THERE’S NOT A LOT TO LAUGH ABOUT in American race relations – and not much more in Australia for that matter – but there were chortles when Charley Crockett described some audience reaction to him play country/roots music as the equivalent of seeing “Steph Curry in a cowboy hat”.
As comic as that line is from the east Texas singer/songwriter, who like the future basketball hall of famer doesn’t fit some people’s idea of what a black or white man is “supposed” to look like, it’s equally potent because it’s one thing to cross genre lines in American music, it’s damn hard to cross political lines now, but crossing or blurring racial lines seems like ultimate in artistic prizefighting.
“We all interact with the world based on who the world tells us who we are, or tries to remind us of who they think we are. That’s all of us. I can tell you that the more and more people are looking at you, the more you are going to hear what they think you are,” Crockett says.
“I’m okay with that. I understand that I signed up for that. I’ve learned to be okay, for me I have to be okay, I have to accept that I will be misunderstood, but that’s not all I am.”
That’s not all bad though, he reckons, being misunderstood. If you’re “speaking your truth” then you harness the power of art and the force of the truth smacking the resistant in the face.
“Art is dangerous you know, for many of the things you and I are talking about, because of what it can do,” says Crockett. “I’ve always been a very polarising figure, even early on. When people look at me it creates a polarising effect, always has, always will. You said prizefighting, and I am a prizefighter. I like that you said that because that’s how I describe myself, and a prizefighter has got to box.”
Those who are non-white but non-black in societies and arts communities like those in the US and Australia, have some grasp of the impact of racial as much as cultural assumptions, but the idea of it being a constant issue, a constant source of judgement, must be incredibly wearying. Especially as the immediate step.
“I don’t represent what an American black man feels like because I benefited greatly from my light skin and European heritage, so I know what you mean. What’s funny about where I’m at, and where country music is and the roots world that I’m in, what I’ve noticed is that the experience of African-Americans or Native Americans, lots of brown folk in America and across the world, I don’t know those experiences because of how harsh the world looks, the white world looks – consciously and subconsciously – at everything, ethnic background or styles of music,” he says.
“People really get confused when you are not easily understandable. It’s an interesting thing what happens to people when someone is looking at you and they can’t decide where you belong.”
The confusion, if that is what it is, or maybe the assumptions, are but one of the ways that Crockett has confounded and at the same time challenged, up to and including last year’s concept album, The Man From Waco. Take for instance what you might call his origin story.
A hobo in your late teen and 20s, jumping on and off trains crossing America, playing songs on the street in a new town, then later a new country, hoping you earn enough to maybe put a roof over your head tonight? Being discovered on Manhattan’s R train by a commuting record company executive who thought, yes, let’s sign up a country/roots singer with a hat but not the cattle.
Then recording almost a dozen albums, alternating records of original material with ones devoted to covers of forgotten or obscure writers, at the pace of someone late for a date with destiny, with the sound of someone who might have just stepped out of history. That’s about as believable as that accent, Charley Crockett.
The singer who spent half his youth in New Orleans, has heard this in some form or other since he left San Benito in Texas’ gulf country (once also the home of ground-breaking roots/rock/country/Tejano singer and songwriter Freddy Fender) and joined the growing, if partially hidden underclass of Americans for whom a stable home is as its much a pipedream as steady work or a living wage.
“I guess first off what I’d say is, if you do it the way that I did it, or some of these other people have done it, it’s not a choice that you make. It’s not,” Crockett says, politely but firmly, his east Texas drawl intact. “It’s circumstances, it’s destiny in a sense. It’s walking down the road that people tell you can lead to salvation but the whole time you’re on it you have no way of knowing if that’s true but it’s the only road.
“The other thing I would say about the itinerant lifestyle that’s so mythologised is I remember when people first started asking me about train hopping, hitchhiking, and if that was real, if it was possible, because they were sure that they didn’t exist anymore. What I can tell you is, it’s the opposite of that: there are many more people doing this, living that way nowadays, than an ordinary person working 9-to-5 can imagine.”
(Those still doubting might want to check out Frances Mcdormand’s award-winning Nomadland, the 2020 Chloe Zhao film that is practically a documentary reporting from the working poor heartland of America.)
However he was getting around, the road is where his seemingly inexhaustible supply of musical Americana-and-more grew: not just learning how to play on Louisiana street corners, Colorado bars and New York trains – “I was playing blues and jazz chords, not knowing what they were called, never thinking about what key you are in.” – but along the way immersing himself in a past that didn’t seem much different to the present, including when he spent a year on the streets of Paris, Spain and Morocco.
“That’s how I’ve learned about music and its history and its business, being in the middle of it.” And he is very good at it, each of his 11 albums finding as much heart as melody, praise coming from peers, and being rewarded with American Awards emerging artist of the year in 2021 for his ability to weave fascinating and detailed stories as much as anything else.
It’s why age-old but wearisome questions about credibility and authenticity – that extend beyond whether he is genuine to encompassing wondering if he is taking the piss basically – in Crockett’s eyes say more about the questioners and our complicated relationship to clichés and truth.
After all, as I put to him, it is possible to know the history and recognise sometimes that you are working with the cliché, but that the cliché has a point, or that by undercutting or playing against that cliché, you can find the truth.
“I know what you mean. I would argue all the world is a cliché, because you become a character by taking that job, working that 9-to-5. That’s a character, and that’s a cliché and that’s a stereotype, and people fit it, in every kind of way,” he says.
“What’s that saying, travel is the enemy to ignorance. It changes you and the thing about it is, something that I learned, when you’re playing on the street you are playing everything. All the styles in America are so eclectic and when you travel you are around all kinds of people.”
And all those kinds of people come with their baggage, as we come back to where we started.
“The thing that you notice is the person who’s wearing Wranglers, and he’s working out in the oilfields, he speaks a certain way and adopts certain ideas, that all has to do with the pressure of the people he’s around. That’s all that is really,” Crockett says. “When you are playing music and you are dealing with it, it’s just how people are as they are looking at you, and people want to simplify you. It used to bother me, the idea of being pigeonholed: I didn’t like the idea. Then you realise that people want things to be simple to understand.”
Travel can counter ignorance, as he said earlier, but so can immersing yourself in an art form or a genre and putting it to use. Crockett isn’t new to this rodeo.
“I learned to work within the idea of country music so I could tell my stories.”
Charley Crockett & The Blue Drifters, supported by Caitlin Harnett & The Pony Boys, play The Metro, Sydney, on March 1; The Tivoli, Brisbane on March 2; and Northcote Theatre, Melbourne, March 5-6.
A version of this story was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.