It’s nice to be ahead of the curve when discussing a Charley Crockett album for a change, especially when all records indicated that The Man From Waco would act as something of a rebirth moment for his career. All in a good sense, too, given that this is a Bruce Robison-produced effort featuring Crockett’s actual backing band and songs either written or co-written by him (thus now providing a balance to his cover projects).
And while I have always struggled to really love Crockett’s work, I will say that a lot of it has grown on me in recent years by revisiting it with newfound perspective, especially when I do think his last few albums have been relatively solid. So I don’t know, then, if my issues with The Man From Waco are just mine alone or what, but for as much as I might consider this to be Crockett’s most easy and accessible album to date, it’s not quite clicking with me as much as I’d like – sporting the same general melting pot of old-school country, soul, and blues that’s characterized his work for years now, just without a lot of real punch or standout moments.
Maybe it’s because it’s his most restrained and low-key effort to date even despite the wild west concept given off by the title and the instrumental opener, or maybe it’s because of Robison’s tasteful but unexceptional production giving way to a lot of pleasant but safe ‘70s-inspired sounds. Again, I’ve always mostly been on the outside looking in with Crockett’s work anyway, but he’s definitely always been a lively, vivacious performer on his dustier honky-tonk moments or more direct soulful cuts. And while I do appreciate the sharper kick and bite across the board a track like “I’m Just a Clown” and the snaky, horn-driven groove of “Trinity River,” I was a bit let down by how the Spanish-flavored tracks like the title track and “Horse Thief Mesa” didn’t get to open up and develop a bit more – in sound or content, really, given that they’re pretty by-the-numbers examinations of the archetypal lonesome troubadour, the former at least aiming for Dwight Yoakam’s “Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room” in theme, even if feels a bit underwritten.
That’s not to say straightforward and direct is a bad way to go, however. The plucky pedal steel anchoring the melodic hook of “Black Sedan” won’t leave my head, and there’s a genuine breeze in the gentle acoustics that can make “Time of the Cottonwood Trees” sport a fair bit of rollick and charm. The same can be said for the oddly upbeat closer “Name on a Billboard,” which touches on themes of stardom and legacy in a way that doesn’t quite flow with a lot of the other themes explored here. And I think therein lies my other issue with the record – a lack of greater variety in lyrics and themes. I’ve seen some reviews compare this to an extended musical tribute to James Hand following Crockett’s own tribute project dedicated to him, given the more cinematic flair and concept of the opening track. But really, examinations of the lonely cowboy troubadour have provided the backbone to Crockett’s work for years now anyway.
In a way, I actually wish we did get that bigger commitment to a concept record, given that what follows instead is a series of very mature breakup songs that, while lived-in and plainspoken enough to feel like long-lost classics, do tend to blend together after a bit. Sure, it’s nice when he can get a bit more heartfelt with the self-blame characterizing “I’m Just a Clown,” and tracks with a gentle grace and poise to them like “Black Sedan” and “All the Way From Atlanta” really speak for themselves, but you’ll also get overbearingly schmaltzy moments like the clunky “Odessa” every now and then, too.
And even if I do think some of the tracks that lean more heavily on storytelling feel a bit cliché and broadly sketched, I would like to see Crockett push further with his scope nonetheless. “July Jackson” is a familiar track in which a beaten and battered wife finally has enough of her husband and shows it, but the more somber restraint exercised from Crockett’s faraway perspective as just another resident of the small town they inhabit adds a great touch, if only to comment on and add weight not to the crime committed, but what was taken away from her and robbed from herself to get to that point; it’s the easy album highlight for me. Even despite my criticisms, though, I do think this is overall really solid and easy to like, just as all of his albums tend to be with their uniform quality. But I also think it could have used a bit more meat on its bones to ascend to true greatness in sound and concept, and whether the lack of that comes from Crockett’s manic pace or the overall effort feeling just a bit too safe, I don’t know.
- Favorite tracks: “Time of the Cottonwood Trees,” “I’m Just a Clown,” “Black Sedan,” “Trinity River,” “All the Way From Atlanta,” “July Jackson”
- Least favorite track: “Odessa”