Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Charley Crockett's Walk Through 'The Valley': "That's What Artists Do" | Newport Folk 2019
Some voices are unmistakable. True modern troubadour Charley Crockett has one such voice, and he knows how to use it. Street-trained and road-worn, Crockett's musical journey has bounced him around the globe, from his homeland of Texas, to New Orleans, Barcelona, Paris and more. At every stop in his journey, he's sharpened his skills as a singer of storytelling songs. But his latest twist in the road might also be his most cathartic.
On Sept. 20, he will release The Valley, his fourth album in three years, which he recorded in the weeks leading up to what would be a life-saving heart surgery. Sung by a man who's made a global voyage with the uncertainty of his own return, these songs read as the next chapter of his chronicles. According to Crocket, channelling his life experiences, no matter how dire, comes with the territory.
"It's what artists do," he says, when asked the complicated question of how such intense uncertainty shaped the songs and performances of his new album.
Just after Crockett's first-ever performance at Newport Folk Festival, we sat down with the sharp-dressed man to hear about his forthcoming project, the journey it took to make it and how singing songs on subways and in train stations taught him everything he knows about making music.
This is your Newport Folk debut - what makes this festival special to you?
Oh, it has to be the heritage. It has to be the history, my man, it really does. And I've been looking out over this harbor since we got here this morning, it's just a real special place. So I'm thinking about some of those greats like Lightnin' Hopkins and a lot of the Bob Dylan and the folk artists, and the just the roots music artists that transformed America through this festival and that decade and that era, that lives with me. That's what I know about the festival… and I was shocked to get invited. So thanks to whoever made that happen.
Yesterday, you announced your new album The Valley is coming out on Sept. 20. What can your fans that have been following your career expect from this album?
I think everybody in life has to walk through the valley, and a lot of times, we got to do it by ourself. That's part of the struggle and the beauty of being a human being. And I've recently just been through some things in my life, and lots of people are going through stuff, but I had some life-saving heart surgeries that ultimately, to be honest with you, it just kind of transformed the way I see my life and the wold around me. Well, I recorded these songs about a week before those operations, just really uncertain about where I was going. If I was going to stay here, go up to the house, or just the quality of life. So, I made those recordings and I urged the people around me to put it out.
Hey, you can pre-order my upcoming album “The Valley” now: https://t.co/T5OVussdu6
Pre-save on @Spotify and hear “Borrowed Time” and “The Valley” today: https://t.co/wZXq5pm77H pic.twitter.com/pSDZIRKKmt
— Charley Crockett (@CharleyCrockett) July 26, 2019
How do you think that intense uncertainty manifested musically for you on this album?
That's what artists do, and it's our responsibility to reflect our times. That's what artists are here for, I think, or whatever you want to call it. So, that's all I'm doing. I'm just painting pictures of the life that I'm seeing, and I have learned from my journey to pull from tradition to find myself. But I am a man of my times, so I have to project this time too. That's all I can do, is reflect living now. And a lot of the spirituals that I've learned over the years playing in the street and traveling like I have, refer to life as the valley. A lot of the Carter Family stuff that I've really gotten into. Just that spirituality, it's a universal thing when you talk about something like the valley, or that mountain to climb. And we don't want the mountain to disappear, we want the strength to climb it.
Wow, that's an incredible answer. You've lived and played music all over the world. What's your approach to playing to a festival crowd where you've got some people who know you very well and are singing along, and you've got some people hearing you for the very first time?
I suspect most of them are hearing me for the first time, and it's why somebody like me, I might have a lot of anticipation coming to this place. I learned how to do this in public, like actually. A lot of people might be afraid to get out in public and play on a street corner or in a subway platform or inside a subway car. I have traveled around the world and just counting on people to lend you a hand, and when you come at music from that direction, people aren't asking you to be there. So, when people interact with you, that's a very real exchange that I can feel and see and understand.
I guess the short way to answer that question for you is, I've spent my whole life learning to stand behind my guitar, and the reality is half of what we do is the people listening. Literally, half of it. I'm only doing half of it because that's the whole thing. It wouldn't be an art if there wasn't somebody listening to it. And once somebody hears it, it honestly belongs to them as much as it does to you. If it means something to somebody, I'm lucky enough to have that going on.
"It wouldn't be an art if there wasn't somebody listening to it. And once somebody hears it, it honestly belongs to them as much as it does to you. If it means something to somebody, I'm lucky enough to have that going on."
What was the selection process like for your 2018 covers album, Lil G.L.'s Blue Bonanza? Are these songs you've been playing your whole life?
Yeah. To be honest with you, what it is mostly is songs I've known for years, and that's why I play so much stuff that comes from anywhere from gospel to country to blues to soul music or traditional jazz or whatever you want to call it. It's mostly songs that I've just been picking up over the years that I just always thought were so good, and look, I write a lot of songs. I write a whole lot of songs, but I just don't think I'm worth anything if I'm not learning the great songs from before me, for myself personally.
And a lot of the giants, the people that I see as maybe my mentors or heroes were anybody from even a Dolly Parton or a Etta James or Hank Williams or somebody like that, Willie Nelson, these people are amazing songwriters. But if you look at their catalog, half the stuff they ever recorded they didn't write, and there is something to be said for when a great artist knows when a song is so great it has to be sung. Because sometimes the song is best sung by somebody that didn't write it, and sometimes the only person that can sing it well is the writer.
You know of some kind that I can see that's growing, I just figure that each time I put out a record, it's doing better than the last one, and that's a real blessing. So I'm going to do what I've been doing, which is I live on the highway and I play really hard. I been doing that ever since my mama got me a guitar at a pawn shop, going toward the valley nonstop. I'm going to Europe in a few days. I got to get home to my lady for a few days and tell her I love her, and then I bet before we know it again it'll be Newport next year.
We look forward to seeing you there and good luck on everything.
Thanks a lot, I appreciate y'all taking the time to speak with me and I'll be twice as good next time.