One of the hallmarks of country music is the vast amount of musical styles it pulls from. Since its early inception, it has been influenced by all kinds of genres including blues, jazz, rock and roll, and even pop and R&B. The influences of the first few in particular are heard in older, classic country records that are still cherished today – stylistic qualities that many fans still yearn for from modern artists. However, one tune in to your local country radio station or one shuffle through the latest country hits playlist on Spotify, and you will hear mostly overproduced snap tracks with dull lyrics that lack the kind of substance country music lovers want to hear. As unfortunate as it may be, it is a sign that time and again, the machine that is “country” music adheres to keeping up with popular sounds for the current day and age.
In steps a guy like Charley Crockett. The story of how he became one of the more beloved independent country and blues musicians today is a remarkable one. He grew as a musician playing in the streets, on subway platforms, and if he could get the chance, in front of a microphone at some hole-in-the-wall blues club. It was these types of experiences Crockett had while slumming it in New Orleans, riding freight trains out west with other musicians, and living and working on a marijuana farm in Northern California, that shaped him into the eclectic musician he is today. It gave him his magnetic ability to make you feel like he has lived through every note he plays and every word he sings.
To get an idea of Crockett’s mindset while writing Welcome To Hard Times, you have to rewind to early last year. In January of 2019, he underwent two heart surgeries. In an interview with Texas Monthly, Crockett dove into the difficulties of the mental recovery from his procedures, describing it as being “struck by a new level of sadness that would get me every once in a while, that I had never known in my life.” The following November, Crockett wrote a collection of songs about facing hard times in America, giving us a better insight to his literal heartbreak as opposed to the scar that lies on his chest. Then 2020 happened. As the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the current year, people have lost loved ones, lost their jobs, and life in general has been thrown into a whirlwind. Many people have been forced to endure harder and sadder times than ever before, and although Welcome To Hard Times was written prior to all of that, the name is fitting and perfectly describes what a lot of people are feeling these days.
From start to finish, Welcome To Hard Times is essentially about capturing what it is like to face hardship and the struggles to overcome it. The opening lines on the title track are as follows: “Life’s a casino, I’m tellin’ you / Everybody’s playin’, boys and girls, women, children, me, and you.” Crockett is straightforward in saying that we are all gambling in the game of life, and the joke is that we do not necessarily know it. At some point or another, we are all going to know what it is like to put all of our chips in the pot and lose the hand. The rest of the record maintains similar undertones and is littered with gambling metaphors alluding to ‘loaded dice’ or how sometimes, all you can do is play the cards life deals you and hope for the best.
On tracks like “Don’t Cry” and “Wreck Me,” Crockett’s blues and soul influences step to the forefront as he gears more towards facing the hardships of love rather than just life in general. The piano and steel guitar complement each other so well, their effect is both beautiful and desolate at the same time. Combine that with Crockett’s impeccable storytelling and lyrical relatability, and you have two of the record’s biggest strong points. Another highlight lands on “The Poplar Tree,” a tale told from beyond the grave by a man who questions why his life ended up the way it did. In considering his fate, he wonders if enduring the highs and lows of his life and fighting the good fight were worth anything at all.
There is an old saying that you have to really live life before you can share it with other people, and who better than Charley Crockett can share that with us? Welcome To Hard Times tells us the truth about facing harsh realities, that even if we know the game is fixed and we are struggling to get by, we still have to roll the loaded dice when our turn comes. Although the record is full of vintage western themes, they can still be applied to the way we live our lives now, and there is something for everyone to take away from Welcome To Hard Times.