Texas alt-country crooner Charley Crockett, appearing this week in San Francisco with his new album “The Valley” on a bill with Old 97’s bandleader Rhett Miller, was feeling pretty indestructible up until the end of 2018.
The descendant of legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett spent much of his vagabond existence trailblazing, from the moment he left his single mom’s trailer park at 17 with a Hohner pawn shop guitar she bought him. He went on to busk — and occasionally live on — the streets of Paris, Spain, Morocco, New York, Deep Ellum and New Orleans’ French Quarter, hitchhiking his way from city to city or riding the rails, hobo style. But in January, his rip-roaring lifestyle ground to a halt with a dire doctor’s prognosis.
Crockett, who even lived in Mendocino for a few years, working random farms by day and singing his loping, lazy-drawled originals in town by night, had been experiencing severe hernia pain, so, without insurance, he played enough extra concerts to finance a medical consultation, possibly an operation. That’s when an EKG revealed that a condition he’d been born with, Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, was no longer dormant.
“They told me my heart was shutting down, that I had maybe a year to live, and that the heart failure would probably occur onstage, due to the high energy of my shows,” he says. He quickly needed two extensive, expensive surgeries.
“I was stuck in limbo,” says Crockett. “You always hear about someone going to the doctor, who says, ‘You’re going to die if you don’t get this operation. Let’s check you in!’ But that doesn’t happen if you don’t have insurance.”
He thanks a last-minute enrollment in Obamacare for saving his life, and an exorbitant bill that ran to over $750,000.
Going into the hospital, the artist knew two things: He’d better get his next album recorded and he’d better make every song count. He did.
“I recorded the whole album one week before surgery,” says Crockett, who went deeply autobiographical on fiddle-and-pedal-steel-bolstered laments including “10,000 Acres,” “Borrowed Time,” “The Way I’m Livin’ (Santa Rosa)” and the apt closer, “Motel Time Again.”
“The Valley” is his sixth effort, overall. But he has enough hair-raising real-life yarns from his ride-thumbing days alone to fill a dozen more. He did unwittingly get into the sedan with a few paranoid schizophrenics during his travels.
There’s a toot-doot in the distance, and Crockett — phoning roadside from Washington state —is momentarily distracted.
“Hey. there goes a train,” he says, like he’s spotted a rare bird. “It’s the BNSF line out of Spokane, Canadian-Pacific!”
But on this posh tour, it’s motel time again and he doesn’t mind.
IF YOU GO
Charley Crockett, Rhett Miller
Where: Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $20 to $22
Contact: (415) 885-0750, https://www.slimspresents.com/