Country music in its most consummate form is not a commercial enterprise, but a living continuum of the history of rural people told in musical form. The artists and eras of country music interlock like the links of a chain, resulting in a strength and continuation that many other genres just simply cannot attain. The new pays forward the legacy of the old, keeping it preserved, vibrant, and present in the mind of performers and patrons alike. If refusing to succumb to music’s hot trends means less listeners for country music, so be it. Because country doesn’t labor to be popular. It simply labors to be country. Only then will it sustain.
Charley Crockett has already paid more than his fair share of dues to the past greats, even in the short period his music has been a going concern on the national stage. With his “Lil G.L.’s” series of releases starting with 2017’s Honky Tonk Jubilee, and later 2018’s Blue Bonanza, the bonafide descendant of Davy Crockett has issued 31 recordings of classic country, roots, and blues standards to prove his studious and dedicated devotion to the art form.
The third installment of his Lil G.L.’s series is a significantly more personal one. Having become friends with James “Slim” Hand during the latter stages of his life and career, Slim’s passing on June 8th, 2020 was a big blow for Crockett. Charley knew was so few precious others unfortunately do, which is how blessed James Hand was as a performer and songwriter, and perhaps the only true embodiment of the “real deal” often yearned for in country, but rarely attained.
There are many talented legends in country music’s legacy. But a strong case can be made that no single performer in country music has ever suffered a more yawning gap between the potency of their music and the popularity it enjoyed in its time than the music of James Hand.
Taking that assessment personally, and otherwise just wanting to pay tribute to his friend and perform some of his most iconic songs, 10 For Slim came about in the short period since Hand’s passing, and from a sincere passion to see his legacy preserved. Starting with the story of the first time he heard about James Hand at Deep Ellum’s Allgood Cafe in Dallas, and then launching into some of Slim’s most signature contributions, the album is like a James Hand’s Greatest Hits title and a tribute record all rolled into one.
Charley Crockett is unable to re-created the unique drawl James Hand perfected in his somewhat short career that didn’t start until he was 47-years-old, and he would be a fool to try. Slim would roll from one note to another with a smoothness that made Hand himself the only ideal handler for his original compositions. Charley’s phrasing has just always been a bit more succinct, and understated to be able to pull off an impersonation.
But what Charley Crockett does bring is a sense of style to the James Hand catalog that it frankly was lacking throughout Slim’s career. Nobody really knew exactly what to do with James Hand, because he was such an old soul, and a traditionalist during a time when traditional country was falling out of favor. All the old James Hand recordings are worthy of listening, but Charley Crockett’s throwback Countrypolitan flavor flatters these songs in a way that they aren’t in their original form. The 50’s and 60’s were the time period James “Slim” Hand should have been born into, and if he was, he would have been a superstar right beside Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce. Presupposing this hypothesis while still being 100% respectful to the songs is what makes 10 For Slim more than just a covers record.
Strong fans of James Hand may have selected a few different songs to feature. “Shadow Where The Magic Was” might pound for pound be Slim’s best-written song, but perhaps too personal for Crockett to tackle. “Here Lies A Good Ol’ Boy” is also a big one from the James Hand catalog. But “In The Corner, At The Table, By The Jukebox,” “Floor To Crawl,” and “Lesson in Depression” are all quintessential Slim, as are “Midnight Run” and “Just A Heart,” and set the foundation for this worthy tribute record.
James Hand just could write a sad song like few others, and that’s what Charley Crockett focuses most keenly on. As said before, nobody can sing a James Hand song like James Hand, but with “When You Stopped Loving Me, So Did I,” Crockett really captures the essence of the song and Slim’s original sentiment, which can send the heart reeling simply from the title. You can tell the sincerity and love Charley Crockett and his collaborators brought to this project, including producer Billy Horton. This was not some slap dash side effort. Charley Crockett put just as much heart and soul into this record as he does for ones of his own original songs.
In previous eras, it was a requisite that artist had to pay their dues, and prove their knowledge of country music before being put at center stage. Artists like Charley Crockett, Colter Wall, Mike and the Moonpies, and Tyler Childers have brought a cool factor back to performing old songs for new audiences. And perhaps no single artist’s is more worthy of having a renewed emphasis brought to their music than James “Slim” Hand, and nobody better to do it than Charley.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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