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Texas, Townes, and the Truth

Nov 27, 2023

Texas, Townes, and the Truth

(Editor’s Note: Sign up here to receive Good Country issues when they launch, direct to your email inbox via Substack.)

In advance of the release of Vincent Neil Emerson’s latest, critically-acclaimed album, The Golden Crystal Kingdom – which dropped on November 10 – BGS moderated a conversation between VNE and his friend and peer, country & western singer-songwriter and song-interpreter Charley Crockett.

Both artists cut their teeth in music venues in Texas a decade ago. In our conversation, they tell the story of how they came to know each other and discuss ways they protect each other within the business. They talk about covering and cutting each other’s songs and the importance of telling their truths.

Emerson’s new album, produced by Shooter Jennings, veers his sound toward warm ’60s rock and folk influences. He opens up to Charley and BGS about its creation process and what is on the horizon for him.

Charley Crockett: What’s up, Vincent?

Vincent Neil Emerson: What’s up, my boy?

CC: Another day, another dollar.

BGS: Tell me where you both are in the world right now.

VNE: I’m in Asheville, North Carolina, right now, at an Airbnb.

CC: I’m up here in San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado.

Both really nice places to be in the fall.

VNE: You ain’t wrong.

Can you give us a little bit of context about your relationship, where you know each other from, and how long you have been working together?

VNE: Charley, you wanna go?

CC: Oh man, I always tell that story; I wanna hear it from you.

VNE: I met Charley in Deep Ellum. We were playing around town, playing a lot of shows around there and Fort Worth. That was over 10 years ago, maybe?

CC: I was trying to think about it this morning. I think it had to be ’13 or ’14.

VNE: That’s crazy, man.

CC: He remembers it being at Adair Saloon; I remember it being at the Freeman. It really don’t matter, ’cause I’m sure it was both places.

VNE: I’m sure we went and had a drink at Adairs or something like that.

CC: I remember I walked up on him and said, “I like all them Justin Townes Earle songs.” And he said, “I only played one.” I always liked what he was doing, and he used to play solo and do the guitar pools up at Magnolia Motor Lounge all the time. He’d be up there smoking a cigarette, picking through them songs like Townes Van Zandt, and I thought, “Oh lord have mercy, this boy is a force to be reckoned with.”

VNE: Man, I felt the same way as soon as I heard you, brother. I remember a couple of nights I saw you at the Freeman with this band. You had a bunch of guys up on that tiny little stage, and you were just ripping through all these songs, taking all these old honky tonk songs and flipping them on their head and turning them into blues and vice versa. I always thought that was so cool, man.

CC: I don’t remember that well, but I guess you’re right. In those days, every gig we played for both me and Vincent, we ended up getting booked by the same folks, or they were all standing together in some bar, no matter if it was Ft. Worth or Nashville or Los Angeles. One way or another, all them same business folks been standing pretty close to me and Vincent. And that’s the truth.

Well, that’s convenient if you like to work together, I guess. Charley, do you have questions you want to dig in on?

CC: You know, Erin, I don’t even know what the hell we are doing?

Let’s talk about the release of Vincent’s new album.

CC: Well, let me just do this then. Everything he’s been putting out with Shooter [Jennings], like everything else he’s ever done…If you sit there looking at Vincent and he surprises you, it’s like, “Oh damn, I didn’t know old boy was gonna do that.” The very next thing he does, it just happens again — every single time. I remember when he was playing “7 Come 11” way before anybody gave a damn about him and was looking out for his interests or his career. He had all them songs in his pocket way before anybody had ideas or designs on him and his business. I’ve said for a long time that “7 Come 11” is one of the best folk songs written out of Texas in 20 years. Remember Central Track, Vincent?

VNE: Yeah, they did a lot of write-ups on music.

CC: I will never forget that stuff when you did that record and what you were doing live. Erin, he was playing for 50 bucks and a case of Lone Star in them dive bars in Fort Worth, you know? He was living in a 10×10 room. He was hardly ever even standing inside of the damn joint.

