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Charley Crockett Takes Us to the Movies on 'Welcome to Hard Times'

Photo: Courtesy of Big Feat PR

Charley Crockett's Welcome to Hard Times invokes the same misery and corruption as E.L. Doctorow's Welcome to Hard Times: the world is just a rigged casino where one can never get a break or even hope to break even.

Welcome to Hard Times
Charley Crockett

Son of Davy

31 July 2020

The late, great American writer E.L. Doctorow's first novel Welcome to Hard Times (1960) was a bleak satire of old Westerns. Doctorow's West was full of rape, murder, and revenge. Chances are Texas singer-songwriter Charley Crockett hasn't read the book, but his website suggests he saw the dark 1967 film based on it starring Henry Fonda. Crockett's a big fan of Westerns and pictures the songs on his latest album, Welcome to Hard Times, as a set of Western movie-like narratives. While the title song has little explicitly to do with the Doctorow book, Crockett invokes the same misery and corruption: the world is just a rigged casino where one can never get a break or even hope to break even.

Crockett's country-western songs take place in the present with an overlay of the past to show the connections between the modern world and its historical antecedents. His songs feature such tropes as bad outlaws, fast horses, gruesome killings, deceitful lovers, and such. Crockett's also a romantic who peppers his lyrics with words like "darlin'", "my dear", "honey", and other sweet endearments even though he knows his relationships with lovers will never last and end with betrayal or even murder.

The melodic accompaniment often features strummed banjos, steel guitars, saloon piano playing, and other affectations from the musical past. At times Crockett sounds like a reincarnated version of Marty Robbins or Johnny Horton because of the way he incorporates old styles into contemporary modes. Crockett's tracks could be obscure folk songs sung around the campfire dressed up for recording, except they are not. Crockett wrote all the material except for Red Lane's "Blackjack County Chain", a violent chain-gang/revenge song. Lane's song fits right in with the other 12 cuts in terms of its evocation of good and evil and how the line between them is often grey and fuzzy.

There's also an underlying blues element to the record, especially on such tracks like the appropriately titled "Paint It Blue" Crockett sings of sadness over a shuffle beat that could be the sound of horse hooves running or a steam train on the tracks. The even more doleful "The Man That Time Forgot" moves at a slower pace but maintains that same shambling tone as Crockett narrates the sources of his misery. Even the seemingly more upbeat tunes are full of heartache, like the tale of love and lynching "The Poplar Tree". Crockett narrates morality tales where "Heads You Win", and as the old saying goes, "tails I lose". In other words, we are all doomed.

That said, Crockett sings in an intimate voice that suggests while we are all lonesome and bound to die, we are all in this world together. We can share our woes and find common ground in our collective fate. He's the voice-over narrator that one frequently hears in old Western movies or the theme song that spells out the action before we even witness it. Crockett understands that the differences between the white-hatted hero and the black Stetson-wearing outlaw all depends on one's perspective. We are all both, depending on one's circumstances. We are all dealt hands for which we are not responsible. Some people get crappy cards; others have aces. We have to play them the best we can even though we know the game is fixed.

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