Interview: Charley Crockett Returns to His Roots, But Looks Forward, on ‘The Valley’
Charley Crockett is riding in a van somewhere in Germany. He’s on his way to his next gig.
“One thing I believe about music is, you have to know where you come from,” he says, thousands of miles away from where he was born. “Good Lord, you gotta hold on to where you’re from.”
That sort of rootedness in his heritage has always been foundational to Crockett’s artistry. From busking on street corners to playing on subway cars, he constantly strives to remember his roots.
“There are sounds in your background that will give you something to build on,” Crockett says in an almost professor-like manner. “I think, a lot of times, some of the younger music acts operate from places of not knowing who they are or where they come from. But you have to. You gotta be somebody who takes tradition and moves forward with it.”
Crockett’s own history and tradition is steeped in folk tales of the one and only Davy Crockett, a distant relative. “That guy, he had a lot of heart, and he did a lot of things,” Charley says with admiration. “Being related to somebody like that doesn’t come with any great fortune, but you can imagine there’s a wild spirit running through that bloodline.”
The wild spirit of Davy seems to have emboldened and convicted Charley over the years, from seemingly constantly touring all over the world to releasing album after album at industry-defying speed. But just as much as he may feel connected to his ancestor, the modern-day Crockett is a distinct wild spirit himself, and that has never been more obvious than in 2019.
“Life is short, any way you cut it,” he admits. “I’ve put out several records, but if you look at all of them, I’ve never been driven by getting a big producer or trying to connect with as many people as possible. I’m driven by something else. You start thinking about time, about the time before and all the time that’s to come, and you start thinking, ‘Is this borrowed time?’”
Crockett is alluding to the reality that, in early 2019, he had to undergo unexpected open-heart surgery to save his life. “It was a total shock,” he confesses. “I was going in for something totally different … It surprised the hell out of me.”
After getting an echocardiogram in Austin, Texas, Crockett’s doctor told him that he didn’t think the singer would live more than a year. “He told me I shouldn’t be focusing on anything else, especially playing music, until I got it taken care of," Crockett recounts.
Instead, a week before his surgery, Crockett entered the studio to record The Valley, an album that looks back as much as it looks forward, and one that provided Crockett with an outlet to process what he was experiencing. The project was released on Friday (Sept. 20).
“I recorded that damn record because I was so worried about what would happen with that surgery,” Crockett says. “Maybe I wouldn’t even wake up from the surgery. I didn’t know when I could record again, if I could record again. I didn’t know if I could get a record out. I didn’t know how I would feel.”
Because of all of that, Crockett admits, he felt an unusual amount of pressure on this particular album: “I felt like I was supposed to write the most honest record I could,” he says.
“I wanted to show people my heritage. I’m not just another cat trying to put on a show. I’m not trying to become some pop artist overnight and forget about my roots. It might be a game, but I ain’t playin’ it," Crockett continues. "So, I went down to the Valley in Texas, where I was born, with my lady, right before my surgery. I hadn’t been there in a couple of years. There’s a lot of America that I’ve fallen in love with, but when you go from town to town, it does something to you in a way that connects you to the place that you’re from, even if you ain’t ever spend any time there.”
Once in the studio, Crockett recorded The Valley in three days. Some of the songs were written within that week; others had been around for a little while. Some were written by other folks. The 15 tracks came together to form one of Crockett’s most memorable and life-changing records.
“This turned into an autobiographical record,” he says. “I know not everybody writes that way, but I draw so heavily from my own personal life. I most naturally write about my life. And I’m capturing my roots quite naturally on this record. It isn’t unique, but I have a lot I can talk about.”
"I’d like to think that I’m growing into the songs, you know what I’m saying? I’m growing into styles of music that people are now associating my name with, and I’d like to think that I’m getting better at it."
Though he can talk about a lot of different things, Crockett admits that it’s a bit overwhelming to have to continue revisiting his surgery in order to promote The Valley. “I’m a little conflicted about how much we’ve been talking about all of this,” he says. “It’s been coming up a lot, and I just start thinking about how heavy it is, especially to share it with people you don’t necessarily know.”
He pauses for a moment as he reflects on what he just admitted.
“Regardless of my own feelings, though,” he continues, “this is what happened, so it’s part of my life now. Part of me was so angry about the timing of it, right in the middle of me going overseas to do a world tour and right in the middle of all these opportunities I was getting. But I tell you what, coming out of this surgery, I was never going to be like, ‘I need to retire. Time to put me out to pasture.’ That’s the last thing I was gonna do.”
As he ponders the idea of retiring, Crockett is quick to add, “You know, when you stand on street corners in New Orleans and on subway cars in New York City and on the steps of churches in Paris, you’re reminded that this is the only thing that you can do. Honestly, that’s what makes this fun. The reason I do it isn’t just to write a record or get a hit on the radio. I do it because it matters to me. It’s actually pretty simple.”
As he celebrates The Valley, his fourth album in two years, Crockett has no plans to rest on his laurels, though he’s not one to get too wrapped up in what the future may hold for him. “I can’t tell you what tomorrow’s gonna look like," he says, "but I can say that, with country music, with folk music, with blues music, the older you get, the better you can sing about a lot of these things.
"I’d like to think that I’m growing into the songs, you know what I’m saying?" Crockett muses. "I’m growing into styles of music that people are now associating my name with, and I’d like to think that I’m getting better at it.
“If I’m right, I’m gonna be around for awhile," he concludes. "And for me, that’s it. That’s it.”
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