Billy Crockett is a performing songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumental session man with a dozen albums, decades of memorable songs and tours. He is creative director of Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in the Texas Hill Country, engaging a wide community of artists, producing songs, concerts, live broadcasts, and a journal on creative process. Billy has been featured on BMI's songwriter panel at SXSW, the TV series Troubadour Texas, the Academy of Gospel Music Arts, and as guitar clinician for Yamaha. Crockett’s new album, In Session, has been described as "lovely medicine for an anxious age." American Songwriter calls him a “fusion of refinement and soul."
On the New Album:
Says Billy, “Like some rare things, In Session just happened. A couple of guys on stools, playing it live. These songs are some of my favs. No set list, one thing just led to another. My respect for bassist Roscoe Beck is immense. His fearlessness inspires me. What you hear is what we did on that day. We weren't making an album, and yet we were. It's about discovery, always, after years of playing and writing songs, to make it new again.
“We had an open day in the studio and I called Roscoe saying “what are you doing tomorrow, let’s put up a couple mics and a camera and just play some. We did covers, some seasonal stuff, my songs, including one from the deep past. We went a few hours and everything we did was fun. It’s not always that way. In the studio, sometimes you get a song done in a day. We played 9 songs like it was a live show, just for us. Some of it was half-remembered, half invention. In other words, the sweet spot, with just barely enough clues on where we were going. I heard some of these songs again as if for the first time. That was a lovely experience.
"It’s unusual for me, because it wasn't over thought, or riddled with self judgement. As I said, it just happened. One November day. You work a long time and every now and then, you wish they'd catch you unaware of yourself. You were just in the act of discovering something, loving it, when they took your picture. This comes pretty close to that."
Long Bio 2016:
When folk-Americana singer-songwriter Billy Crockett began thinking about his 12th album, Rabbit Hole, he knew he wanted to cover more personal terrain this time, to write lyrics that might even unearth long-buried truths.
He also knew he would need guidance for that journey, so two years ago, he did something he’d been dreaming about: he established a salon of sorts, inviting fellow singer-songwriters to his Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Texas, outside of Austin, for weekly critique sessions. At each “Blue Tuesday,” participants perform a new song, followed by frank comments from the others. All but one of Rabbit Hole’s 11 songs went through the process, with further honing on stages throughout North America.
The result is an album filled with thoughtful, intimate—and deeply moving—lyrics combined with wonderfully crafted melodies drawing on jazz, pop, blues and soul. It’s Crockett’s third on his Blue Rock Artists label; he released Wishing Sky in 2009 and Passages, a collection of original instrumentals for classical guitar, in 2006, the year Blue Rock opened.
Yes, that’s a seven-year gap between his last album and this one. But it’s not as if Crockett, who produced, spent that time just hanging out on his 27 hill-country acres, communing with deer and searching for stars (though he is a nature-lover and amateur astronomer).
Crockett also helmed albums for Cliff Eberhardt, Darryl Purpose, Grace Pettis and Beth Wood, the latter three released on Blue Rock Artists, as well as the 2014 compilation A Very Blue Rock Christmas, featuring Ruthie Foster, Terri Hendrix, Sara Hickman, David Wilcox, Pierce Pettis (Grace’s dad) and others. He also oversees Blue Rock’s state-of-the-art audio and video recording studio, part of which doubles as a 120-seat, live-streaming concert venue. Mary Gauthier, Lyle Lovett, Kat Edmonson, Jane Siberry, Nels Cline, Sarah Jarosz and the late Jesse Winchester are among those who have recorded and/or performed at Blue Rock (the latter two earned Grammy nominations for their work), while the Blue Rock Live concert series has featured Jimmy Webb, Kim Richey, Hayes Carll and many others. Crockett also edits the Blue Rock Review, an annual creative journal (soon to move online), and arranges songwriting retreats and similar events through the Blue Rock Foundation.
Designed to inspire creativity, the facility was built on a site Crockett and his wife, Dodee, discovered during a motorcycle ride. Both relatives of Alamo heroes, the couple turned native limestone and cedar into the realization of a shared dream.
“At Blue Rock, we’ve invented a life together that we really wanted to have,” Crockett explains. “We were fortunate to have the ability do something that really felt grand and pure.”
