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Charley Crockett on His New ‘$10 Cowboy’ Single, Mixing Traditional Country With ‘Swamp-Pop-Soul,’ and Working With Willie Nelson

Charley Crockett is known as one of the modern kings of country traditionalism, following in the footsteps of his heroes, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, the latter of whom is a pal and collaborator. And Crockett’s forthcoming album, the just-announced “$10 Cowboy” (due out April 26), offers plenty to chew on for fans of steel guitar-driven honky-tonk music. But the 39-year-old singer-songwriter also wanted to make sure that country’s adjacency to R&B got accentuated in some of the new songs.

Calling from a visit to a Western-wear store on the outskirts of Denver last week, Crockett told Variety about the stylistic diversity he baked into the new record. “Something that my first agent, Jon Folk,told me early on that really stuck with me is, he said, ‘Man, country music is important, and you do it really well. But that brassy, swampy, rhythm-and-blues, swamp-pop-soul thing, you also do that really good. Don’t let anybody ever convince you to stop doing that in the name of country alone.’ I think he was saying, ‘You do country good, you do R&B good, but when you put ’em together, you hold that corner down.’”

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Crockett used to be a busker on street corners and in subways, before he graduated to a recording career that now, with the forthcoming release, encompasses 13 studio albums in nine years. “I learned how to do all that stuff hobo-ing around, playing blues, playing soul, playing country. And like Waylon said: They’re just about a beat apart. I never thought about ’em as being different, and I never thought about compartmentalizing myself until I got into the commercial side of the business, where they start looking at you and trying to classify you.”

Crockett just released the title track for “$10 Dollar” country as a teaser for the album today; tonight he’ll be performing it on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show. It reflects back on that time playing for crisp bills, long before he was repped by CAA, managed by Vector’s Ken Levitan or releasing albums through one of the dominant label groups for roots artists, Thirty Tigers.

“We’re playing the songs and starting to do a lot of press for this thing,” he says, “and people are like, every time, ‘What’s a $10 cowboy?’ I’m like, well, a $10 cowboy is a guy that learned how to do all this shit standing behind a guitar on a Louisiana sreet corner, on South Congress in Austin, and subway cars in New York and the BART Rail in San Francisco.”

In the lyrics of “$10 Cowboy,” Crockett compares the life of the street corner singer to the rodeo competitor, singing at the conclusion: “Cowboy… cowboy singer… both highly hazardous occupations.”

“Jack Clement (the legendary country producer) said, ‘Waylon wasn’t a cowboy out there, working on a ranch. But he was a cowboy.’ Cowboy singer is a different mindset, but they’re similar in the longing. It’s kinda like Willie said: Moving around like this for a living’s the closest thing that he’s found to being free. I’m not over here blowing smoke up your ass or Waylon’s, but he is the quintessential cowboy singer. And what we do is totally different in terms of what the hazards are, but they’re really, really hazardous. You know, the lights burn holes through the stage. There’s always somebody standing there trying to give you something you probably shouldn’t be taking. It’s dangerous. It’s circus life. There’s a reason a lot of people don’t want to do it, and they’re probably smart not to. We probably weren’t smart enough not to do this.”

Does he still wax nostalgic for the busker’s life? “I think about going back to it every day. I’m serious,” Crockett says. “I’ll never do it, but, you know, I could just start making movies and stop playing shows and only busk on street corners from now on. Hell, I might do better! Who knows?”

Crockett had a breakthrough with his previous studio album, 2022’s “The Man From Waco” (which was followed last year by a live album recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium). Asked about how “$10 Cowboy” broadly compares with the predecessor that can be said to have put him on the map, Crockett brings up an analogy involving Willie, his fellow Texan, mentor and occasional touring and duet partner.

“With ’The Man from Waco,’ I kind of felt like what Willie said about when he recorded ‘Yesterday’s Wine.’ In retrospect, he described that album as him clearing his throat. And that’s how I felt about ‘The Man from Waco.’” (For anyone keeping track of discographies, “Yesterday’s Wine” was the album Nelson cut in 1971 that preceded his fateful move to the Atlantic label with the true breakthrough “Shotgun Willie” in ’73.)

