Music City USA is Charley Crockett’s 10th studio effort, and of course, such an occasion deserves a double LP. Reuniting with Mark Neill at Soil of the South Studios in Valdosta, GA, the King of the Gulf Coast Boogie and his Blue Drifters maintain the haunted country style they began deeply exploring with 2020’s Welcome To Hard Times as well as the holy Texas darkness of 10 For Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand. Though hardly absent from any Crockett recording, Charley’s inherent R&B style leaps to the forefront on several cuts, among them the yearning reverb of “I Need Your Love”, and the heart-aching fullness of “I Won’t Cry”. But, as usual, it’s the exploration of classic hillbilly styles that lace together the 16 tracks on Music City USA. The smooth fiddles of “Are We Lonesome Yet” and buckaroo-ness of the title track shorten the asphalt between Texas and Bakersfield while the driving banjo of “Round This World” chugs through coal-black tunnels, mixing resolve and regret to get the massive album’s most experimental offering. Elsewhere, Charley puts in some of his best vocal performances to date, showcasing his appreciation for classic honky tonk melodrama and his ability as a songwriter, particularly with “The World Just Broke My Heart”, a Song of the Year contender in this commentator’s not so humble opinion. Rolling through the backroads of rural Kentucky to meet up with Joshua Ray Walker for a run of shows in the Northeast, Charley Crockett called in to once again indulge my questions with patience and humor, divulge his original concept for Music City USA, and share how Justin Townes Earle helped shaped his career.
AI- The last time that we spoke, you told me that the new album was gonna see you doin’ more of that R&B style that kind of brought you to the dance. The lead single, “I Need Your Love” really has that vibe, but listening to it, “This Foolish Game” really stands out. It has that Texas Cannonball Freddie King thing going on.
CC- I appreciate that! You got a chance to hear that?
That’s the last single they gonna drop. After the album comes out, that’s gonna be the last one.
And “I Won’t Cry”, that’s kinda got a Ray Charles feel to it, maybe some early James Brown. Did you find yourself listening to more blues or early rock n’ roll when you were writin’ the songs for this album?
I don’t know, to be honest with you, Aaron. With country music and soul music, depending on the day, I might bust out some George Jones, and the next day, I might be tryin’ to tap into Ray Charles! “I Won’t Cry”, originally, I wrote it a few years ago– and I’d forgotten about it! I was with Mark Neill down in Valdosta, and I think he really wanted to pull that side of me out a little more. So I found this old song that I’d probably written five years ago– and we were listening to a lot of Ray Charles there at his studio downtown. I re-looked at that song and that’s what he was sayin’, like, “Let’s really try to tap into Ray and Otis!” Which they’re untouchable! But you can at least get the feelin’.
“The World Just Broke My Heart” and “Hanger On”… Those two sound like they could’ve been on 10 For Slim.
Well, I told you! You asked me if I was gonna keep doin’ that deep, dark, gothic ’60s country! Did I hold up my end o’ the deal?
(Laughs) I would say, yessir, you did!
I wasn’t lyin’ to ya (laughs)! Those are some of my favorite songs. “Hanger On”, I just love that. I don’t know, man, that kind of country music– boy, it just gets to ya! It just gets to me, you know? You know how I come up, I can jump between classic country and classic soul R&B if I want to. I was tellin’ you, I was gonna try to bring ’em both to this new record when I was talkin’ to you on the 10 For Slim album. And that’s the thing too, man, like singin’ James Hands’ songs and the attention to detail and the care that we put into that record, every time you do something like that, you can take it with you! You have the opportunity to know and get closer and in touch with somebody’s music– like James Hand or Ray Charles or George Jones– by listenin’ to them and bein’ with that music. A little bit of it might just rub off on ya!
I like that you bring up the care that you take. I think on Music City USA, there’s so many little subtle flourishes in some of those songs. Like the opening cut, that light bass almost like water trickling, and then the baritone guitar. I love a baritone guitar, even when it’s overblown, but scattered throughout that album, it’s just very in the pocket. Did you have an idea when you were puttin’ it together, that you wanted to explore different sounds?
Yeah, man, we did. I remember talkin’ to Mark around the time we was makin’ that record and he said, “Charley, you really don’t see a difference between country and soul music, do ya?” And I said, “No, sir, I don’t.” And that’s not me tryin’ to force that! If you were to go out and figure out how to play on the street, you’d find the same thing out that I did. You could ask anybody who’s done it like that, and they’re gonna tell you the same thing. Without gettin’ too philosophical with that, we really wanted to put it together that way.
