Album Review – Charley Crockett’s “Welcome to Hard Times”

The lyrics, the songs, the music itself is not always enough to constitute what we consider to be the greatest contributions to country and roots music of a given era. It’s the robust characters that can make you wholeheartedly buy into and believe every word sung that results in many of the most overpowering musical moments that we go on to call our favorites. You want to know whomever is singing for you actually lived it. You want to experience the stories through them, not just listen to what they have to say. This is what separates country and roots from many other musical art forms.

Charley Crockett has that magnetic, real world quality. His songs come with that lived-in, road-worn feel, and for good reason. From dirty streets to Western peaks and all points in between, Charley Crockett has propped open his guitar case in many far flung destinations and played for your ragged dollar, and did so well before anyone had the smarts to place a microphone in front of him and try to capture that magic for permanence and posterity. It doesn’t hurt that he can also write and sing just about anything that resides under the roots music umbrella. As if the most potent strains of American roots music all rose up from the ground and intertwined into a living, breathing entity, Charley Crockett contains an unfair amount of country and blues talent, only rendered forgivable from his incredible ability to share it.

You could cobble together a collection of old records to try and illustrate for friends and neighbors the wide array of expression types the roots realm comprises and the relationship between them all, or you could just cue up a Charley Crockett record. His latest called Welcome to Hard Times would be as good of a place to start as any, if not the best one. From classic country, to the Bakersfield sound, to primitive folk, to blues and early rock ‘n roll, Crockett can do it all, and with a cohesive style and shared narrative that renders it all so seamless and musically seductive.

What continues to be lacking in the Charley Crockett repertoire are lyrical efforts that really take it to the next level. Lazy rhymes will sometimes work their way into otherwise excellent songs. Part of this might be due to the continued prolific nature of his output. Along with writing many original songs, his reams of cover material of classic songs makes his catalog incredibly deep for a guy still early in his career. His blue collar attitude is productive and admirable. But if he took a bit more time to refine a line or two here and there, it would render his efforts that much more potent.

That said, it’s Charley Crockett’s ability to paint in plainspoken language about relatable themes through emotive characters that makes his music so enveloping and infectious. It never feels like an act. He puts you in a time and place pleasantly detached from the present. He also asks a lot from his band, both live, and the musicians assembled to record Welcome To Hard Times. They must follow him down paths of musical disciplines not everyone has a familiarity or adeptness with, and they succeed. Geography and era are just as important dimensions to interpreting a Charley Crockett song as genre.

But it is all filtered through the perspective of classic era country music. Charley knows better than anyone how artists from Hank Williams, to Jim Reeves, to Johnny Cash borrowed from the influences around them to forge a unique sound for themselves, and he’s able to both demystify this, while keeping the magic of the music itself in tact. You listen to Charley Crockett, and you’re not exactly sure he’s real; like he’s an astral projection from a previous epoch.

At the same time, you’re confident that the time for Charley Crockett is now. After years of paying dues on buses and street corners to forge that authentic character he is today, to creating a fan base through hard work and perseverance in a time period when the world is hungry and yearning for the sounds and voices of faraway eras—and sure, when many are seeking out multicultural characters to help carry music forward that they have more ownership in than they’re often given credit for—Charley Crockett is the man for the here and now, pushing all those traditional country sounds forward, presenting them fresh for a new generation, and making sure they’re preserved forevermore in their authentic and timeless modes.

As Charley Crockett himself says, “Real country music is for everyone.” And Charley Crockett is real country.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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