Some artists are undeniable. No matter the genre, no matter the time, no matter the era, there are musicians – players, songwriters, and singers – whose talent is transcendent. These artists, seemingly born to change their listeners’ lives, cast intoxicating spells over their fans, and often lead their followers to a sonic promised land. Genre-defying (and thoroughly independent) American traditionalist Charley Crockett just so happens to be one of these transcendent individuals, and Welcome To Hard Times is his most magnificent album yet.
A quick word on Crockett’s musical style, which he describes as ‘gothic country’ on Welcome To Hard Times: If you’re British (and under 50), chances are that you have a limited understanding of country music and its adjacent styles, which include (but are not limited to) blues, honky-tonk, bluegrass, folk, and Creole jazz. If you know anything at all about them, you might be expecting Charley Crockett to sound like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson or Patsy Cline, and while there are similarities, the truth is that his sound is a little more complicated and nuanced than that.
If you listen to his previous albums, you’ll find that he’s as comfortable with ‘boogie-blues’ as ‘George Jones tear-in-your-beer honky-tonk’ (his own words), and plays rockabilly as easy as he does Bill Withers-esque soul. However, on his last studio album – his 2019 masterpiece The Valley – he showcased a unique, singular vision of Americana that truly surpassed anything he has done before.
Recorded in the weeks before he underwent life-saving heart surgery (having being diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome and Aortic Valve Disease during a routine doctor’s check-up in early 2019), The Valley is a stunning, authentic look at all of the music of Crockett’s life, from his time busking on street corners and subway cars to his time living with his uncle in New Orleans. Crockett managed to skilfully craft old school music without a hint of irony or artifice, making it both traditional and utterly modern. Songs like Borrowed Time, Big Gold Mine, 9lb Hammer, 10000 Acres, 5 More Miles and the title track showcase a powerful artist at the peak of his extraordinary powers.
Never one to hang around, Crockett released a 30-track ‘lo-fi’ album earlier this year called Field Recordings Vol 1, a mere five months or so after The Valley. And here we are three months later with another album, Welcome To Hard Times. Recorded in Georgia, with a studio band consisting of Kullen Fox, Colin Colby, Alexis Sanchez, Mario Valdez, Nathan Fleming, Billy Horton and Mackenzie Rosser, and produced by Crockett and Mark Neil, the album contains 13 of the best tracks you’re likely to hear this summer.
From the wistful, plaintive title track – which opens the album – to the poignant, heartbroken closer The Poplar Tree, the full power of Crockett’s talents are on full display. That title track, with its narrative about being down on your luck and still striving to overcome, sums up the entire Crockett canon – here’s a man, thoroughly out of time and place, refashioning the sounds of bygone eras for a new audience. Similar to how David Lynch uses a dreamy, rich nostalgic hue in some of his cinematic works, Crockett employs deep emotional signifiers to communicate to listeners of any era, or of any sonic preference. Technically, there’s very little separating the pleasures of the title track from early Bruce Springsteen, and just as little separating the thump-and-glisten down-south vibes of Tennessee Special from what the Velvet Underground were doing at points on their third album.
Over the course of the album, you’ll encounter the thrilling rush of the ‘psychedelic spaghetti western’ Run Horse Run, which finds Crockett hitting his deepest Johnny Cash tones, and his band galloping and barrelling along like wild stallions. It’s the musical equivalent of watching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in 4K. He conjures a more restrained, but no less powerful, magic on The Man That Time Forgot – an autobiographical title if there ever was one.
Elsewhere, you’ll find the syrupy slow-dance grooves of Don’t Cry and the streetwise, slinky Blackjack County Chain nestled amongst the resonant, cinematic flourishes of Paint It Blue and Fool Somebody Else (there’s a Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys co-write in here somewhere, and my money’s on that one or the raunchy Raining In My Heart, which is just superb). Lilly My Dear, with its booming, anthemic Flower Power-era atmospherics, is a mid-album highlight – but the true masterpiece is the song that follows, Wreck Me.
Wreck Me is everything Crockett does well, in one place. It’s both seductive and sentimental, intimate yet universal – a rumination on the devastating effects of true love. It’s timeless but nostalgic, melancholic but comforting – just a devastating song that speaks to the experience of anyone who’s endured heartbreak.
With songs this timeless, and a voice this haunting, Charley Crockett is undeniable, and the fact that he’s nowhere near the mainstream in country music circles is bizarre – especially considering the (mostly terrible) country-pop music coming out of Nashville currently. Welcome To Hard Times is simply a collection of beautifully written, passionately played and wonderfully sung songs that deserve as wide an audience as possible, and if you’re still unsure, give Charley a chance to convince you. He won’t let you down.