The Man From Waco Arrives In Canada
Charley Crockett / Danforth Music Hall, Toronto ON, July 5
On a night when I typically would have been happy to shell out for a ticket to see Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at the Molson Amphitheatre, I had already been anticipating Charley Crockett’s Canadian debut for months. For those unaware, Charlie is the Texas singer-songwriter who, for the past decade, has been building his legend in true troubadour fashion: hopping trains and playing street corners, while often resorting to growing and selling marijuana to earn a living.
What’s set him apart is his unparalleled skill at combing country, blues and soul into an irresistible package tied together by his classic country voice and magnetic personality. The wider world began taking notice in 2020 with the album Welcome To Hard Times, and its follow-up Music City U.S.A. His latest release, The Man From Waco, has pushed the needle further, and the return of full-scale touring has helped position Charley to make a major breakthrough.
It certainly seemed as if his fans in Toronto had been preparing to roll out the red carpet. The first show on July 4 sold out almost immediately, prompting the addition of a second at the venerable east end venue. This one was at capacity as well, with a largely under-40 crowd decked out for the occasion in denim, cowboy boots and hats, even in the sweltering heat. There were even a few Grateful Dead t-shirts visible, and a similar sense of community was loudly evident in the reception Charley was given when he hit the stage in his trademark Stetson and combination red pants and floral print shirt.
Following a rousing introductory instrumental by his similarly attired stellar five-piece band, The Blue Drifters, the set opened with his signature “Jukebox Charley,” after which Charley briskly led the group through an array of The Man From Waco’s best material, from the cinematic title track to the ballad “Odessa” and the twangy “Name On The Billboard.” An early highlight was his version of the Bob Dylan deep cut “Billy” from the Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid soundtrack, and a nice surprise came when he blasted out George Jones’s “The Race Is On,” which certainly made the Deadheads happy.
As the show cruised on, Charley proclaimed he’s “just a man singing the blues” and brilliantly displayed just that on the Jerry Reed rarity “I Feel For You,” sans guitar. Then came a few numbers on claw hammer banjo, before the final stretch that culminated with “I’m Just A Clown,” the closest he’s come to date to a bona fide hit. With its soulful groove, augmented by keyboardist Kullen Fox doubling on trumpet, it contains everything that makes Charley great: lyrics rooted in traditional country heartbreak, but powered by an organic arrangement that flies in the face of everything being churned out on the Nashville assembly line.
For the encore, Charley began solo, playing his modern murder ballad “July Jackson” from The Man From Waco, and the earlier “Blackjack County Chain,” which he said was by request. The band then returned for a rousing version of Willie Nelson’s “Pretend I Never Happened,” before wrapping things up with Charley’s own outlaw anthem “Paint It Blue.” By then, there really wasn’t much more the audience could want; Charley’s performance was a master class in country music history, delivered with a modern flair that none of his contemporaries could match. While there definitely is a sea change underway in country music in terms of broadening its cultural reach, Charley Crockett is also as much a part of it for updating the past in truly exciting and innovative ways.
JASON’S JUKEBOX PICKS
Rodney Crowell / The Chicago Sessions (New West Records)
Rodney Crowell is one of those artists who’s easy to take for granted. Over the course of his 50-year career, the Houston native has been less than consistently great, from his early (and later) work with Emmylou Harris to his high profile marriage/collaboration with Rosanne Cash, and more recent success as a hit-maker for Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and others. All the while, Rodney has done it in an unflashy manner, in the process earning the image as a “songwriter’s songwriter.” But on The Chicago Sessions, Rodney appears ready for his close-up, enlisting Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as producer of these 11 songs that place him squarely at the heart of the Americana movement where he belongs. Things get off to a rousingly funky start with the one-two combination of “Lucky” and “Somebody Loves You,” before settling into the Everlys-ish “Loving You Is The Only Way To Fly.” It’s here that Jeff’s familiar sympathetic production approach starts to make everything glow—all the instruments come across with a quiet clarity, with Rodney’s voice displaying only minimal signs of age. These elements coalesce on Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place To Fall,” a song that’s been covered endlessly, but which Rodney delivers with Roy Orbison-esque fragility. When Emmylou makes an appearance on “Making Lovers Out Of Friends,” it’s merely the icing on the cake, with the level of emotion running deep. The album ends with “Ready To Move On,” a meditation on aging that builds to a glorious climax. For anyone who knows Rodney Crowell only through his reputation, The Chicago Sessions is the perfect place to start exploring his hugely influential body of work.
Bobbie Nelson and Amanda Shires / Loving You (ATO Records)
When Willie Nelson’s sister Bobbie died in 2022 at the age of 91, it marked the end of one of the longest and most fruitful musical partnerships in history. Bobbie’s trademark honky tonk piano was present at nearly every show Willie played, and on nearly every record he made. Thankfully, Amanda Shires had the foresight to give Bobbie an opportunity to shine on her own, and Loving You serves as a more than fitting tribute to a true unsung hero. Most of the material is familiar, from “Always On My Mind” and “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground,” to “Over The Rainbow” and “Summertime” (featuring Willie), but each performance is captured in lively simplicity. Amanda sings with her distinctive Dolly-esque tremolo, and adds her fiddle skills wherever necessary, but the real stars are Bobbie’s ageless fingers. Hearing those familiar trills can instantly transport listeners back to the dusty barrooms and dancehalls where the Nelsons got their start so many years ago. Those days will never come again, and for that reason alone Loving You is a treasure for anyone who appreciates great songwriting.
Tinariwen / Amatssou (Wedge)
When the “desert blues” collective Tinariwen became a global sensation at the turn of this century, it seemed a full circle moment. Of course, what we know as “the blues” originated in Africa, but even its staunchest fans had to concede that as a genre it’s had little new to offer since the golden age of Fat Possum Records in the 1990s. Thus, Tinariwen arrived at precisely the right moment to remind everyone of the visceral sounds and rhythms that laid the foundation of the blues. The group, whose origins are in Mali and Algeria, has come to be lauded by the likes of Robert Plant, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Brian Eno and many others, and have maintained their magical sound over the course of eight studio albums. On their ninth, Amatssou, Tinariwen teams with famed Canadian producer Daniel Lanois, who brings his keen skills at capturing ambient sounds to the project. With the band providing the soundscapes that Daniel normally would generate on his own through sonic experimentation, the results on Amatssou are even more intimate and hypnotizing than a typical Tinariwen album. Daniel instead utilizes his other strengths with percussion and voices—brilliantly heard on his own recent album Heavy Sun—to bring out nuances in Tinariwen’s natural chemistry. If you’ve never heard Tinariwen before, Amatssou is an ideal place to start.
SONG OF THE WEEK
Art Bergmann – “A Hymn For Us” (single / Weewerk Recordings)