that it might fall in the hands of “people who will believe in me,” he says. Bridges has turned out to be one such believer. “I was instantly drawn in by every song on the record,” Bridges says. “I love how he was able to capture a simple blues/folk sound on this record. I believe the key to a good song is phrasing, melody, lyrics and a good voice. Charley has all of that.”
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In today’s stock, Bridges’ stamp of approval is as good as gold. The two musicians crossed paths recently at Sons of Hermann Hall, and a week later Crockett was invited to play his record live on KNON. Then he returned to Sons of Hermann for a solo show, where he took the opportunity to shoot a music video for “Trinity River,” a song he says has been well-received lately because of the recent flooding. “Mother Nature helped me promote that one,” he says with a laugh.
Crockett may have finally found a home in Dallas, a city he wants to see reclaim its rightful place in the music world, alongside Memphis and New Orleans. He’s begun to assemble a band worthy of the task, with the brilliant Smokin’ Rita on guitar and Kevin Butler on stand-up bass. Each of his recruits has a keen ear for the traditions he means to unearth.
“It’s been forgotten and it’s been glossed over,” Crockett says of Dallas’ rich musical heritage. “All these past spirits are still here and I can feel them.” Maybe one day Dallas will achieve the recognition Crockett thinks it should inspire, and maybe someday Dallas will even have a Charley Crockett statue. Then again, a statue of Crockett would be equally at home anywhere along blues-traveled Highway 61, or even in a New York subway station.