“Up until a few years ago, the only thing I associated Americana with was chickens,” Charley Crockett says as he tells us how he got to where he is today before a Brooklyn Bowl show here in Nashville one night last year. Along with his own songs, he’ll sing three by James “Slim” Hand, the Texas artist who made a one-time busker who fled San Benito for New York, New Orleans, and in-between, proud to be called country. “I miss him every day, and I think about him constantly,” Charley says of the man he first witnessed from a spot in the back of either Little Longhorn or the White Horse. “I was coming off the street. I had learned the drinking songs—how to play the blues—by ear and watching people's hands. I come into country music because of storytelling, and the way that James told the story.” It’s one man’s story, sure. But each of the three songs Charley and his band play—“Midnight Run,” “Lesson in Depression,” and “In the Corner”—are invitations to poetically specific scenes, to entire lives lived out on single nights with real people busting it as time blows by and hearts both break and try to heal in 2-4-1 dives. Plus, reminders to turn east in the morning to face the sun. Slim’s songs are simple but powerful. They’re surprising but inevitable like a good ending to a story. And they catch fire. In Kentucky one night. Nashville the next. Columbia, South Carolina, and on down the line. You can dance, drink, or sing along to any one of them because they’re hometown familiar even if you’ve never heard them before. And the way Charley presents Slim—it’s effortless conviction that equates to something we’ve tarnished and fucked out. Authenticity, you might call it. Either way, it’s a mark of art.
“In atmosphere and the picture he paints of loneliness, of that warm and depressing vibe in a bar, ‘Over There, That's Frank’ rivals any barroom classic that's ever been written,” Charley says, leaning way back on his backless stool to wind up and finish. “As much as that seems played out, you can't write a better song about that life than James did.” James Hand died in 2020 at age 67. “I didn't expect him to pass. He goes up to the house and it just,” Charley says then trails off. And it’s understandable. The man behind “Just a Heart” died of heart failure with only a few real records to his name. Willie Nelson called the singer twenty years his junior The Real Deal. And to Charley, his friend who was born and based Tokio, Texas, was his hillbilly Shakespeare, born the same year Hank Williams died: 1952. “They were too good to be alive at the same time,” Charley says and tells us that when Slim passed, he returned as a kind of ghost, reminding Charley of the promise he made to record a handful of Slim’s songs.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the fulfillment of that promise: Lil’ G.L. Presents: 10 for Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand.
It’s a timeless tribute to a timeless artist whose original songwriting and real-tears-in-the-eyes performances helped make Charley Crockett, Charley Crockett. It’s an album Slim didn’t believe would ever come together. Charley says, “He'd pull me close and whisper in my ear ‘Well, I wish you'd hurry up and do that, son.’ He had a look in his eye, where he'd been promised all kinds of stuff.”
Selecting the songs seemed to come as naturally as Charley sings them. “I tried to grab his songs that reminded me of what you would've heard from '50s country, with Lefty Frizzell, Leon Payne, Hank and them, early George. Then I looked for the stuff that I saw the young folks was connecting to.” Later in his Nashville set, Charley’s rendition of “That’s How I Got to Memphis” by Tom T. Hall gets after what Contrary Western is searching for. An answer to the question: How did we get here? An effort to see that most everything hinges on something else—and an effort to get away from one-chord songs made up of wandering, solipsistic stories. This can’t be another marketing ploy. In Nashville, Charley erases boundaries we built to help us move through this town. Traditionalists and hipsters, mainstream and revival folks, we’re all singing along, and, when it’s going right, we substitute Brooklyn or Los Angeles or Nashville for Memphis.
“They always say that commercial country radio's not going to play anything I'm doing, and that's fine—it ain't even the goal,” Charley shares when I ask about the album’s early reception. “But I thought that, with James, with his story and his life, that I might have a chance of breaking through to some of those people to draw attention back to [Slim’s] catalog.”
You might call today a first for Slim.
In his 67 years he didn’t celebrate many anniversaries of his own. But the way his songs trade in time and place, the turn of one day over into the next, his songs are a year in a day—they contain all the frayed nerves and release of an anniversary. Tomorrow marks another day, in all its own anniversaries of love and songs and losses. The turning of a day or a heart, loneliness and love, it’s all there, sewn into in so many of James Hand’s lines and shown on the new record when the tenth and final track, “Slim’s Lament,” waltzes you back to the start for a run of songs filled with lines that remind us of how much we need at least one other person listening to us. “When you stopped loving me, so did I,” Slim sang, and now Charley sings night after night.
9. 9. 2021 at Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee
Photos by Emma Delevante
Words by Luke Wiget