Charley Crockett's 'Welcome to Hard Times'
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Charley Crockett's Welcome to Hard Times sounds like how coffee with whiskey tastes—it’s bittersweetness has the potential to encourage the inner outlaw in all of us.
This is hands-down the most classically country-forward of Charley’s records to date (excluding the covers on Lil' G.L.'s Blue Bonanza). It’s been written that this album “is perhaps even more potent proof of his literal heartbreak than the scar on his chest”, referencing his open-heart surgery in early January of 2019, where pre-assessments revealed that he had a congenital heart condition where two out of three of his aortic valve flaps fused together. This is known to lead to Wolff—Parkinson—White Syndrome.
That brush with mortality undeniably fired the forging coals of Welcome to Hard Times. The recording was finished just before the pandemic hit the United States.
Producer Mark Neill (Grammy-winning producer of the Black Key’s Brothers) envisioned “a dark gothic country record”, and Crockett, who Buddy magazine has quoted as being “the archetype of the new American vagabond”, stepped up to the plate to deliver an album like he was running out of time.
Mortality is a theme that rears its head instantly on two of his prior albums. “I Wanna Cry” and “Borrowed Time” from Lonesome as a Shadow and The Valley each kick off their respective record. The former is about losing his sister to a methamphetamine overdose.
This album’s intro is the title track, delivered with a campfire casualness that emphasizes the somber, sprawling voice that I can’t help but think the Kenny Chesney's, the Braid Paisley's, and the Jason Aldean's of the word must be intimidated by.
“Run Horse Run” is a classic boom-chicka-boom ode to the road; a song for the modern outlaw. It encapsulates the notion that time is short. The combination of high organ notes and Crockett’s deep voice create a palpable tension.
The numbers "Don't Cry" and "Tennesse Special" invoke noticeable vocal echos, conjuring intense mental images of open spaces. "Don't Cry" is a winner in that both piano and guitar get their own solos in the second half.
Tracks such as “Tennessee Special” and “Wreck Me” prove Crockett’s masterful control of both the high and low ends of his vocal range, both the mesas and the valleys—rising and falling with fluidity.
The bouncingly swampy guitar consistent throughout “Fool Somebody Else” offers a nice bed for broodingly calm vocal peaks. I interpret the lyric “Fool somebody else, ‘cause what you’re doin’ ain’t good for my health” as a darkly comical nod to his heart condition. That sense of immediacy is apparent in each of these thirteen songs.
“Lilly My Dear” is at once both a fast-paced waltz and a proper pub shanty. This song pitches one of my favorite lyrics on the album:
“I’ve got no possessions or money I’ve saved.
all that I’m askin’ is for dirt on my grave.”
“Heads You Win” is really the meat of the album, which had me saying “holy fuck” as the concept of gothic country finally clicked with me. Crockett proves that gothic country operates much like gothic literature; its simultaneously sprawling yet constrained exposition are at once both very broad and deeply personal—with an emphasis on place as character. This song finds him unleashing the falsetto at a minute-and-a-half in, and then pushing it again for the last refrain.
The album’s only cover is Red Lane’s “Black Jack Country Chain”, which was popularized by Willie Nelson. With a controlled cadence, Crockett manages to pull off a much darker, less-lighthearted take on this already brutal chain-gang revenge song. This echo-laden version is undeniably genuine, with this singer being no stranger to legal trouble.
One late night last summer, I was pulled over for speeding while playing Nelson's version loudly on repeat. That's when I learned that this song brings good luck to outlaws on road trips. Crockett's performance with the atmosphere Mark Neill constructed may objectively form the best rendition in the 50+ years since the song was penned.
“The Poplar Tree” might be the perfect ending to the album. It is sung from the point of view of a scarred man who has crossed many rivers attempting to outrun his past. The piano and banjo, bright as the noonday sun, juxtapose the macabre lyrics. Thundering drums and more dark, deep vocals deliver the outlaw narrator to "the valley, in the shadow of death", and ultimately to his demise in the final seconds of the album—his past finally catching up with him.
This album inspired me to sit with two specific eastern proverbs:
“Good health is simply the slowest way a human can die.” -Unknown
"We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realize that we only have one." -Confucius
Let’s all try to be more like Charley Crockett here by blazing our own trails and taking nothing for granted. After all, tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.