Live at the Ryman
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Since self-releasing his 2015 debut A Stolen Jewel, Charley Crockett has distinguished himself as an artist extraordinarily in touch with his instincts. Turning out 11 albums in just seven years, the South Texas-born singer/songwriter has resolutely followed his vision, handling everything from honky-tonk to blues to folk with wholehearted ingenuity (an element that helped him earn the Emerging Artist of the Year prize at the 2021 Americana Music Awards). But while his ever-growing success has caught the attention of countless hitmaking and highly decorated producers, Crockett chose to continue forging his own distinct path for his twelfth album, The Man from Waco. The result: his most powerful and immediately compelling body of work to date, adding new intensity to his signature Gulf & Western sound and bringing even greater depth to his spellbinding storytelling.
Produced by Bruce Robison (Crockett’s manager and an acclaimed artist/songwriter in his own right), The Man from Waco took shape from a series of fast-and-loose sessions at Robison’s studio in Lockhart, Texas. “After we got about half the recordings down, Bruce said to me, ‘As your manager, it’s my job to tell you that you have the opportunity to work with just about anybody on this record,’” Crockett says. “But I’ve been in rooms with guys who’ve got 20 Grammys, and it’s my experience that a lot of them don’t see the artist for who they are. They’re more interested in sanitizing everything and watering it down to try to get a hit, and in the end all the magic gets lost. I don’t think a record like The Man from Waco could’ve been made if I’d gone in that direction.”
Recorded live to tape, The Man from Waco marks the first time Crockett’s longtime band The Blue Drifters have joined him in the studio from start to finish. Thanks to their relentless touring over the years, Crockett and his bandmates have developed a potent and palpable chemistry, infusing every track with equal parts razor-sharp precision and unbridled energy. “Most of these songs were cut in a few takes,” he says. “There was a looseness that led to a lot of inspired performances that felt good right away.” Also featuring The Greyhounds’ Anthony Farrell (a multi-instrumentalist whom Crockett calls “the record’s secret weapon”), The Man from Waco ultimately bears a lush and timeless sound that endlessly spotlights the singular character of his songwriting.
Centered on the wildly colorful story of an outlaw on the run, The Man from Waco takes its title from a slow-burning murder ballad showcasing Crockett’s captivating baritone. With its brooding rhythms and darkly hypnotic guitar riffs, “The Man from Waco” first came to Crockett as he and his band rode through the titular Central Texas city late one night on tour. “We were driving over the Brazos River and started talking about a guy named James Hand, who passed away in the pandemic,” he recalls, referring to the Waco-born country singer who inspired his 2021 tribute album 10 for Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand. “One of the guys was playing accordion and I started singing a melody, and over time what started as a joke song turned into a whole saga.”
Summing up the album’s narrative as “the story of a man who loses control, and knows that what he’s done is going to catch up to him someday,” Crockett brought The Man from Waco to life by tapping into an incredible breadth of inspirations. In penning the album’s soulful lead single “I’m Just A Clown” (one of several tracks graced with a blazing horn section), he looked back on the vagabond days of his formative years and early adulthood. “As a person who’s lived many lives and spent some time on the street, I know what it’s like to be the clown, the drifter, all those things,” he notes. A sublime and smoldering blues number, “Tom Turkey” emerged as Crockett spontaneously expanded on a demo recorded by Bob Dylan for the soundtrack to 1973’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. “It ties into this album because Billy the Kid was on the run too—I’ve always been fascinated by his story, a young guy with some bad luck who was dead by 21,” says Crockett. “The version that’s on the album was just a warm-up, but we kept it because it’s got that magic of people not thinking. It can really be easy to think the magic right out of a record.” And on the quietly haunting “July Jackson,” Crockett puts a poignant twist on the quintessential murder ballad. “I wanted to tell a story where a woman takes the law into her own hands, because obviously society wouldn’t hold the man in her life accountable for what he’s done,” Crockett reveals.
One of the catchiest moments on The Man from Waco, “Trinity River” revisits a standout from A Stolen Jewel and breathes new life into its brightly swinging, trumpet-laced arrangement. “We’d been playing that song live a long time, and kept doing it better than before,” explains Crockett, who names Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as an inspiration for the deceptively upbeat track. “I wrote it about all the spirits who would’ve inhabited that river over the years, and it fell right into the narrative of the new album: the journey that the main character’s on, the desperation he feels, the idea of destiny being determined.” As one of the first tracks Crockett ever recorded, “Trinity River” illustrates the unstudied sophistication that’s defined his songwriting from the very start. To that end, he’s found an enduring touchstone in a piece of wisdom gleaned from Robert Frost by way of Townes Van Zandt: “Worry about the phonetics, and the meaning will take care of itself.” “My writing comes from that school, which is not having a school at all—it’s about letting melody lead the way,” says Crockett, who first started writing on a pawn-shop guitar given to him by his mother at age 17. “I don’t ever tell myself, ‘I’m gonna write this type of story now’; it’s always been about letting the song tell me where it’s going. I’ve never known what the story was about until it was all done.”
For Crockett, preserving the uncalculated nature of his creative process has only become more urgent as his career reaches unprecedented heights. “We live in a tough world where there’s a significant gap between what’s commercially viable and what’s authentic to who the artist really is,” he says. “The more I’ve broken through, the harder it gets to avoid the voices trying to get me to work with an approved list of people, but in my opinion all that outside influence makes it easy for the artist’s personality to get completely lost. So instead of thinking about how to get something on the charts or get award recognition, I’m thinking about how these songs are going to hold up 20, 30 years from now. Because if I’m making any legitimate contribution at all, it’s because I’m telling a story that’s worthy of getting passed down and surviving all that time.”
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