Really? A hobo in your late teen and 20s, jumping on and off trains across America, playing songs on the street in a new town hoping to earn enough to put a roof over your head? Being discovered on Manhattan’s R train by a commuting record company executive who thought, yes, let’s sign up a country singer with a hat but no cattle.
Then recording almost a dozen albums, alternating records of original material with ones devoted to covers of often forgotten or obscure American roots writers, all at the pace of someone late for a date with destiny and with the sound of someone who might have just stepped out of history.
Charley Crockett amassed a seemingly inexhaustible supply of musical Americana from his travelling days. Credit:Brooks Burris
That’s about as believable as that accent, Charley Crockett.
Crockett has heard all this in some form or other since he left San Benito in Texas’ gulf country and joined the growing underclass of Americans for whom a stable home is as 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.”
Whatever way he was getting around, the road is where his seemingly inexhaustible supply of musical Americana 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 immersing himself in a past that didn’t seem much different to the present.
“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, being rewarded with Americana Music Awards emerging artist of the year in 2021.
It’s why age-old but wearisome questions about credibility and authenticity – that extend beyond whether he is genuine to 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.
Charley Crockett performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2021.Credit:Amy Harris/Invision/AP
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. 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.”
Charley Crockett plays The Factory Theatre, Marrickville, on March 1.
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