If anyone has earned the right to title an album Welcome to Hard Times, it’s singer Charley Crockett.
The former Dallasite might appear to be living on easy street these days with his stack of glowing reviews and a famous surname that dates back to American folk hero Davy Crockett, a distant relative.
Yet Crockett, 36, has struggled most of his life, starting with a poverty-filled childhood spent in a trailer park outside Brownsville, Texas.
He briefly found stability after his single mom moved to Irving, where Crockett attended public grade school. But he was often homeless in his teens and 20s as he drifted around the United States and Europe, performing for spare change and taking whatever work he could find.
Crockett moved back to Dallas, and in 2015, he began releasing albums filled with a unique, stark blend of old-school country, blues and soul. Rolling Stone and NPR soon took notice, and his career accelerated even as his health deteriorated. The more Crockett toured, the worse he felt.
At first, he chalked it up to a hernia and the heart rhythm disorder he was born with. By chance, doctors discovered he also had a life-threatening heart disease that caused his aortic valve to leak blood. They told him if it went untreated, he’d probably be dead within a year.
So in early 2019, he underwent open-heart surgery in which doctors replaced his faulty valve with a bioprosthetic valve created from cow tissue. After a few months’ rest, he was back onstage, playing the Grand Ole Opry, the Newport Folk Festival and the Stagecoach Festival, a spinoff of Coachella.
On Friday, Crockett released his eighth album, Welcome to Hard Times. We spoke to him by phone from his home in Austin, where he moved several years ago. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Your new album sounds like a classic country record, but with a lot of twists, including a harpsichord. What were you aiming for?
They call me a stylistic chameleon … and on this album, I really wanted to try to hit that darker, dramatic Gothic sound that came in the ’60s before outlaw country. I feel like maybe we landed in a world somewhere between Lee Hazlewood and Bill Withers.
It sounds like you challenged yourself, lyrically, on the album. Tell me about “The Poplar Tree,” a song about a man who gets lynched, but with lyrics that seem autobiographical, like “crossing many rivers wearing a scar across my chest.”
I was thinking a lot about the famous Lefty Frizzell hit “Long Black Veil,” so “The Poplar Tree” is kind of a “sung from the grave” story. But I was also channeling my own experience with mortality.
And I was also thinking about race and the idea of the poplar tree being associated with the oppression of African-Americans. … Society sees me as an ambiguous figure, and I like writing songs that people who identify from different ethnic points of views can get something out of, you know?
You’ve talked in the past about your own identity conflict and the fact you have ancestors who are white, Black, Creole and Jewish. How has Black Lives Matter affected your self-identity?
I’m far closer to white than I would be to African-American … although my heritage reflects slavery in the South. My great-grandmother was marked down as Black on two censuses and white on two other censuses.
I’ve also lived in this other place of being ostracized by white people for looking or acting different. … On Juneteenth day, on Instagram, I posted this amazing drawing I saw in The Dallas Morning News of an African-American man breaking his chains of slavery, with an outline of Texas around it. I thought it was a great way to celebrate a holiday about freedom, but I got these negative comments from white men who were following me, saying, “I’ve lost all respect for you.”
To be quite honest, I don’t think white America has ever really had to deal with civil rights. It’s good we’re finally having these conversations, but it has to be talked about a lot more. It can’t just be posturing.
You launched your career performing in Deep Ellum, a historic neighborhood first settled by Black men and women in the 1800s and later by Jewish immigrants. Preservation Dallas recently put it on its “Most Endangered Places” list because of over-development. Where do you think Deep Ellum is headed?
I really believe Deep Ellum’s heritage is at serious risk. It was the first Black commerce district in the whole state, and its musical heritage is dizzying: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, T-Bone Walker, Robert Johnson … it’s huge.
But in Texas, real estate developers are damn near unregulated. They’re the kings. I don’t want to freeze culture, but too many buildings are being hollowed out and expanded. If it’s all new buildings and boutique apartments and cupcake shops, what happens to the history and the beauty of Deep Ellum? It disappears.
The people of Dallas — especially the wealthy white people in Dallas — need to believe that Deep Ellum is just as historically significant as the French Quarter in New Orleans or Beale Street in Memphis. They need to take pride in it, and they need to protect it.
How did having open-heart surgery last year affect your life and career?
It’s been amazing. I feel much stronger. Before, I was just so tired, man. I felt dizzy and short of breath. I think my heart was so close to shutting down.
But now my energy and metabolism levels are so much higher. If I take my shirt off and look at the scar, it makes me think about mortality and eternity — where I came from before I was born, and where I’m going after, you know?
There’s a saying to the effect of, “Your second life begins when you realize how short your life really is.” That’s how I feel. It’s like being born again.
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