The Proving Grounds: Charley Crockett and the Story of Deep Ellum

Generations of musicians got their start busking the streets of the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. After a decade of ‘hobo-ing’ around cities like New Orleans, Paris, and New York, Charley Crockett discovered it was his turn.

Jonny Auping | Longreads | July 2020 | 32 minutes (8,734 words)

In 1912 two musicians were playing near the Union Depot on the corner of Elm Street and Central Track in a pocket of Dallas, Texas where, if you believed what the local papers wrote, you’d be wise to keep your money in your shoe. One was 24, likely playing his signature 12-string guitar. The other was 18 or 19 and blind with an acoustic guitar strapped across his imposing frame.

People passed by, some dropping change they could afford to part with. To hear the older one tell it, their music sent women running over to give them hugs and kisses. From there, they’d head a few blocks down Elm Street or Commerce, talking about women, music, and survival, the 24-year-old with the 12-string leading the blind man. They’d stop outside of local businesses, most likely pawn shops, and play. The older one would learn plenty about the blues from the blind one. Their little pocket in the middle of Dallas is known as Deep Ellum. You could walk the whole area in 15 minutes.

Around 1915 the two would part ways and never see each other again. The older one left Dallas with his 12-string. In 1918 he went to prison for murder. He spent the next 20 years in and out of incarceration and was dead by 1949. His name was Huddie Ledbetter, but he went by Lead Belly. The blind man would purportedly die in a Chicago blizzard in 1929. People called him Blind Lemon Jefferson.

In his Nobel Prize lecture, Bob Dylan credits Lead Belly’s records with getting him into folk music. George Harrison stated that without Lead Belly there would be “no Beatles.” Kurt Cobain would make similar sentiments about Nirvana. In his autobiography, Blues All Around Me, B.B. King wrote that he “flat-out tried to copy” Blind Lemon Jefferson. That line of influence traces directly through Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones.

Almost exactly 100 years later, a modern songster named Charley Crockett would stand at about that same spot playing for people’s change, though the Union Depot had been gone for over 70 years. Anyone with an ear for musical history would hear Crockett’s stories-disguised-as-songs and his blues style as an homage to men like Jefferson and Lead Belly and to a long-ago era of music, but Crockett wasn’t standing in that spot for its history. He was there for a particular kind of foot traffic; the kind where feet were attached to bodies that found street music endearing. By that point in 2014, he had survived for nearly a decade as a musician living on the streets. He’s said to be a distant relative to Davy Crockett, and he’s covered more of the United States, hitch-hiking and hopping trains, than the Texas legend ever did.

Almost exactly 100 years later, a modern songster named Charley Crockett would stand at about that same spot playing for people’s change, though the Union Depot had been gone for over 70 years.

While the journey reflected in his songs has since garnered him national acclaim and landed his music on both the Blues and Americana charts, Crockett is barely a chapter in the story of Deep Ellum. Then again, the stories of Deep Ellum tend to be written in disappearing ink. You won’t find plaques commemorating Blind Lemon Jefferson or Lead Belly’s time there, though it’s more responsible for Texas Blues than any one place could claim. It was a haven for punks and counterculture in the ’80s and breakout stars in the ‘90s. A “Deep Ellum act” can mean anyone from T-Bone Walker to the Old 97’s to Erykah Badu to St. Vincent to Leon Bridges.

For over a century, Deep Ellum has been a spot where Dallas has put either the people it didn’t want or didn’t know what to do with. Crockett fit right in. There’s no way to quantify how different modern music might sound if Lead Belly and Blind Lemon Jefferson never spent that time together. But Crockett’s journey to Deep Ellum is as good a start as any to try to explain how music has managed to keep returning to this neighborhood whose own city has never fully understood.

***

By the early 1920s, one third of eligible male residents in Dallas were reportedly members of the Ku Klux Klan. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the few blocks of Elm Street, Main Street, and Commerce that made up Deep Ellum were a center of activity for African Americans in the heart of a city that some claim was run by deep prejudice. “Dallas was an intensely racist place,” said Alan Govenar, co-author of Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas, the most exhaustive text on the history of Deep Ellum.


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Technically, Deep Ellum has never really been a neighborhood. Rarely have many people lived there. Recently immigrated Jews opened up pawn shops. The Model Tailors sold suits. Black-owned movie theaters and vaudeville houses opened. Places like the Gypsy Tea Room and Park Theater, managed by Ella B Moore, offered live jazz, gospel, blues, and vaudeville shows.