There’s a lot people in the mainstream industry popping up out of left field, and they’re like, “We love your music, Charley, here’s 10 songs I wanna send you, someone else wrote. Even though we love your music, why don’t you just record these watered-down, pop, hip hop country, crossover songs? ‘Cause maybe people’ll believe you!” I get those kinds of gophers poppin’ out the hole left and right! But outside of that, I remember Jon Folk, my agent, when I seen him in Nashville right before I was recording [Music City USA], sayin, “Hey man, you’re great at country music, you’re really good at R&B– but it’s the way you hold on to all of it that makes it different. Don’t forget that.” Think about how lucky I am that I got an agent that says that to me!
That brings us to the title track, “Music City USA”. You sing, “I shouldn’t have come here in the first place ’cause folks here don’t like my kind.” Are you saying that tongue in cheek, or are you making a statement? Tell me about that relationship with Nashville and those people you were just talkin’ about.
Anything, tongue in cheek, it’s partially true. I’ve experienced all the same circus acts that anybody else, any honest person would discover in Nashville. Not to beat up Nashville too much, I’ve also seen that in every other town that I’ve played in, whether it was New York City, Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, New Orleans… There’s always some social scene, there’s always some parlor floor, and they don’t want anybody gettin’ in there and shakin’ anything up. You gonna have that anywhere– and it ain’t just music, you know what I mean (laughs)? When you come in different, like Loretta Lynn said, ” You have to be first, best, or different.” But when you’re different, you’re gonna experience resistance, and I’m sure you understand that. That’s more what I’m talking about is like when you come out of obscurity, and you got somebody lookin’ at you, who’d never seen you before, talkin’ like you don’t know anything, you ain’t never been anywhere. I was putting in 8, 10, 12 hour days on the street for a decade! And then I did it like that in the bars for years, oftentimes playin’ three a day! Three shows a day– lunch gig, a dinner gig, a late-night bar gig! We did that! Some of the guys that are in the band with me on the road as we speak did those gigs with me!
The folks pourin’ drinks at the bar, they saw me. They knew what I was doin’– and maybe that’s all that matters! But it’s not all bad for me because with my own label, Son of Davy, I’m workin’ with Thirty Tigers, and I’m workin’ with Red 11. These folks, for whatever it is that they’ve seen in me, have given me the opportunity to just do my own, and I’m grateful for that. But I also recognize that I earned that because I stuck to my guns, and I’m tryin’ to make sure that I stay with that right now. Like I say, there’s a lot of people knockin’ at my door that are sayin’, “You’ve done really great, Charley! Just come on in this room, and we’ll take it from here!” (Laughs) Nah, I don’t think I will!
Is there a point though? Is there something that would change your mind where you would say, “I do want to be a part of that different scene?” Something that to you would be worth it?
I don’t know, Aaron. I’ve yet to see anything. Maybe? What I mean is maybe somebody’ll come along in the capacity of what Ray Charles or Waylon or Willie all achieved, which was creative control [with] the largest audience.
I think that answers my question because you are in fact already doing that. So what would be the allure at that point?
Well, I don’t know. The question that you have to ask yourself is, “What are you tryin’ to get at, man? What is it that you want?” Because if the goal is to just reach the largest audience possible, or to attain some kinda fame, you’re probably gonna have to give up a lot for that from what I’ve seen. I feel like Willie Nelson got away with it. I think Ray got away with it too, you know? Ray somehow cut a deal with ABC Records to own his masters, man– in like 1960! You gotta marinate on that for a second! It’s unbelievable! But the times have changed. Aaron, I haven’t seen anything to convince me that’s possible at this point. But I’ll hear anybody out!
I don’t have the liner notes for the album. I’ve been able to hear it, but not see the intimate details of it if you will. Do you have any co-writes on this record?
Yes, sir! And I think you’d recognize ’em! Me and Mark Neill wrote a bunch of those together. My lady, Taylor Grace, she wrote “Are We Lonesome Yet” with me. Dallas Burrow makes another appearance on “Only Game In Town”, which is one of my favorite songs on the album. I might be leavin’ somebody out, but definitely Mark, Taylor, and Dallas.
