$10 Cowboy Nation

Charley Crockett produces a primer on America

When Charley Crockett played the historic Grand Ole Opry last year, he told the sold-out audience, “That alley outside is just a few feet away, but boy it’s a long way from here.” The 39-year-old Crockett, at last on the stage of the Mother Church of Country Music, was referring to his early days playing alleyways and street corners, followed by years of indifference from the country music establishment.

No one is indifferent to Crockett now. He’s one of the leaders of a fast-growing music rebellion, introducing a new generation of fans to the sounds, stylings—and attitude—of traditional country and folk music. The Nashville establishment makes regular entreaties to him these days, but Crockett no longer needs the patronage.

A native of South Texas, and a descendent of Davy Crockett, young Charley moved with his mom and siblings to Dallas where he learned to play guitar and later perform in the rough clubs of Deep Elem. At 19, he hit the road to busk on the streets of New Orleans and hasn’t stopped moving since, playing 200 shows a year, and releasing 14 albums in nine years. He’s recorded and toured with Willie Nelson, the person Crockett calls “the greatest country artist in American history,” performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live and been honored by the Americana Music Association. This summer he will headline Red Rocks.

Crockett and his peers are doing much more than adding to the canon of country music. They are holding up a mirror to reflect our troubled times, and Crockett’s new record, $10 Cowboy, will likely be remembered as one of the era’s touchstone works. Written over a two-month period as he wound his way across the United States on the back of a tour bus, the resulting songs feel like a series of twelve connected snapshots that reveal something essential about America, something that’s not being reflected in our banal, polarized politics, or portrayed in our fractured information system, yet still, an America that is flashing like a cheat code for anyone wanting to understand this moment.

The narrative begins with the title track, a personal song that also offers a provocative idea about our national identity. “A $10 Cowboy is a country singer who made himself on a street corner in America,” Crockett told me recently, referring to his early days. “But the cowboy has always been part of the American persona. The cowboy way, the cowboy mindset, that applies to anyone who doesn’t feel free, who feels fenced in and bound to something.”

Crockett speaks to the cowboy inside us all, and lets us know he sees us clearly. “If you’re a $10 cowboy, then you already know//That there never was a rider, who couldn’t be thrown.” As the album unfolds, you begin to understand that a $10 Cowboy is anyone who has hustled to get by, who didn’t fit in, who has slept on other people’s couches, or the street, who has fallen down, gotten up, and ventured from home chasing a paying gig or a new start.

“Being out on the road gives you a first-hand experience of how different kinds of Americans see themselves as going through some kind of great struggle,” Crockett says. “The roughneck working the oil and natural gas fields in West Texas. The single mother raising kids by herself. The young man working a street corner because he thinks it’s his only option. I would be dishonest if I said I couldn’t see the thread. Each of ‘em feel invisible. I am struck by the battles they are fighting internally, and the ways they have been entrapped by what America says they are.”

On the album’s second song, “America,” Crockett dispenses with metaphor and addresses her plainly. “America, How are ya? I hope you’re doing fine//America I love ya, And I fear you sometimes.” In the bluesy tune over Kullen Fox’s wailing trumpet, Crockett reflects and yearns and confesses to his subject while pleading to be seen. “I wrote that in the parking lot of the Kansas City Star Casino,” he said. “The whole thing came to me at once. I didn’t even feel like I was writing it. I felt I was sitting somewhere where some lost soul drifting around those slot machines was yelling it and I could hear it.”

Despite the locale of its inspiration, “America” isn’t a gambling song. However, gambling is a major theme on the record, and has been on other Crockett albums. It’s another way $10 Cowboy reflects the authentic America we don’t like to acknowledge. For decades gambling lived in the shadows of our puritan self-image, considered a vice, sinful, a tax on the poor, and illegal everywhere except two counties in Nevada. Nowadays it is ubiquitous—more than 2,000 casinos across 44 states; $119 billion wagered sports just last year—but we still look the other way at its effects. For those who are curious about those effects, listen to Crockett’s “Ain’t Done Losing Yet.”

On the songs “Hard Luck” and “Good at Losing,” Crockett gives expression to a trait deeply embedded in the American psyche—resilience. In our founding mythology, and in most popular art, the plucky underdog battles and triumphs over long odds. In country music, and on Crockett’s $10 Cowboy, victory rarely comes; resilience is in the struggle itself, and the defiance it forges. He sings over the ghost of Buck Owens: “They laughed at me in New York City//Called me a fool in L.A.//I doubt that Nashville saw me coming//Besides the bar folks working late.”

Even the album’s love song tells us something vital about our times. In the touching ballad “Diamond in the Rough,” Crockett celebrates the love of his life—his fiancé Taylor Grace—by acknowledging the imbalance she inherited. “Diamond in the rough, I know you’ve had it tough//A woman sure gets judged in a man’s game//Empire may rule the world, I’m only living for you girl.”

In election years like this one, we hear a lot of boisterous, heated rhetoric about what kind of America we are living in, and what is at stake in November. But America is an elusive subject to bring into focus, perhaps because, rather than a static image—or a red-and-blue colored map—she is more like a mosaic, constantly shapeshifting and taking on a new form. Or maybe it’s just that, like the English essayist J.A. Baker observed in his canonical study of peregrine falcons, “the hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.”

America has never felt harder to understand than in this moment. Luckily for the rest of us, Charley Crockett cast his eye on it. He’s just a $10 Cowboy. And he looks a lot like me.

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