Charley Crockett : "Learn To Be A Great Performer"
by Gary Shwind
photo by Mark McLennan
Charley Crockett is a singer-songwriter who carries on a long tradition of Texas musicians that have come before him. He has made a life on the road one way or another ever since he finished high school. By phone from the U.K., he discussed touring, recording his new album The Valley right before open-heart surgery, and how producer Billy Horton helped him define his sound
Americana Highways: How are things going in Europe?
Charley Crockett: It’s good. We’ve played Scandinavia, Germany, The Netherlands. We’re in the U.K. right now.
AH: What’s the biggest difference between touring Europe and touring the U.S.?
CC: First thing is that your sleep is totally different. We don’t stay in hotels anymore in the States. Over here we go right back to the van, and do the hotel thing right off the bat. The other difference is that the distance between Austin and Dallas, you’ll be in a totally different country with different languages. And the money that you were using last night is no good tonight. It seems like I don’t have to play clubs as many times over here to get the crowds to build.
AH: Right after high school, you went on the road and you were busking. What is the best lesson you learned from that?
CC: Busking taught me to stand behind my guitar. What I mean by that is I learned to throw out songs that weren’t working. You got to play the songs that are going to stop people and get their attention real quick. I learned how to hold my ground in the best spot. I learned how to talk to crowds and get their attention. I learned how to stop people by heckling them. The thing about playing in the street is people aren’t asking you to be there. You have to pay attention to your environment and learn to be a great performer. In a venue people are supposed to be paying attention. In the street you have to earn people’s respect. You have to figure out how to do that first. Oftentimes people expect to get the respect before they’ve done any work or proven themselves. On the street you earn every dollar from people because you’re most likely petitioning for your attention in a place where you’re not supposed to be, or it’s illegal to be, or where they don’t expect you to be. I don’t know any better way to capture people’s attention than playing on the street. The closest thing to that is being in loud, obnoxious bars, playing by yourself and trying to keep the whole drunk audience’s attention.
AH: You recorded this album before you had open-heart surgery. Does that impact how you feel about the album?
CC: It certainly does. I’m forever hearing myself on the record being in that position. I can hear that voice and I can hear the man unable to predict his future. That has a profound influence on me. Every day I have to learn more about what that means to me. I spent a lot of time after the surgery remembering these times in my life leading up to that surgery where I realized that I was suffering from my condition. I can hear that man’s voice on those recordings.
AH: It’s pretty astounding.
CC: It means a lot more to me now than it did before. That’s what’s weird about recording overall. Whenever I hear all those heroes of mine and learn more about their lives, putting together what these people were going through when they were recording. I’ve learned so much about the artists that I look up to as I study them and learn about them. It ends up becoming about myself. It really gave me something to hold onto going into those surgeries, during my time in the hospital, during my recovery time. It brings me back to appreciating my time here on earth and recognizing we ain’t here very long.
AH: Is that why the album is a little longer than most albums? Most albums have 10 or 11 songs. Yours has 16.
CC: One thing is that my songs are really short. I feel like I might need to give people some extra ones. I had so many songs that I’d written or co-written that I felt belonged on that album. There were three or four covers on there. “7 Come 11”, although I didn’t write it, is purely autobiographical for me. That’s why I’ve been singing that song. That’s the thing about music that can be so amazing. Sometimes the song that you write, somebody else can sing it best. They take on a life of their own. Many songs I wrote by myself or with friends. There’s a few songs on there like “Motel Time”, which was sung by Del Reeves and Johnny Paycheck. That song ends up meaning so much to me because I know the life he’s singing about. I am that honky-tonk man singing about forgetting what town you’re in and living in a motel. I wanted to include them all on there and I wanted this one to play longer than my last few records. I don’t think any of those even broke 30 minutes. It’s a landmark achievement for me.
AH: It’s very well done.
CC: Thanks so much. It’s a style of recording that I like. I like that old 50s recording style. That’s why I work with Billy Horton and Jay Moeller in the Austin area. I could easily have worked with big-name producers, but I chose to produce it myself with other cats that I know and have worked closely with. I purposely tried to make this record more traditional and leaning on my more natural and honest sound rather than being under pressure to make more commercial records. That can be the tendency for a lot of artists. A lot of that you can attribute to my background, my rough, self-made path. I’ve signed record deals in the past, and they didn’t work out for me. I ultimately started recording my own records so I would be able to develop an audience with an honest representation of what I’m trying to sound like. A lot of times if you’re a younger artist, you don’t have a lot of time to develop. Your recording belongs to someone else. You’re under pressure to make a hit. It can be really hard to hold onto your sound if you change producers. For me that independent Texas music-artist spirit – I’ll be who I am and let that shine through rather than change my sound based on what folks think is going to hit. I listen to my heart.
AH: How did Billy Horton help you find your sound?
CC: Jay Moeller who played drums on a lot of those records got me my start in Austin in a lot of the blues clubs. He took me over to Billy Horton’s studio because I showed him some 50s blues recordings like Freddie King, Magic Sam, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley. I like all those kind of recordings. He said, “The only man that can get this sound for you is Billy Horton.” Jay was right. This is the fourth or fifth album I’ve done with Billy. He helped me find the sound by having a simple studio and a small recording space built entirely on ribbon mics. It’s all hand-built to the late 50s, early 60s southern Louisiana recording style. It can be heard in Lazy Lester and Fats Domino, where it’s one-room, close-mic kind of stuff. That’s made a big difference for me with overall expectations and the quality of country-western and blues musician and engineer that he is, it put me in a studio where I knew how great he was. The quality of the musicians that I ended up in a room with forced me to be able to rise above what I would have been able to do on my own. The guys in my band, who have recorded on all these albums with me have played really hard in honky tonks, beer joints, and blues clubs of Texas. They have all been students of the Texas sound in a real roots way. It’s not like I put an ad on Craigslist. They call came through the tried and true Texas music circuit. I surrounded myself in the studio with everyone that was of a certain caliber. Whenever you do that, sometimes an artist can end up capturing a sound on record that he doesn’t think he’s capable of. There’s something about recording music. Magic happens when that you feel that pressure of trying to get a great live recording. It’s what’s been lost in music, but I see it coming back. The young generation of roots musicians are recording in that old style where it’s about capturing a great live performance. Back in the day, if you were George Jones or Fats Domino or something like that, you had to record it live and get a great take on tape. It wasn’t something you could AutoTune or edit together.
Scratch everything I just said. Billy Horton is all about authenticity. That’s what he found in me.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
CC: I’m not sure, man. I’d probably be farming, raising animals. That’s always been thing I’ve enjoyed the most outside of music.