The same might be said of the album, except that Crockett admits some of his observations are delivered with an intentional wink. Despite the weight of certain subject matter—the heartbreaking “Drought,” for example, in which the crags in his voice reflect the earth’s thirst—one also senses a general lightness of being, a state of contentment that comes from finally allowing himself to express observations of all sorts, unfettered by label or genre expectations.
“Life's pretty damned short,” Crockett notes. “Let's say what we mean.”
He does just that on Rabbit Hole, blending experience and metaphor while letting his imagination and curiosity take him were they might—even if, as in the title song, they send him down a rabbit hole into a place that’s not exactly wonderland.
In “Record Player,” an ode to vinyl and turntables, Crockett affectionately catalogues the soundtrack of his youth, referencing a list ranging from Sam Cooke and Sam the Sham to Satchmo and Smokey Robinson over a gentle funk-pop beat.
“It’s an unabashed appreciation of something not just nostalgic, but real and true and visceral that was great about music, and how much we looked forward to it,” Crockett explains. “I remember my first record that I ever bought. It was a profound experience—and still is.”
The song also connects him to a powerful adolescent memory: fighting with his father after he came home with that 45rpm record—“No Time,” by the Guess Who—followed months later by attendance at his first rock concert—also the Guess Who—with his dad, who bought the tickets.
Crockett addresses other musical influences—well, one in particular—in “Mavis.” An upbeat, groove-laden charmer, it's an unabashed celebration of the gospel-pop singer's impact. “I don’t know what her power is, exactly,” says Crockett, “but I got it instantly.”
Ironically, he’s never seen her perform live, which is surprising, considering his own musical background. Crockett was a popular contemporary Christian artist who’d recorded nine albums, including four on his own Walking Angel imprint, and placed four singles on CCM magazine’s contemporary Christian chart before stepping away from recording and touring in 1999. He’d also worked with gospel star Sandi Patty, Debby Boone and Dion, and played in Rich Mullins’ Ragamuffin Band with Phil Madeira (Buddy Miller, the Mercyland albums).
Born in Guthrie, Okla., Crockett was an on-the-move Air Force brat until his family settled in Dallas when he was 6. He got his first guitar, a freebie that came with a set of tires, at 10. That led to jazz-guitar studies with Jack Peterson at the University of North Texas. He transferred to the University of Miami in Florida to study audio engineering with Bill Porter, who’d worked with Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers and Chet Atkins and gained fame as an architect of the Nashville sound; Porter recommended Crockett for a job at Nashville's Brentwood Records, where he became director of A&R before leaving to work with Latin pop star José Luis Rodríguez. Crockett then joined publisher Word Music as a staff writer before moving to the recording side.
After returning to Dallas, Crockett earned a master’s degree in 2005 from Southern Methodist University. With the opening of Blue Rock, he was ready for new musical directions.
Passages was a transitional album, one that helped him limber up his skills—including his virtuosic guitar-playing—without facing the pressure of lyric writing. With Wishing Sky, he left those past limitations behind and started to spread his songwriting wings. But with Rabbit Hole, Crockett finally felt free to take risks, as exemplified in the lusty lyrics of “Take Me.”
“I’m thinking, ‘Wow, who is that guy?” Crockett says with a laugh. “It’s really fun.”
That sense of fun, which also permeates “Big Old World” and the fact-meets-fiction family history of “Ghosts,” was enhanced by the ease of working with seasoned pros; Crockett spent just a few days tracking with Austin bassist Roscoe Beck (Leonard Cohen, the Dixie Chicks), Nashville percussionist Eric Darken (Taylor Swift, Vince Gill, Jimmy Buffett) and Dallas-based electric guitarist Daran DeShazo. Crockett and Chris Bell (the Eagles, Erykah Badu) handled the pristine mix, without sacrificing one degree of warmth.
As the sessions progressed, Crockett noticed another effect as well; a change in his rich tenor. It’s more relaxed now, he says, adding, “I've got a falsetto that I'm trusting now and a vibrato that's fresh and new. I'm having a lot of fun rediscovering my sound.”
He’s thrilled to find he’s still on what he calls his “growing edge.” That and the heady sense of liberation Crockett’s feeling have fueled his resolve to engage in all sorts of new experiences, musical and otherwise. To “wave to the moon run into the wind,” as he sings in “Big Old World.” Take leaps, in other words—even down rabbit holes. Because you ever know … some of them might lead to wonderland.