All this happened based on a confluence of realities. Deep Ellum was about a half mile from downtown Dallas. African Americans who had to venture to the heart of Dallas, perhaps for an errand at City Hall or to purchase something, would find few places where they could eat or even use the restroom. “Segregation was formal,” said Jay Brakefield, who co-wrote Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas with Govenar. “It was legal.” African Americans could buy clothes most places in Dallas, but in Deep Ellum they were allowed to try them on beforehand. And once there, they could enjoy live music. It was within these circumstances that a Black and Jewish business and entertainment district formed right under the Klan’s nose.

Check out “Easy Rider Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

It was only natural that musicians found their way to the streets of Deep Ellum, many trying to escape a life of manual labor, singing about the harshness of the world around them. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s lyrics covered the spectrum of human suffering, as mundane as mosquito bites and as crushing as destitution or incarceration. “The lyrics that he sang were about the breadth and depth and scope of human emotion,” said Govenar. Jefferson was from East Texas, and his ability to move around Deep Ellum and in and out of greater Dallas on an apparently daily basis is a testament to how much people loved hearing him play. Jefferson claimed that he could get around just fine by himself, but Lead Belly isn’t the only guitar player who is said to have led him around Deep Ellum. T-Bone Walker claimed that, as a young boy, he used to pass Jefferson’s cup around and collect tips. Walker would have been only 19 when Jefferson died, but it was in that same year that Jefferson would release two recordings that showed Jefferson’s influence and an evolution of his style. Walker’s electric blues guitar innovations and his brand of showmanship became commonplace with live guitar music. Chuck Berry cited Walker as his influence.

But Jefferson is the Father of Texas Blues. In the ‘20s commercial recording scouts found Dallas, and Jefferson’s songs were impossible to miss. Paramount Records sent him to Chicago for numerous recordings, and he became a radio star. “He was the first commercially successful solo blues artist,” Brakefield said. His songs reached the Delta and helped inspire the modern blues movement. “It was like him and his guitar were part of the same being,” B.B. King wrote of hearing Jefferson as a child in Blues All Around Me. “You didn’t know where one stopped and the other started.”

***

The city of San Benito, where Charley Crockett was born in the 1980s, is in Texas, but it was worlds apart from Deep Ellum. Also the birthplace of Tejano music legend Freddy Fender, it’s about 20 minutes from the Mexican border and eight hours from Dallas. Soon after his birth, Crockett and his mother moved 11 miles east to Los Fresnos, a city with less than 6,000 residents, more than 90 percent of them Latino. Crockett’s arrival coincided with his father’s departure. “He was living a rough life,” Crockett said of the man whose last name he claims. “He was pouring concrete and working on shrimp boats and ending up in ditches on the side of farm roads instead of making it home. He wasn’t around.”

Crockett, his mother, and eventually his grandmother shared a small trailer parked on Old Port Road with nothing to see but the oranges, grapefruit, and sugar cane growing around them. Most of his memories of his time in South Texas fall under two categories: poverty or music. Tejano singers like Freddy Fender and Johnny Canales would perform nearby, and Crockett’s mother would encourage singing while doing chores or just to pass the time. “Music was really kind of everywhere in that rural area,” Crockett said. “I think it was just part of the culture.”

Looking for more opportunities, Crockett and his mother moved north to Irving, just outside Dallas, when he was 9. His mother worked non-stop in those days, but their lives didn’t seem to be improving as Crockett grew old enough to understand their struggle. Sometimes a “city of opportunity” only paints a clearer picture of one’s poverty by contrasting it with the expensive shops and generational wealth that’s flaunted in Dallas. In the summers Crockett would go to New Orleans to live with his uncle, who worked in a restaurant in the French Quarter. Before Katrina there was still a heavy street culture in the city. Bands played everywhere. Crockett arrived in New Orleans for the first time as a 10-year-old who had spent much of his childhood in isolation. Suddenly he was immersed in a city of diversity, music, and mischief, playing cards for his uncle in bingo halls. The food, jobs, and agriculture weren’t unlike Los Fresnos. New Orleans had the soul of the Gulf Coast he was born into but injected with vibrancy.

Back near Dallas, his mother lost her job while Crockett was still in high school, but still managed to buy him a guitar from a pawn shop. By the time he was 18, he was completely purposeless. He took that guitar and just started “hobo-ing” around Texas. He’d squat with people he’d meet without a thought or plan for the next day, let alone the next week. “I really felt limited by what I thought my future had to offer me,” he said. He was learning how to steal to survive, “and just kind of becoming a delinquent, getting into trouble, doing stuff I shouldn’t be doing.”

