Music City USA
Son of Davy

The laid-back charm of most of Charley Crockett’s work belies the wild amount of hustle behind it. Only just now hitting his mid-30s, he’s 10 albums into his career, cutting a dapper and energetic figure as he works his way up the alt-country/Americana pecking order, playing to bigger and more crowded rooms every year. Even a very recent open-heart surgery seemed to barely slow the guy down: people want to hear Charley Crockett, and the 16-track feast of Music City USA is unlikely to let them down.

Almost from the get-go, Crockett established a distinct sonic stamp for himself: akin to contemporaries like Leon Bridges and JD MacPherson, he’s retro without being a purist about it, framing his earthy baritone with warm and spare honky-tonk rhythms sweetened judiciously with twangy steel, rumbling guitar licks, the occasional tumbling banjo or washes of Southern-soul horns to change things up. It’s an easy vibe to like, a fine fit for an artist who goes back and forth between covering the classics and striving to craft his own.

As a vocalist, Crockett brings to mind the recently late Charley Pride; between the shared first name and the distinction of being among the few widely heard country artists of black heritage, it’s a comparison that can’t help but come up, but it’s a favorable one. Like Pride, Crockett doesn’t break out the vocal pyrotechnics of a George Jones or Conway Twitty; it’s a more controlled, subtle, declarative sort of delivery, one that trusts the lyrics and melody to carry the day. Even amid the busier, horn-laced country-soul of “I Need Your Love” (the album’s lead single and best track), he’s the model of focus, wise enough to not overplay an already winning hand.

And it’s far from the only ace in the deck; there’s a particularly strong run on the front end. “The World Just Broke My Heart” is a subtle killer of a shuffle (check out the artful vocal bend at the end of the “one mistake at a time” line), “Are We Lonesome Yet” paints a cool little lyrical picture framed by a chugging Cajun fiddle hook, and “This Foolish Game” starts off as a sleepy blues vamp that builds in intensity, letting the guitars bite without ever derailing into bar-band obviousness. As always, Crockett’s got a curator’s eye for covers: this time around he does right by Stonewall Jackson’s outlaw narrative “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water” and Henson Cargill’s ahead-of-its-time “Skip A Rope,” a song that somehow hit No. 1 on the country charts in 1968 despite lyrically taking parents to task for setting a lousy example for their kids by being hypocritical, quarrelsome racists.

Relatedly, you don’t need to know Charley Crockett’s background to enjoy or appreciate his music, but his heritage does sometimes inform the material. On both the opening number, “Honest Fight,” and the title track, tales of uphill climbs in hostile territories hit a little different coming from a singer with black heritage. Lines like “folks ’round here don’t like my kind” could mean more than one thing: it could just be the stubborn refusal to create inside the mainstream-country box that’s hindering the narrator, but it could very well be something else, and Crockett could tell you more about what that’s like than most of his Texas country peers.

Not everything here bears the weight of relevance. With that heavy track count, some of it can’t help but just blend pleasantly into the background, and often the lyrics veer to a “whatever rhymes” functionality that might have been enriched by another draft. Maybe his current career momentum didn’t allow him that luxury; there’s something to be said for the unfiltered thought, and if the album’s more vibe than message, at least it’s a fully realized vibe. A quick thumb through Crockett’s bio indicates that the man’s likely got no shortage of stories to tell, and perhaps his next triumph will be fusing the detailed and personal with the sounds he’s learned to craft so well.