Recalling the reasons why “Man From Waco” bumped him up to the next level, Crockett cites the simplicity of how it was recorded, at then-manager Bruce Robison’s small studio in Austin, using a two-inch tape machine — as putative demos. “For that one, we recorded maybe six or seven songs that he felt that they were demos and was shopping to all these really incredible producers like Rick Rubin and Dave Cobb and Dan Auerbach. But when I was sitting there listening to those roughs off that tape machine, I thought, ‘These ain’t demos, man. I think these are masters,’ and so I told Bruce, ‘I wanna keep these and just build on this.’ And so the reason I say it was clearing my throat is that that album did better than all the previous records, and we cut that live to tape. All the guys were on the floor together, and the vocal was live, and my acoustic guitar is in all those vocal  — you couldn’t get ’em out of there if you tried, so it’s all bleeding in together. And sure enough, the critics and even the fans rated it better and bought more of it.

“And so going into this ‘$10 Cowboy’ recording” — which he co-produced himself, along with bass player Billy Horton — “the reason that we went to Arlyn Studios (also in Austin) is because I wanted to go into a room that was similar to Bruce’s, but bigger, where I could get even more guys cutting live on the floor. Whereas on ‘The Man from Waco,’ there ertr maybe six or seven guys playing live, this time there’s eight to 13 people playing, but it’s still live and it’s all in the tape machine.” He says he had a “neurotic attention to detail on the floor, making sure that we’re getting something right that you can’t fix later. What ‘$10 Cowboy’ is is me really kind of taking all the things that I had learned from the 12 previous records and doing it with this all-star ensemble.”

Ever the pragmatist as well as the idealist, Crockett adds, “I say all that lofty shit to you, and it probably won’t sell as well as ‘The Man From Waco,’” chuckling at the possibility that a commercial arc could always go either way. Regardless of that, he is a man with a cleared throat.

There’s an Easter egg in the song “$10 Cowboy” for hardcore country fans. Crockett refers to the name “Billy McClain,” in verses like, “There never was a rider who couldn’t be thrown / Even Billy McClain fell off a time or two.” That’s a reference to a rodeo character in the song “Old Red,” originally attributed to Marty Robbins (although Crockett imagines it is a part of an even older folk tradition), and made into a hit by the late Chris LeDeoux.

“How I found out about that song (‘Old Red’) was because I’ve been doing this on stage for years, and I’d say, ‘There’s no such thing as a cowboy that couldn’t be throwed.’ And I remember one night from some wild-ass crowd, somewhere in Lubbock or Odessa, I hear some young cowboy, drunk as hell, yelling out: ‘Except Billy McClain!’ And then I heard it again from some other guy another night: ‘Billy McClain!’ I said, who the fuck is this guy? And I looked it up and I found a Marty Robbins version, and I realized it was one of those Marty Robbin songs that didn’t jump up and grab me right up front in the years past. But I had a new perspective, because I got these young rodeo boys yelling at me anonymously from the crowd.”

In “Old Red,” “the story is, he’s the cowboy that’s never been thrown. And this is the horse that can’t be rode. And so, of course naturally they’ve gotta try each other and then they both die, because neither one of ’em will give in, and they get buried together.” Needless to say, “$10 Cowboy” doesn’t have such a fatalistic spin.

There’s another new Crockett song that fans have already been listening to since the beginning of the year, although it’s not on the forthcoming album. It’s a duet with Willie Nelson, for whom Crockett has opened many a show, on a new song called “That’s What Makes the World Go Around.” He explains how it came into being.

“He called up and said, ‘Do you have something I can jump on? I’m in the studio cutting. I’d love to jump on something of yours.’ And I told him I did, and I was turning the key to the truck before I even hung up with his ass, to get down the studio and pull something out of my ass, which is what I did.

“Every day that I deal with Willie, he shows me I’m a rookie. It’s been so worthwhile for me just to see the way that he moves, in the way he operates on the road. A guy like me that started out on a street corner with open eyes learns more off of Willie than the — I don’t know — five managers and 30 labels I’ve dealt with combined.” (A slight exaggeration.)

