He's a descendant of Davy Crockett. He hitchhiked across the country. He performed and lived on the streets of New York. And now he's traveling the country as a paid blues performer. Introducing: Charley Crockett.
Crockett began singing when he was four years old.
"I sang all the time because my mom sang and I was never self-conscious," Crockett says. "For better or worse, my momma really gave me the confidence when I was young to never really stop to think whether I was good enough or not."
He spent his first years growing up in Rio Grande Valley, but during his early teen years moved to East Dallas with his mom, splitting his time between there and his uncle's apartment above a restaurant in New Orleans.
Like his ancestor Davy Crockett, Charley Crockett had an unquenchable pioneer spirit, a "spirit in his DNA that is somehow still there," he says. Crockett grew proud of his heritage after hearing stories from his grandmother, but school ridiculed him for his relative who had been turned into a Disney icon. Torn apart, Crockett "stopped talking about it for years till I stopped believing it."
School never came naturally; with severe dyslexia and terrible organization skills, Crockett feared choosing a direction from a list of things, never wanting to be "fenced in." But he did have enough passion to freestyle rap and hip-hop and so, unable to hold down a "normal" job, he pursued music.
At 17-years-old, "Momma pulled some strings and got an old acoustic guitar," and from then on Crockett was practicing incessantly. That's when he took to the streets of New Orleans, playing his guitar and hitchhiking the country to New York.
"I cared about music. I sacrificed a lot of security for that, but ultimately keeping my music first and living on the street was great for me," Crockett says.
Living on the streets presented plenty of challenges. Without school or a job tying him down, Crockett would play music all day on the streets with tips as his only income.
"When you're playing on the street, no one is asking you to be there. You're getting a really honest and raw exchange between people," he says.
"If you're not getting tipped, you either need to move spots, practice or choose a better song."
He made friends with the other street performers -- sometimes crashing on their couches for months at a time -- and made make-shift CDs, recording songs on computers, editing and burning them onto a disk and selling them for $5.
Like many other singers, blues wasn't Crockett's first choice -- "I came down with the blues," he says -- but the artist was drawn to its discussion of a relatable struggle, which helped him deal with his pain. It was around that time Crockett met another street performer, a rapper, who would spit rhymes on a car of the train then switch to another car between stops. He and Crockett connected, and the two performed together 20 hours a day, gaining a following.
"The crazy thing about playing on the street is that if you're playing at a busy stop you can reach 3,000 people in an hour," Crockett says. He was getting paid to practice -- something many people have to pay for. And he was absorbing the music all around him, strengthening his musical ear and core understanding of music, which helped him to improvise.
"I think most of improvising just comes from how intrinsically creative you are," Crockett says.
"You can't be afraid to hit a wrong note, because making mistakes are sometimes the most beautiful things you can do," he says.
Well, Crockett made it. He says life hasn't changed much. He's using more gear, he's amplified, has more pressure and more responsibility, but he's still the same whimsical wild child he always was. Occasionally, he still brings his guitar outside to perform on the street corner again. But he's a paid performer, and Dallas was the city that helped him get there.
"I met people here who I knew were on the path to doing great things, and I just instinctually believed this is the town I needed to release my record [In the Night] in if I wanted there to be a good chance of being heard," Crockett says.
There's a number of reasons why: Dallas is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, historically cheap, just an easy plane flight away from most other major cities, and maintains a deep cultural heritage, especially in Deep Ellum, where Dallas has buried the bricks that major artists used to walk on.
"We're going to find [that culture] by recognizing the old brick underneath the concrete in Deep Ellum, not by trying to outtrick ourselves with some new modern electronic beat," Crockett says.
"There's nothing exciting looking forward in this post-modern America, so we have to go back to the real roots if we're going to have any hope for ourselves as a generation."