In a region of artists who can frequently come across as ‘all hat and no cattle,’ Charley Crockett reflects back a true stewardship of a Country & Western heritage otherwise potentially lost to time. The latest release, The Man From Waco, Crockett’s twelfth in seven years, finds him conjuring a dark, Western mythology surrounding an outlaw on the run that’s spun through his trademark “Gulf & Western” sound; the product of broad and nearly unbelievable personal and musical experiences from coming up between border-town Texas and New Orleans. The idea behind The Man From Waco occurred to Crockett one night as he and his band, The Blue Drifters, were crossing central Texas on tour. “We were driving over the Brazos River and started talking about a guy named James Hand, who passed away in the pandemic,” Crockett says, the same Waco-native James Hand Crockett memorialized in his 2021 album 10 for Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand. “One of the guys was playing accordion and I started singing a melody, and over time what started as a joke song turned into a whole saga.”
The album, produced by Bruce Robinson, was recorded live to tape by Crockett with, for the first time in-studio, his established touring band The Blue Drifters. “Most of these songs were cut in a few takes,” Crockett says. “There was a looseness that led to a lot of inspired performances that felt good right away.”
The cowboy’s putting on a show in “Cowboy Candy,” reminiscing on good love in “Time of the Cottonwood Trees,” and bad love in “Just Like Honey.” Darkness enters on first single, the more autobiographical “I’m Just A Clown.” “As a person who’s lived many lives and spent some time on the street, I know what it’s like to be the clown, the drifter, all those things,” Crockett remembers.
The centerpiece here, “The Man From Waco,” is “the story of a man who loses control, and knows that what he’s done is going to catch up to him someday,” Crockett explains. Next is the trumpet-driven “Trinity River,” a remake of Crockett’s first-ever album single from 2015’s Stolen Jewel. “We’d been playing that song live a long time, and kept doing it better than before,” explains Crockett, who names Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as an inspiration. “I wrote it about all the spirits who would’ve inhabited that river over the years, and it fell right into the narrative of the new album: the journey that the main character’s on, the desperation he feels, the idea of destiny being determined.”
Desperate characters permeate The Man From Waco. “Tom Turkey” which originally appeared as a demo recorded by Bob Dylan for the soundtrack to 1973’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid finds new life here. “It ties into this album because Billy the Kid was on the run too – I’ve always been fascinated by his story, a young guy with some bad luck who was dead by 21,” says Crockett. “The version that’s on the album was just a warm-up, but we kept it because it’s got that magic of people not thinking. It can really be easy to think the magic right out of a record.”
He keeps the magic intact by letting the music guide the story. “My writing comes from that school, which is not having a school at all – it’s about letting melody lead the way,” says Crockett. “I don’t ever tell myself, ‘I’m gonna write this type of story now’; it’s always been about letting the song tell me where it’s going. I’ve never known what the story was about until it was all done.”
The stories are being told on stage now as The Man From Waco tour rolls on through the end of the year, and the album shines on stations across the country like WNXP, WXRV, KUTX, KRSH, WNRN, and many more.
Photo by Bobby Cochran