Like a modern day Luke The Drifter, Charley Crockett ambles into sight with the title song of his latest album, an introduction to the disc, sung with a wonderfully resigned air, as the band play a fine nonchalant saloon bar blues. As he sings “Welcome To Hard Times” it’s unsure as to whether he is referring to life’s up and downs or to an actual place, one of those one horse towns which peppered the west with names like Tombstone, Slaughterville or even Hell. It recalls Lee Hazlewood’s debut album, Trouble Is A Lonesome Town in some respects and, like Hazlewood, Crockett peoples his Hard Times with a rum bunch, losers in love, gamblers and ne’er do wells. In addition, the album lopes along with nods to classic country sounds and singers. There are hints of Bakersfield and Countrypolitan while the likes of Marty Robbins and Charlie Rich are lurking in the grooves.
Recorded in the wake of serious health issues, Crockett describes the album as an attempt to reclaim the conversation about country music. In the various styles portrayed here, influenced by his own wanderings, he certainly makes a strong case for cleaving tight to tradition while allowing for a more personal interpretation. Heads You Win could be a Hank Williams song with harmonies by The Sons Of The Pioneers while Fool Somebody Else’s harpsichord like keyboards recall Hazlewood’s gift for unique arrangements. This sense is amplified on Crockett’s rendition of Red Lane’s Blackjack County Jail, a wonderful murder ballad populated by a chain gang.
Above all else, the album is a swoon to listen to from start to end. Endowed with sweet pedal steel and honky tonk piano, most of the songs are lonesome ballads although the band do break into a trot on a few occasions. Paint It Blue is a grand frontier outlaw ballad which surely is influenced by Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and the windswept Run Horse Run has echoes of Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks with its church like bells. The ramshackle banjo lilt of Lily My Dear is the earthiest number here while there is more than a soupçon of soul on Rainin’ In My Heart. Finally, Crockett closes the album with a slight return to the litany of woes which opened the album albeit this time with a banjo skiddled country sound on The Poplar Tree. It’s back to our narrative drifter on yet another tale of woe but Crockett makes it personal here as he sings, “Let me tell you a story, it happened this way, it was born out of longing and a man that’s gone astray. I’ve been to the valley in the shadow of death. I’ve crossed many rivers wearing a scar on my chest.” A perfect way to end the show.
While he’s certainly prolific, there’s no sense here that Crockett is churning out made to measure albums. Welcome To Hard Times is quite a contrast to his previous release The Valley in that it has more depth and in our view, it’s the better album.