Lime Kiln Theater audiences in years past got to know country, soul and blues slinger Charley Crockett through two shows opening for the Turnpike Troubadours. Crockett parlayed that into his own headlining slot, set for Saturday at Lime Kiln. Theater organizers announced on Monday that the show was sold out.
It’s a comeback on two levels for Crockett. He returns to Lexington on his first-ever headlining tour — five months removed from life-saving open heart surgery.
The 35-year-old Texan said he was born with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which causes episodes of rapid heartbeat.
“It just about killed me when I was born, but I worked through it, and as I got older I learned to cope with that situation, that would throw my heart out of rhythm,” Crockett said. “I didn’t know it would be life-threatening at some point.”
During his 20s, Crockett lived the hard-traveling life of a busking musician, essentially homeless and often riding the rails. He wound up with a hernia that he believes he got while playing music on the streets in Africa. It didn’t bother him much until he transitioned from busking to touring, doing 200 shows a year, which involved moving a lot of equipment. It began to affect him on stage. He said that he didn’t have health insurance, but now that he was making some more money, he decided to go to a doctor.
“To make a long story short, through the hernia and me mentioning my medical history, they realized that my heart was shutting down,” he said. “My heart function had slowed to 30%.”
Three surgeries, including one to fix his heart rhythm, followed. The most important one replaced his aortic valve with one from a bovine.
“I like to think of it as a longhorn valve,” Crockett said. “I’m part longhorn now. I was joined with that animal in January.”
Crockett, who is known for putting on energetic shows, said that he is getting better continually.
“Just real grateful,” he said. “I kind of feel like I died and was reborn, in a strange way.”
The opening sounds of the “Lil G.L.’s Blue Bonanza” album are a sliding chord phrase, a la one of the original electric guitar heroes, T-Bone Walker. Disc-opening “Here Am I,” a Ray Charles cover, is not the only homage that Crockett paid Walker. “T-Bone Shuffle,” one of Walker’s classics, gets a treatment, too.
That song from a fellow Texan may well have signaled a turning point in Crockett’s musical intentions, he recalled.
“I played all around Dallas real heavy when I was younger, even right before we started touring nationally, in the Deep Ellum neighborhood,” he said. “T-Bone used to play down there, in those Dallas street bands. The story goes that when he was a young boy, he led Blind Lemon Jefferson around … carry his guitar, that type of stuff.
“To me, he is like the strongest way that you can identify what the Dallas blues sound is, just that jazz-blues thing that he was doing. I just kind of grew into it.
“I didn’t grow up aspiring to play like T-bone or anything. I was living in New York City, squatting in warehouses and stuff, and somebody had a blues real book in this studio space we were crashing in. I was playing on the train cars every day, and trying to get on stage at blues jams at night.
I couldn’t read any of the music or know what any of the chords were. But I found one of his songs in there, I think it was ‘T-Bone Shuffle,’ and when I had somebody teach me the way that he was holding the chords, I realized that I already knew how to hold those chords, I just didn’t know what they were called.
“I had this amazing realization that day: That you can’t get away from where you come from. And I knew it was true, because I was playing blues in a similar way without realizing it. I put it together that day, and that’s when it really hit me. I think maybe even that particular day I started moving from trying to run away from where I came from to embracing the sound and realizing it was who I am.
“T-Bone Walker is kind of the guy, I woke up to who I was through him, you know.”
Elsewhere on the album are honky-tonk takes on Tom T. Hall’s “How I Got To Memphis,” and Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” – the titular name respelled to “Charley,” naturally. Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City” is another of the blues covers that populate “Lil G.L.’s …”
Another album of covers, “Lil G.L’s Honky Tonk Jubilee,” bookends an album of Crockett originals, “Lonesome As A Shadow.” That disc, which punctuated Crockett’s rise, threw Tex-Mex, soul and jazz into the stylistic mix.
But Crockett is not some throwback preserved in amber. He grew up listening to 1990s hip-hop and commercial country, music that was dominant on radios in the southernmost tip of Texas, where he grew up near Brownsville.