Crockett does listen to his management, though. The prolific singer says he “made a whole damn record of Willie Nelson’s songs — all stuff he penned, not just stuff he’s sang —after recording (‘$10 Cowboy’). I wanted to put it out at the top of the year, and Ken (Levitan) was like, ‘Man, if you put out a whole record of Willie’s stuff on Jan. 1, and we’re announcing (‘$10 Cowboy’) Jan. 21… it’s your career. You do what you want. It’s gonna be harder for us. And you’ve worked so hard on this record, and we are lining it up. Do me a favor. Let’s put the Willie record out later in the album cycle later this year. I won’t make you wait too long, but let’s get the record out. And drop the one damn song” — meaning the new duet — to start the year off right with a one-off.

“I’m not a guy that just has my finger up in the air and don’t listen to reason. I knew he was right, and I thought, ‘Goddam, Ken, that’s a fucking good idea.’ And it worked, you know? We did real good.”

Pre-order the “$10 Cowboy” album on vinyl here or CD here.

Charley Crockett 2024 tour dates:

Jan 23 – Marquis Park City – Park City, UT

Jan 27 – Tamworth Town Hall – Tamworth, AU

Jan 28 – Bar on the Hill – Newcastle, AU

Jan 30 – The Kings Theatre – Sunshine Coast, AU

Jan 31 – The Green Room Byron – Tyagarah, AU

Feb 1 – Eatons Hill Hotel – Eatons Hill, AU

Feb 2 – Anita’s Theatre Thirroul – Thirroul, AU

Feb 4 – Enmore Theatre – Sydney, AU

Feb 6 – Canberra Theatre Centre – Canberra, AU

Feb 8 – The Gov – Adelaide, AU

Feb 9 – Ballarat Civic Hall – Ballarat Central, AU

Feb 10 – Coal Creek Community Park & Museum – Korumburra, AU

Feb 12 – Forum Theatre – Melbourne, AU

Feb 13 – Forum Theatre – Melbourne, AU

Feb 14 – Astor Theatre – Perth, AU

Feb 22 – San Antonio Stock & Rodeo – San Antonio, TX

Mar 1 – Extra Innings Festival – Tempe, AZ

Mar 7 – Wynwood Marketplace – Miami, FL

Apr 5 – Grind City Fest – Memphis, TN

Apr 11 – Avett Brothers at the Beach @ Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya – Riviera Maya, MX

Apr 19 – Moon Crush Festival – Miramar Beach, FL

Apr 20 – Crawfish Music Festival – Biloxi, MS

Apr 21 – Two Step Inn Festival – Georgetown, TX

Apr 27 – Stagecoach Festival – Indio, CA

May 20 – Commodore Ballroom – Vancouver, BC

May 21 – Commodore Ballroom – Vancouver, BC

May 23 – Grey Eagle Event Centre – Calgary, AB

May 25 – River Cree Resort &Casino – Enoch, AB

May 27 – Burton Cummings Theatre – Winnipeg, MB

May 29 – Massey Hall – Toronto, ON

May 30 – MTELUS – Montreal, QC

May 31 – Higher Ground – South Burlington, VT

Jun 1 – State Theater – Portland, ME

Jun 3 – Empire Live – Albany, NY

Jun 5 – Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom – Hampton, NH

Jun 6 – Capitol Theatre – Port Chester, NY

Jun 7 – XFINITY Theatre – Hartford, CT*

June 8 – Xfinity Center – Mansfield, MA*

Jun 14 – KettleHouse Amphitheater – Bonner, MT

Jun 15 – Scout + Gather – Whitefish, MT

Jun 17 – The Newberry – Great Falls, MT

Jun 18 – The Old Saloon – Emigrant, MT

Jun 19 – The Lincoln – Cheyenne, WY

Jun 20 – Telluride Bluegrass – Telluride, CO

Jun 22 – Buckeye Country Superfest – Columbus, OH

Jun 23 – Buckeye Country Superfest – Columbus, OH

Jun 28 – Jackalope Jamboree – Pendleton, OR

Jul 20 – Brooklyn Paramount – Brooklyn, NY

Jul 28 – FloydFest – Check, VA

Aug 3 – Hinterland Music Festival – St. Charles, IA

* w/ Hank Williams Jr.

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