Singer-songwriter Charley Crockett has become a key player in the discussion of contemporary roots music, but that wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, an unknown Crockett hitchhiked across the country for several years, relying on the kindness of strangers and believing that his music would one day conquer his circumstances.
“My storytelling comes from being somebody on the outside,” Crockett says in a recent phone interview. He performs with Shooter Sharp and the Shootouts at 8:30 p.m on Saturday at the Beachland Ballroom
. “You develop a chip on your shoulder. You watch people with the least resistance get ahead the fastest and you watch people with the most talent have a hard time.”
Crockett was born to a single mother in rural southern Texas. The pair moved to Dallas before Crockett’s mother decided that it would be best for him to live in New Orleans with his uncle.
Crockett says his mother was “trying to give me a male role model in my life cause my daddy wasn’t around.”
After playing New York subways got old, Crockett hitched a ride back to somewhere that felt like home — New Orleans.
“That’s where I really started learning the roots of the music in my heritage,” he says. “Traditional jazz songs come from New Orleans, lots of old country songs, lots of blues stuff that would get played by street bands that I was playing next to all day.”
Dallas blues are Crockett’s largest musical influence, but New Orleans was the town that brought the turning point in his career.
“That’s when I started dressing up old school, presenting myself in a cleaner manner, trying to look less like a street rat and more like a performer that deserved to get paid," he says. "I learned how to talk to audiences and lead bands. I learned how to keep the songs that worked and throw out the ones that didn’t.”
Crockett has since settled down in his home state of Texas, but the road has given him more inspiration than anything else. “Goin’ Back to Texas” and “How Long Will I Last,” Crockett’s favorite track on his new album, Lonesome as a Shadow
, are anthems for being fed up with the nomad lifestyle.
As for the title track itself, Crockett calls it an “autobiography.”
“If someone were to listen to that song, it would give them a good idea of where I’m coming from in a couple of minutes. It’s very geographical to my heritage,” he says. “Being on the lonesome highway… just going from town to town. That’s all I’ve been doing for 17 years…I got a band and a reliable vehicle now; that’s the only difference [from hitchhiking].”
For all of the regional styles that Crockett incorporates into his music, his own place in the world is what made him gravitate towards the blues.
“I don’t think you can really choose to be a blues and roots artist, a real one. I think circumstances put you in such a place that you just wake up there one day,” Crockett says. “It seems strange to me that you would pick out a style of music to pursue rather than inherit the things that you’ve become. There’s a difference. One is an imitation; one is authentic.”
Crockett has only ever played one show in Cleveland as the first of several openers at Beachland. His triumphant return as a headliner comes as a reaction to Ohio fans begging him to come back; Crockett saw and appreciated the online enthusiasm. “I drove my manager crazy, saying we had to get a gig booked there,” he says.
When asked about Cleveland fans and how they compared to the people he had met elsewhere on his travels, Crockett recalls getting trapped in a blizzard here while in search of a ride to Kansas City a decade ago.
“Wandering around, as dreary as it was, I was amazed at the characters I met there on the street," he says. “It’s one of those cities that has gone through a lot of adversity but because of that, wearing its heart on its sleeve, there’s this soul dripping off of people from Cleveland.”