Charley Crockett sings the real deal. With a plaintive, soulful delivery through a clipped Texan drawl, Crockett transports you to the sounds of the old west. Peering out from beneath his oddly high-perched cowboy hat, his dark, deep-set eyes give you the idea that he’s seen some stuff. His sense of style blends Clint Eastwood with a slightly dorky Elvis. And, let it not be overlooked, Crockett’s also got himself one serious set of choppers. Like, Matt Dillon in “There’s Something About Mary” level choppers. They’re almost freakish. Yet, somehow they seem to work for him. They fit the look.

Those looks certainly represent Crockett living the Red River life, but his nomadic travels have taken him a lot farther than the American west. Born in San Benito, Texas, tucked in at the southern tip of the Lonestar state mere miles from the Mexican border, Crockett spent formative time in Dallas, New Orleans, New York City, northern California, Paris, and briefly in Spain and Morocco. At 17 he bought a guitar at a pawn shop and taught himself how to play. “I started to write songs immediately, without any chord knowledge or anything,” Crockett recounts. “I didn’t know what key I was in for 12 years, but my ear was good. I could play in any key and any chord, I just didn’t know what it was.”

His cinematic background story also included some dark scenes. Coerced into a criminal operation, Crockett evaded potential prosecution when it was determined that his name had been forged onto financial documents…by his brother (that brother, however, was sentenced to seven years in prison for his part dealing in around $40 million worth of securities fraud). Most recently, last year Crockett underwent life-saving open-heart surgery to correct a congenital heart condition whereby two of his three aortic valves had fused together, leaving him with a gnarly scar across his sternum, and an ever-present turquoise necklace of a phoenix draped across his chest. “People think my story is far-fetched,” said Charley following his figurative re-birth, “but the thing is I’ve actually toned it down.”

My young friend Marc, “Marc The Goldfish” in his college radio D.J. years, recently woke me up to Crockett, in addition to incredible fellow new-generation country traditionalists Colter Wall and Tyler Childers. Already recording his eighth full-length album since 2015, Charley’s brand new 2020 release is “Welcome To Hard Times,” a title sadly all-too-appropriate to our current year (though it was made just before the onset of the pandemic). Confronted with an environment of soulless pop drivel dominating what now passes for country radio, Crockett boldly stated, “I wanted to make an album that would change the entire conversation about country music” setting out instead to make what he described as “a dark gothic country record.”

“Welcome To Hard Times” is undeniably that, painting an immersive portrait of the windswept old west while also managing the precarious sonic feat of feeling both retro and contemporary. Whatever else it incorporates – at times elements of honky-tonk, blues and soul – it is unmistakably country. Charley said he felt that it’s first single, ‘Run Horse Run,’ sounded like something out of a psychedelic Spaghetti Western. “It’s Western,” he says, “but strangely new and fresh.” You hear that horse-trot tempo and divine pedal steel guitar and reckon that it’s always about high noon in Crocketville. And when Charley punctuates the choruses with a series of classic “Heyaah!” shouts, you also can’t help but be aware that the echoes of western authenticity arrive undiminished through the considerable maze of his magnificent choppers. That, it could be said, is some true grit.