Charley Crockett Pays Tribute to a Friend He Lost Far Too Soon on 'The Man from Waco'

·4 min read

Charley Crockett was captivated by a man named James Hand.

"I noticed this poster for this long, lean, skinny cowboy looking like Hank Williams and I remember thinking, 'Who in the hell is this guy?'" Crockett, 38, remembers during a recent interview with PEOPLE about his first brush with the Waco-born country singer. "He was like a ghost or a mystery. If you spoke his name above a whisper, he would just evaporate."

Several years later Crockett, who was named the emerging artist of the year at the 2021 Americana Music Awards, ended up walking into a bar in Austin, Texas and finally got to watch the almighty James Hand do what he always did best — and that was play good ole country music.

"From that point on, I started following him around religiously," remembers Crockett, who self-released his debut A Stolen Jewel back in 2015 and has turned out 11 albums since then. "I didn't know George Jones or Hank Williams or ever touch hands with any of those greats, but I did know James Hand. And ultimately, he has become a big part of who I am and my own identity."

But just as the two Texas troubadours found their way to each other, Hand died during the pandemic at the age of 67.

"I recorded a whole record of his songs as a tribute to him after he passed," Crockett says quietly of 2021's 10 for Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand. "I promised him that I would. I guess I just expected to do it while he was still here with us… and that didn't happen."

charley crockett
charley crockett

Bobby Cochran Charley Crockett

But then another thing happened, something that Crockett never expected.

"We started working on this song called 'The Man from Waco,' and at first, we were having fun with it," he remembers of the song premiering exclusively on PEOPLE. "We weren't making fun of James or anything, but we weren't taking the song seriously. But sometimes, it's those songs that you're not taking seriously that end up being the ones that stick and begin to take on a whole other meaning."

Indeed, Crockett found himself suddenly dealing with the silent pain of losing a legend such as Hand by writing a true, melodic, Western saga that takes listeners to another time, and took Crockett to an emotional point he never saw coming.

"That's the thing about songwriting," explains Crockett, who got his own new lease on life back in 2019 when he underwent lifesaving heart surgery to fix a malfunctioning valve. "You write the song, and you don't know exactly why or what you are writing it for. And then, as time passes, it starts showing itself."

charley crockett
charley crockett

Bobby Cochran Charley Crockett

Coincidentally, Hand was born just "two exits down the highway" from another Texan by the name of Willie Nelson. And certainly, Nelson has also played an important part in the ever-circling career of Crockett.

"I would've never made a record like this, if not for Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger album," says Crockett, whose twelfth album The Man from Waco is set for release on Sept. 9. "The Red Headed Stranger album was very unconventional and he was certainly swimming upstream compared to the luminaries around him, such as the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Partons of the world at the time. Willie was going a different direction, you know?"

Certainly, it's both Nelson and Hand that now have given Crockett the forever confidence to head too in an unconventional creative direction.

"In those back-room bars where nobody was paying attention, I always saw something that other people didn't, and that's probably from all the years I spent drifting around and playing on street corners," says Crockett, who will open for Willie Nelson at Central Park Summer Stage on Sept. 20 and will join the line-up at Farm Aid 2022 on Sept. 24 "Where some people saw nothing but a brick wall, I saw a wide-open door."

charley crockett
charley crockett

Bobby Cochran Charley Crockett

He grows quiet.

"I feel like you're more likely to end up someplace worthwhile in the music business by doing something the way that James Hand did it or Willie Nelson is doing it. You go your own way, and that can be the hardest thing to do, you know?"

But it's always been worth it to Charley Crockett.

"I've had a tough go of it, but I truly believe that a higher power has looked out for me, and really done me some favors by continuing to let me put my music first," he concludes. "Certainly, I've made a lot of mistakes, but I think in putting the music up front, the creators have allowed me to stay here."