Far from being locked down, Charley Crockett seems to have been incredibly busy over the past year. August 2020 saw the release of his excellent album, Welcome To Hard Times and then his tribute to the late James Hand came out earlier this year. On a roll then and here comes Music City USA, a glorious collection of songs on which Crockett roots around country, soul and rockabilly with some abandon, ably supported by his band The Blue Drifters. One might assume that the title alludes to Nashville but Crockett roams further afield allowing that many cities in the states have their own claim to music fame, although it’s fair to say that he is rooted in the south and south west on what he calls his “gulf and western” album.
Compared to Welcome To Hard Times there’s more variety on show here and while many of the subjects remain the same, Crockett seems to have a more personal investment in several of them. Songs of outsiders hoping to be discovered relate to his busking years and, on a wider canvas, he takes aim at the dismal situation we all find ourselves in these days. Despite the sometimes grim topics the songs are all gussied up and presented quite wonderfully. The ghosts of Hank Williams, Buck Owens, George Jones and even Doug Sahm and Solomon Burke may haunt the record, but it’s vibrant and colourful, as is the excellent artwork on the cover which is quite evocative in its Kodachrome intensity and retro design.
Honest Fight opens the album in a charming and disarming way as Crockett adopts an everyman pose, toiling to get by and standing up for himself. It’s similar in style to many of the songs on Welcome To Hard Times with its straightforward country feel and several songs such as The World Just Broke My Heart, Are We Lonesome Yet, Smoky and Just So You Know follow suit. Crockett knows his stuff and he ranges across a variety of so-called country genres. There’s a Bakersfield touch to Lies And Regret while Buck Owens comes to mind on the title song and there’s surely more than a hint of George Jones in the apologetic Hanger On while Round The World is a helter skelter banjo driven ride. The title song, a wonderfully upbeat countrypolitan number, finds Crockett slyly railing against the corporate side of Nashville. These are all original songs couched perfectly in their various idioms but he also delivers two covers which drive home his knowledge of and love for these classic songs. Muddy Water is a delightful outlaw song, originally recorded by Stonewall Jackson and given here a Cash like delivery. Skip A Rope however is a horse of a different colour. A mid 60s song by Henson Cargill, it’s in a similar category to Porter Wagoner’s Rubber Room, that is to say it is quite unbalanced and ripe for revival as the deceptively jolly playing belies the description of a dysfunctional family who bring up a racist kid.
While Crockett rides imperiously across these varied country genres, he also swoops into the melting pot of his gulf and western musical gumbo. He fronts a horn section on the pleading I Need Your Love and totally nails the sound one associates with Muscle Shoals, a feat he repeats on I Won’t Cry which could have come from the pen of Dan Penn or Spooner Oldham. Acknowledging that blend of blues, soul and country which flourished in the late 60s, he then delivers the wonderful This Foolish Game which should delight any fans of James Carr. However, the highpoint of the album is when Crockett swivels back to dark country sounds on the gutbucket country thump of 518, a song that sounds like Hank Williams backed by The Bad Seeds. Quite exquisite. All in all Crockett gets you to thinking that Music City USA is not so much a place, more a state of mind.