A handful of us showed up at the same time, and we are all moving on our own paths, but we’ve all stayed pretty close, or we damn sure weave it together quite a bit even if we get way out there, you know, in the territories, we always come back to each other. I think I met Leon Bridges right around the same time that I met Vincent. I met him in Deep Ellum, too. There is a guy who plays guitar with me now named Alexis Sanchez. He had a band back then, and he was playing at Club Dada there for some little festival, and Leon Bridges was standing there in a trench coat and a bowler hat. I venture to guess that me and Leon and Vincent met each other damn near about the same time. There were a lot of other folks like that. Ten years later, especially for some Texas guys, you know, we’ve all grown a lot, and I think we have always supported each other and loved each others’ music. That’s only grown, and Vincent is standing there as one of the premier, original, authentic talents to come out of Texas since the turn of the damn century. I’m not blowing smoke. I’m just stating what is already happening.

VNE: Man, that is high praise. I appreciate you sayin’ that, Charley.

CC: Well, they want all this shit to write about it, but that’s just the truth. He was playing in Fort Worth and like I said, playing for all that low money. They were calling him Lefty. Why did they call you Lefty? I figured it was because you had a black eye or something.

VNE: Yeah, I had my left eye knocked out of the socket one time, and the nickname stuck for a while.

CC: I remember they wrote about you pretty salaciously there in the Fort Worth Weekly. I know a thing or two about that myself.

VNE: I would say it was because they were trying to sell papers, but it was a free publication.

CC: Shit, they are selling advertisements. I think the Dallas Observer is still doing that to me.

He was playing them bars, we were playing them bars. I don’t know which one of us is which, but more often than not, he sure seems like if I’m Waylon, he’s Willie. I have felt like that for a long time. You could change the names. I think about this stuff a lot. The business folks, it is always hard to tell what they are doing, but you can be sure they are rolling dice and betting and gambling on folks. It ends up being, a guy like Vincent that somebody like me can lean on a lot more. We can trust those guys, and I’m real happy with who I’m working with, and I’m sure Vincent is, too. It is the other artists living life for the song that gets us through. I know I feel like that about Vincent, and I feel like that about a lot of other guys I don’t know as well as him.

Kind of like Johnny Cash said, “We are all family, even though some of us barely know each other.” I think it is because we can see each other and know we are in the same boat and in that way, care more for each other than other people would. I think it is pretty serious. It is life and death.

VNE: That’s a good feeling to not feel so alone in that way and have people out there and doing things similar to you. They probably think a lot of the same thoughts. Me and you are good buddies, Charley, and I feel that way, too. I feel like some guys out there like Tyler Childers – I really respect him, and I feel like he is in the same boat as us. I’m not as well known as you guys, but I think none of that really matters. I think what it comes down to is that we are all songwriters trying to make our own stories happen and be true to ourselves and honest to the world. I think that the reason we can relate to each other is the same reason the fans can relate. Honesty will cut through anything and bring people together.

CC: One way or another, them folks we are selling tickets to, they know.

VNE: You can’t fake the funk, I guess.

CC: Eventually, it comes through. Speaking of Tyler Childers, we ended up on the same plane flying from Nashville to Austin recently… I was there for the Country Music Hall of Fame induction and I didn’t want to go. I get real antisocial and want to hide out from everybody and shit, and I went to Nashville kicking and screaming. Tanya Tucker was getting inducted to the Hall of Fame with a couple of other people. Patty Loveless and Bob McDill, who I wasn’t that familiar with. I had thought that he’d written the Jimmy C. Newman song, “Louisiana Saturday Night”, which I know real well. To be honest with you, it is the only reason I agreed to go out there, ’cause I love singing that song. I made a lot of money writing songs off of that song, so I figured I owed whoever the songwriter was. Long story short, there in the last week, I found out it was a different “Louisiana Saturday Night,” regularly mistakenly attributed to Bob McDill cause he wrote a totally separate song called “Louisiana Saturday Night” that Mel McDaniel had a big hit with, and that’s the one that goes,

“Well, you get down the fiddle and you get down the bow
Kick off your shoes and you throw ’em on the floor
Dance in the kitchen ’til the mornin’ light
Louisiana Saturday night”

That was a big ol hit, right Vincent? He did “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On,” and a bunch of shit like that that I just didn’t realize. My naive, ignorant ass goes up there to Nashville kicking and screaming, and that’s how I feel. A horse gets led to water or something like that. I saw Tanya get inducted. I damn near built my career off of my version of “Jamestown Ferry” when I was younger, and I realized that she had blazed that trail for me, and I had not shown her enough respect. I really hadn’t. Same thing with Bob McDill. All those songs he wrote and the advice he gave in his speech, and my dumbass could really shut up and pay attention to these folks.