He said that he gravitated to hip-hop, developing a love for Wu Tang Clan, Mos Def (now called Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli.
“I really would fall in love with these hip-hop songs, and more often than not, I’d find out the ones I loved best were based on a sample,” he said. “Wu Tang Clan was real popular. They sampled this Wendy Renee song, “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” (https://youtu.be/M5RxylPIciE original, https://youtu.be/6f-wE6q8tKg Wu Tang). I didn’t know who she was.
“But we used to freestyle and rap battle and stuff at basketball and other sports I played. One of the guys on my team showed me her original song that the Wu Tang Clan joint was based off of. He played me the whole song. I was just so blown away by Wendy Renee. I fell in love with her song and liked it more than the old hip-hop song I used to listen to. I got into so many artists that way – Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield and The Manhattans – all these great soul and R&B bands. I started learning those old songs.”
… “It’s kind of like the T-Bone Walker thing. What I really liked about hip-hop is that I felt it’s really the blues of today. When it’s done right, when it’s done honestly, it’s blues. It’s moving jazz and blues forward.”
It was during his time busking on streets and subway cars in New York City and New Orleans that he developed a fuller understanding of how it all fit together for him.
“If you really are a street player, you’re going to be exposed to so much stuff. If you’re playing on the subway in New York City, you’re gonna see the hipster kids playing the music they learned at a university, which is cool. Other times there’d be nothing but rappers, freestyling, or old jazz cats, or dudes playing pickle buckets.
“In New Orleans, it’d be the same thing. You’d have these kids dressing up like it’s the 1920s playing nothing but trad jazz. Literally, the next band down is an all-brass band, or New Orleans-born kids tap dancing. Soul and blues bands and big bands in the clubs. It’s just all around you. And the kids coming through playing Appalachian stomp music. All that stuff would be all around me.
“I grew up with hip-hop around me in school, and I learned Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb in the streets, in New Orleans.”
That was a free-wheeling but tough lifestyle. Now Crockett has a band, and a trustworthy team in entertainment company 30 Tigers, which is distributing his music and publicizing him. Some things are different, for sure, but some things are the same, he said.
“So one thing, I didn’t need a phone,” in the busking days, he said. “That was really nice. It could be hard in some ways. I really was eating hand to mouth and wasn’t beholden to anybody. There wasn’t any politics or anything in it. I miss in some ways being able to live that way and earn my bread just completely directly, without having to go through distributing your records and release dates and just all of the stuff.
“I tell people a lot this, for me it’s always been the same. In the very beginning, I wasn’t even trying to make money, I was just trying to get away and find a place to play. I remember this dude threw me like 50 cents, when I was sitting in this park, trying to find a place to play. I was like, oh s---, maybe I should just keep this guitar case open.
“I started opening my guitar case and practicing. I realized that just working on my stuff, I could get paid by people walking by. That is the exact same thing I’m doing now. I’m getting up on stage and playing my stuff and people are paying me for it.”
Finally, no self-respecting East Tennessee native (me, who also recognizes that the state was part of North Carolina when Davy Crockett was born, in Greene County) would go without asking Crockett about his relationship to Davy Crockett, a Tennessee frontiersman, soldier and politician who split for Texas and was killed at The Alamo.
Charley Crockett’s grandparents taught him that he was descended from “the King of the Wild Frontier.” His grandmother had done the family tree.
“I was really proud of it when I was a child, then when I got to school, kids would make fun of me because I was so proud of it and stuff, to the point where I stopped talking about it,” he said. “You can imagine all the jokes that the kids can make about you and Davy Crockett when you’re in elementary school.
“I really stopped believing I was even related to him until I started spending some time with my grandfather again [also named Charley Crockett], when I was in my 20s. He pulled out all these old newspapers, my great aunt in L.A., handing family heirlooms to the Smithsonian and stuff, my aunt busting out these genealogy papers and stuff.
“I haven’t been able to cash in any kind of reward for it or anything. I meet people at almost every show that claim to be related to him. It’s pretty direct lineage, I’m pretty sure. I never looked at it really close, which is kind of strange, because I get asked about it every day.”