I’m glad you brought up “Only Game In Town”. It’s funny, for some reason that song seems to me like a sequel to “Welcome To Hard Times”.
Man, you just cracked the code because that’s the album! That’s what me and Mark talked about. We was talkin’ about a second chapter to Welcome To Hard Times. Actually, from Mark’s point of view, the reason that we put “Honest Fight” down as the first song on the record was because if you listen to that song after listening to the song “Welcome To Hard Times”, it’s almost like the answer to it. And then as you go down through the record, we’re paintin’ a lot of different pictures, but instead of doin’ a double LP, what we almost did was two companion records. One woulda been Music City USA. And if we was gonna do a second record– you know how Sturgill did volume one and two on Cuttin’ Grass? We were gonna do something like droppin’ the first record– here’s Music City USA, 10 songs– and then here’s The Only Game In Town. And maybe sell ’em as a double record. I can’t remember what album specifically, but I have these random records from the ’60s where they would do that, where like there would be an album cover and then when you turn it over on the back, instead of the credits, it was upside down and another album cover. So “Only Game In Town” just about merited its own record. You could take the two albums, Welcome To Hard Times and Music City USA, and if it wasn’t so many songs, you could call it one really large record. It’s just a continuation of it.
“Only Game In Town” is probably my… It’s hard to tell you what my favorite one is, but I love that song. And Dallas really contributed. He’s such a big Townes Van Zandt fan and contributed some verses to that song that just really pulled the imagery out of the card game. He really matched it up. That stuff right there is kinda his forte as well. That’s why I enjoy writin’ with him. If radio wasn’t so insistent on makin’ big mistakes, that’d be the one I’d push (laughs)! But they don’t wanna push that stuff! They wanna push a soul tune– and I’ll give ’em a few!
I saw your video not too long ago, the “Harlem River Blues” tribute to Justin Earle. I think doin’ that one or “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving”, those would make two excellent Next Waltz sessions for you.
Oh, that’s a good idea! I definitely been wantin’ to cut “Harlem River Blues” because, I don’t know if I told you this before, but the first record I ever put out– it’s tough on the ears, but it got me out there– was called A Stolen Jewel, and the song “Trinity River” on there was the first one that people started playin’ on the radio just organically. I’d written “Trinity River” off of inspiration of Justin’s “Harlem River Blues”. Really, Justin Townes was my path. He was the guy that I looked at in my transition from the street to professionally touring. He came into my life and in a way that I didn’t expect– or even want really! Because I was datin’ a gal at the time who was head over heels for Justin and she…
(Laughs) Charley, you and I have more in common than you know!
(Laughs) Well, man, I’ll tell you what, he showed up in my life that way! And I really didn’t like him at first! I was very angry, but the truth is it ended up bein’ that dang woman that went away and was a lot of trouble to me. But Justin remained and we became friends. Just a tremendous influence on me and continues to be a guidin’ light. That “Harlem River Blues”, that’s kinda his trademark song– and I could go down the list of the great songs that he wrote! I’d like to record a lot of his stuff, man, but “Harlem River Blues” struck me deep, and I think anybody that knows him can see the greatness and the power of that song, especially with him leaving us in the way that he did. Justin’ll stay young forever. They’ll keep findin’ his music, and I’m confident that younger generations, future generations are gonna keep lookin’ at Justin Townes Earle. He left that for us. I’m very grateful that we have the man’s work, and he lives through that.
You have a couple of outstanding surprise tracks on Music City USA. Of course, I gotta bring up “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water”. I don’t care what you say, I’m gonna pretend that you put that one on there just for us here in Macon, Georgia!
I did! Look, I did it for y’all! I did it for y’all at the Creek, I did it for Macon, I did it for Mark Neill, I did it for Georgia! I really did!
Was Mark a big fan of that song? Was he the one that said, “Hey, we need to do this one?”
No, I brought it to him. (Laughs) I think he probably thanked his lucky stars that I come in there wantin’ to do somethin’ on Georgia! The first thing he did was he said, “You know what? Why don’t you just go in there and cut it right now?” We’d never agreed so quickly on anything (laughs)! Another guy that he recorded, Theo Lawrence– if you’ve never heard of him, he’s an unbelievably good singer and songwriter from France. I believe he’s half French, half Arab. He’s on a label over there in Europe, and he come to America looking to make a record in the South. He heard about Mark ’cause really the truth is there is nobody better than Mark Neill at that sound. I don’t think anywhere in the world, you can find somebody better than Mark.