Then I ran into Tyler going from there. He was flying to Austin to do a John Prine tribute. That’s how it is. When I see Tyler, I’m on a plane. When I see Vincent, it is at Monterey Fairgrounds. We are ships passing in the night. All these guys like Tyler, Colter [Wall], Leon, Vincent. Whenever I see them, they got a big light around them, and it is shining. You just want it to keep shining for them, and for myself, to keep it going,

I don’t know exactly where you want to go with this, Erin, but I’m excited about this record. Shooter was telling me about your songs and offered to send them and I was like, “No, I ain’t gonna do that. I wanna be like everyone else.” I wanna watch this thing get rolled out, and I wanna be excited. I’m looking forward to going through the songs.

Vincent, can you tell us about working with Shooter on this record?

VNE: I met Shooter a few times. Me and Charley were at this festival in Iowa hanging out, and Shooter came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder. I’d met him before at another festival but I’d never talked to him. He turned me around and said, “Hey man, I really like that thing you did with Rodney Crowell.” He paid me a lot of compliments, and since then, we talked, and when it came time to make another record, Shooter was the first guy I thought of. I thought it would be such a cool idea to work with him on an album. One thing about him is he really is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and he is a genuine fan of music. He’s trying to make cool things happen. I’m so lucky I got to work with him on it. That is the big takeaway from the whole thing for me was making a real good friend like that and meeting someone who gets me excited about songwriting and about making an album and making music in general.

Since Charley cut “7 Come 11” and you cut one of Charley’s songs for this record, can you talk about what prompted “Time of the Cottonwood Trees” winding up in this pile of songs?

VNE: Oh man – that song. Me and you were on tour together for three months, was it last summer? We did a bunch of dates, and we were on the road a long time, and I was listening to Charley do that song every night. It was a brand new song that hadn’t come out on his record yet. I got to hear him sing that song every night by himself, and I just think it is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. It is one of my favorites from you, Charley. I think it is a fine example of songwriting. When it came time to make this album, I always wanted to pay tribute to you and cut one of your songs on a record because you cut “7 Come 11.” That really ties back into that whole Willie and Waylon and all those old timers who cut each others’ songs and lifted each other up like that. I just wanted to pay tribute to you, and that’s why I put it on the album.

CC: Shit, I appreciate it. I’ll be excited to get the check in the mail. You surprised the hell out of me with that one, you really did. I’ve always wanted people to cut my songs. Sometimes, I think I’d be better off that way. I have so many. I’ve always cut a lot of songs that weren’t mine, probably about half of them. And I got about a 250-song catalog of published shit. I would guess about 40-50% are songs I didn’t write. I feel like I’ve caught a lot of heat for that. People have an idea about me that I never wrote a single song. I think that’s because we live in an era where, like what Vincent was talking about, where all those folks back in the day, across genres, and it wasn’t just country it was pop, folk, soul, R&B. It was everything. Everyone was cutting each other’s songs. I just really think that to write a great song, you have to learn great songs from other people.

You have to watch out for these publishers these days. They’ll just put any piece of junk out as long as they’ve got control over it. They figured out they can make money selling junk. If you can make more money than ever before selling junk and you aren’t principled, and you aren’t that close to the music, well, they don’t see the reason not to do it that way. I think it feels like a renaissance.

VNE: Specifically in the genre of country music, there is a lot of junk out there. I don’t want to put anyone down. Most of the time, I just try to ignore whatever I don’t like. I think that’s the best way to go about it. I think there is room at the table for everybody, whatever you are into. I just think it is so cool that Sturgill and Charley and Colter and Tyler, all these other guys that are out here putting out real, honest-to-goodness songwriter songs. And not just that, but real country music. It doesn’t matter if it is your song or someone else’s; if you are telling that story honestly, I think that’s great. I’ve always appreciated you for that, Charley. I think you are a great interpreter of songs, and I think you are an even better songwriter, man.

