"I'm just a man that learned how to play on the street, and to be honest, that's a humble thing to build from."

Charley Crockett is a musician who has never forgotten his roots. On 2019's The Valley, Crockett's life is on full display, in large part because he found out he needed life-saving open-heart surgery and underwent the procedure a week after recording the album.

As much as The Valley looked back on where he came from, it was also a forward-looking opus, one that allowed Crockett to declare that he had a lot of life left in him. Now, a year and a half later, he's living up to that declaration with his latest LP, Welcome to Hard Times.

"I'm really happy about this record. It feels good," Crockett admits, calling from his home in Austin, Texas. "My records have always been based on the idea of 'record 'em cheap and tour five nights a week.' That's a time-tested, organic, slow-growth model. This time, we didn't have that option."

Crockett is pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global crisis that has claimed more than 6,000 lives in his home state of Texas and completely turned his livelihood on its head.

"Typically speaking, me dropping new music and not touring sounds like a disaster, but this time around, it actually seems to be catching on with folks," he shares. The first single Crockett dropped from his new album was its title track, and the singer says it received the strongest response of any of his singles so far.

 

"When this virus started, I was really lacking creatively," he says. "I was in a state of shock, like everyone else. I wasn't playing shows anymore, which I was used to doing nearly every night. I had all this anxiety. I couldn't write anymore."

The response to "Welcome to Hard Times" no doubt helped lift some of that anxiety, and Crockett says he is now in a much better and more creative place.

"I used to play on the street. I collected money in my guitar case or in a plastic bag on the train cars," he recalls. "You look at how all of that works, and then you look at how the big business works. The thing about the business ..."

He pauses as he thinks about the concept of "the business." It's a strange thing to work in the music industry while not following any of its rules or meeting any of its stereotypical expectations, and it brings Crockett to a moment of contemplation.

"The business is full of people who are better at marketing themselves than they are at actually putting in the work."

"I think I have a firm grasp of how the business works," he says with no hint of arrogance in his voice. "I've made a lot of records. We recorded this in February, and I wrote it last November. As I was writing it, it just all kind of came to me. The best ones always just come to you, you know?"

Crockett won't sit with the idea of this album being one of his best records for too long, but it's hard to deny that Welcome to Hard Times is his greatest work up to this point. From the musicianship to the songwriting, everything about the project shows Crockett stretching the limitations of country music to new and unforgettable horizons.

As happy as he is to hear that kind of praise, he recognizes that many of his peers have the same opportunities that he does, but far too often, something stands in the way.

"I think many people today just don't want to take direction," he opines. "The business is full of people who are better at marketing themselves than they are at actually putting in the work -- not just recording artists, but a lot of folks in the business. George Jones was cutting four records a year under contract. The songwriting, the expectation, the quality that was demanded from the label and the producers, I think we've lost that in a lot of ways. And, I mean, listen, there are a lot of so-called producers in this business that I wouldn't take direction from either."

But, Crockett is quick to add, there are producers who are playing significant roles in the evolution and shaping of the genre.

"If this sounds like my best record, it's because I'm still here and walking, but it's also because I ran into Mark Neil," Crockett says of his producer. "He's the closest thing to the era of the Owen Bradleys, Don Laws and Chet Atkinses that we have; he's the closest thing living to those kinds of producers. I have come into contact with many producers, and they're great, but for what I'm doing, for this type of country music, for all of the diverse styles and abilities that I learned naturally on the street and hoboing around America, I needed somebody like Mark Neil."

"It felt like I was writing something that could bring people together, that could bring people into country music."

With the help of Neil, Crockett created the masterpiece of his career, living up to the expectations set with The Valley. Literally given a new lease on life — "They put a cow valve in my heart and from where I was when my heart was going to quit, I'm breathing better, I have better endurance, my metabolism is better ... I feel so much better," the singer shares — Crockett shows no signs of slowing down, and is ready to get back on the road when it is safe for him and his fans. Until then, he's going to do all that he can to celebrate the genre he loves so much, and Welcome to Hard Times is an eternal testament to that truth.

"When I was writing Welcome to Hard Times, it felt like I was writing something that could bring people together, that could bring people into country music," he says. "There's a lot of lost faith in country music. What I noticed when "Welcome to Hard Times" first dropped was that there were a lot of people who had given up on country music telling me that they liked the track: old white ladies who wrote country off in the '80s, friends who only listen to hip-hop ... It's bringing people together."

Crockett knows he's not alone in this venture, pointing to artists such as Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers as pioneers who are totally changing the face of the business and the genre. But his focus is on a wider reach.

"I want to draw people in from all over," Crockett says. "A lot of folks out there are just trying to make ends meet, and all they want is something honest, something real. There are a lot of great people making some amazing music right now. There's an incredible movement happening in country music, and it's a wide open field.

"For me, man, it's all about bringing people together," he adds. "Country music can do that. Country music has to do that."