Actually, Theo Lawrence has a lot to do with why I started workin’ with Mark in the first place. I’d been hearin’ Mark’s name for years– kinda like a James Hand where you didn’t wanna speak his name above a whisper, you know? Afraid that it would all disappear! It was Theo’s record that he cut with Mark Neill [Sauce Piquante] that really was the final decision for me to go to Valdosta. Theo came over from France to Austin, and they stayed for a month. They played all the back rooms around town for a month straight, and I musta gone and watched Theo and his band like five times! He does all kinds of throwback stuff, ’60s balladeer stuff, ’60s pop. I would call him virtuosic! But he was in a phase where he was doin’ all classic country and lots of Cajun-inspired stuff, you know, with this French background. That really spoke to me. He was doin’ songs like “Another Day, Another Dollar”, doin’ some early Gram Parsons, and one night, he did “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water” Stonewall Jackson-style. And it knocked me out, man! “Another Day, Another Dollar”, I think he maybe did Wynn Stewart’s version. I was really impressed by both of those songs. One night I just committed to learning, “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water” in the middle of workin’ with Mark. Somethin’ about the story and the relationship that I’ve developed with Georgia, it just got to me, man!
That’s how it is for me with country music and why I love it so much! It’s the stories, man. I always sit here and tell you about that, but it comes down to the story, and the picture that song painted just got to me. I demoed it out on my phone real quick and I sent it to Mark, and Mark said, “Great, we’ll do it.” I went right in there and cut it! You know, Mark is crazier n’ hell, and he said, “I wanna have the definitive version on this.” I said, “Well, maybe sound-wise, you can claim it, but there’s no way I’m gonna ever claim to out sing Stonewall Jackson!” But we gave it our best, and I’m proud of it!
And “Skip A Rope”! I actually could not tell you the last time I sat down and listened to that song, so I was really surprised at just how strongly I felt about it. Particularly, right now with the way the world is, being a family man, and feeling the emotion of that song. How’d you come to the decision to include that?
I’ve been a big Henson Cargill fan for some time. That record on Monument is really full of a lot of amazing songs. Kinda like Sanford Clark, both of these guys, for the most part, went under the radar, but they’re both fountains of great material. When I heard “Skip A Rope”… I think it was ’68 that it came out? Henson Cargill, he was really unknown. He was from Oklahoma, and I think he was mostly singin’ in like Vegas casinos. He really is a wild card that comes out of nowhere, manages to get his hands on the song, and somehow convinces or Don Law decides that he’s gonna work this session for this unknown guy ahead of all of the other big Nashville singers that could have done that song.
But similarly to “Blackjack County Chain” from Red Lane, I think most people wouldn’t touch it! Which is maybe how this name gets in there that you wouldn’t hear. Maybe what’s even more incredible about that song than anything else is that it was a #1 in country music in 1968 divided America! That blows my mind! It speaks a lot to how good the song overall is. It’s like something you’d see Dolly Parton do the way she could. Or Johnny Cash! The way that they could walk the line, so to speak. People, for some reason unbeknownst to me, love to talk down about Johnny Cash from time to time sayin’ that, “Oh, you know, Johnny, he tried to have it both ways…”
Say what you will about God or country, you leave Johnny Cash alone!
That’s what I’m sayin’! I say the man didn’t try to have it both ways, he in fact walked the line, and I would argue that’s the hardest thing to do! And that’s what I think is so great about “Skip A Rope” because like what you’re sayin’, bein’ a family man, just bein’ of any kind of background in America, that thing is touching on golden rules and the ideas of what true faith means to a person. Anyway, there’s my lofty rant about that song. But I got a million of those old songs that I’m always messin’ around with, and Mark actually was the one that said, “Hey, I really, really want you to do this. And I’d like to really, really take a shot at getting this close to Henson’s version as we can.” So we tried. And I recognize a lot of people been cuttin’ it, but I thought that we could do as good as anybody in the current era with that one. I probably wouldn’t have forced it to be on the record, but again, I’m very lucky to work with the kind of people that look at me and say, “You wanna do that? Then we wanna do that. We’re gonna do this.” It’s the closin’ track on the double LP. I haven’t listened to it in a while, man! I need to go back and listen to it myself!