CC: Damn, I’m glad I talked to y’all this morning. I feel better.

I’m glad that we are talking about cutting songs because that is such a huge part of country music, interpreting other people’s songs or reinterpreting a song. It feels like that art was lost in the past 20 years or so and it is having a resurgence. I’m excited that you guys are at the forefront of that, because great songs have more than one life. And it is an opportunity for songwriters to make more money.

VNE: I think it is one of the greatest compliments that a songwriter could receive – to have an artist who they love and respect cut one of their songs.

CC: There is no question about that. That is the best feeling.

VNE: It is, cause you know that your songs has legs and can go places that you can’t, which is a great feeling.

CC: It really is. It is such a political world, and it is so divided. There is a lot of pressure on people that you step out there into the great mirror of society, and the more out there in front of the public that you get, there is a mirror that starts projecting on you, and it is tough to deal with. It is hard to know what to do, but the thing about it is – being able to write honest songs and tell the truth in your writing; that is the most rewarding feeling. That is why I always look forward to what Vincent is doing. There aren’t a whole lot of people that I anticipate their new works as much as him, if anybody really. That’s the whole deal. You look over, and he’s writing better and better, and it makes me want to write better, too.

Speaking of, Vincent, can you talk a bit about your writing process for this record?

VNE: I kind of pieced together songs over time. Sometimes they jump out real fast; sometimes it takes a while. And thanks for saying that Charley, brother. Damn.

CC: I’ve been saying it for 10 years.

VNE: That’s kept me going a lot of times and I don’t think you realize that. These songs – damn, what was I saying?

CC: You were saying sometimes they come quick, sometimes they come slow.

VNE: I’m very influenced by the music that I’m listening to and that is why I try to be real careful about what I listen to. I think it is like if I’m making a smoothie. I gotta put certain ingredients in my brain, and it comes out me on the other end, hopefully. I was listening to a lot of Neil Young and Steven Stills and David Crosby. A lot of the ’60s rock and roll and a lot of Bob Dylan stuff. That’s just where I was in my headspace, so I was taking in all that. I try to put it all together to make it my own. That’s where I was at when I was making this album.

By the way, I’m excited about this rodeo we are playing together, Charley.

CC: Which one is that?

VNE: The National Finals in Las Vegas.

CC: Oh shit yeah! At the Virgin Theater there? Yeah man, I’m excited about it, too. Thanks for doing it.

VNE: Thanks for having me on.

CC: When it comes to money and shit like that, just any time, whatever you gotta do to make it work cause I wanna keep playing with you as much as we can and build up. I’ve played in some arenas recently, and I really don’t like it. I don’t know if country music belongs in arenas. And I just mean opening. I can’t sell tickets to no damn arena. And I take a cue from Colter cause he and Tyler and them boys, they could be in arenas all day long if they wanted to be. I would rather play rodeos and municipal auditoriums and really special theaters and stack ‘em up. I think we need to get a goddamned Dripping Springs reunion tour going. A real one.

VNE: Man, that’d be great.

CC: You know what I mean, just do some of our own shit. My aunt and uncle and a bunch of people who haven’t been out to see me play in a long time are coming out to Vegas. I used to live with my uncle when I was a kid in Louisiana and Mississippi and shit. He’s gonna flip his shit when he sees you.

VNE: I can’t wait, man, I’ve heard so many stories about him.

CC: He’s wild. We gonna show these folks what country music actually sounds like. They might not be able to tell who is left or right. Nahhh I’m just kidding it is a bunch of cool people.

Thank y’all for letting me be a part of this. I’m just happy to help out or talk about this. I’m real excited about the album for real. The imagery in your writing, man, it’s like everything you write is getting more and more vivid. You paint such a picture. I’ll stop blowing smoke up your ass.

I’m gonna get back on the trail and Vincent, I’ll talk to you soon.

VNE: Thank you for doing this brother, I appreciate you.

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Photo Credit: Vincent Neil Emerson by Thomas Crabtree; Charley Crockett by Bobby Cochran

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Texas, Townes, and the Truth
Texas, Townes, and the Truth