One day, he was sitting on a park bench near a baseball field in the town of Farmers Branch when a woman walked by and threw him 50 cents. In those days, music wasn’t an ambition as much as an introduction to other musicians he could pass the days with. Jamming with street musicians in Carrollton, Crockett met a man who was planning to drive to Northern California the following day. Crockett begged the man to let him join. He knew nothing about the area and had no real reason to want to be there. “I just wanted so badly to get out of my situation,” he said.

So, Crockett rode along on the ride west, but as they neared their destination, the driver decided he had no intention of bringing a new friend to his town, so he stopped in Vallejo, California and let Crockett out in a parking lot with nothing but a guitar.

***

Pre-World War II Deep Ellum served a purpose to the future of music by putting musicians in physical proximity to each other before they went their separate ways and made their names elsewhere. “There was a cross-fertilization that occured between musicians and among musicians who got together,” Govenar said.

It wouldn’t be the last time those same streets would play that role, but as would be the case in later eras, its real lifeblood were musicians whose music was never recorded and whose names were never written down. In a preview of “Exploring 508 Park,” a yet-to-be-released documentary directed by Govenar about the recording studio about a mile from Deep Ellum where Robert Johnson recorded a significant portion of his catalog, 508 Park committee member Carol J. Adams said that, in the area around Deep Ellum, the 1920s and 1930s were, “a time of displacement that created musicians who were practically homeless traveling around with their guitars.”

Then again, the stories of Deep Ellum tend to be written in disappearing ink.

The Great Depression hit some of the local businesses hard, and Deep Ellum’s deterioration became apparent. In the 1950s, Elm Street was converted into a one-way street heading into downtown and away from Deep Ellum, and perhaps not-so-coincidentally, making it much less convenient for drivers to happen upon the largely Black and Jewish area. A collection of merchants came together to carry a coffin down Elm Street in a mock funeral for Deep Ellum.

By 1969, an elevated Central Expressway was built directly over the 2400 block of Elm Street, plowing over what was once the center of gravity for what used to be Deep Ellum and making a distinct line between downtown Dallas and a place where something else once existed. By that point, Deep Ellum had long died its first death under the traffic of a rapidly growing Dallas.

“For me, the sound of the cars rattling overhead evokes the ghosts of Deep Ellum,” Govenar said.

***

The parking lot where Crockett was dropped off wasn’t far from Vallejo’s town square. It seemed as good a direction as any to start walking. He and another musician who was dropped off with him started playing music in front of local businesses and met some young musicians doing the same. They were heading to Santa Rosa and had room in their van, so Crockett hopped in, discovering a culture that would dictate the way he lived the next few years of his life. “Kind of immediately, to be honest with you, there was this acceptance of the drifter thing I was becoming,” Crockett said. “There was no judgement from a bunch of people I’d never seen before.”

As he met more people, he wandered and played in more environments. There were hikes in the hills of Santa Rosa. There were jams on rural open land. There were open mics in town or trips to San Francisco when someone was heading that way. He stayed in Northern California for about a year. In that time, he worked on farms, slept in pastures or barns or spare rooms, lived on communes, did co-operative work or work-traded for food and board, and hitch-hiked with everyone from musicians and hobos to Hare Krishnas. “That’s where I really got comfortable hobo-ing,” he said. “Then I took that [skill] to the rest of America with me.”

The transience that followed Crockett’s time in California might have you believing that the country is far less vast than it actually is. He traveled east and eventually north to New York City where he played on the streets and subway platforms. He still wasn’t much of a musician. “I had a couple songs, but I was comfortable on the streets. I knew how to blend right in with street culture.”

Crockett continued this lifestyle for the majority of his 20s. There was strategy and deliberateness to his survival. It required an ability to befriend people and a willingness to sleep on floors or on benches outside. Seasons dictated what city he might be in. New York City in the summertime. Heading back to North Carolina as it started to get cold. Try to make it to New Orleans by October and potentially stay there until May and try to move along before the hottest months. There were stretches of the New York trains where he could get a few hours of unbothered sleep. During the Occupy Wall Street movement, he was regularly sleeping and living in parks, not because he was part of the movement but because “it was a window when that was being tolerated,” he said.

If the itinerant musician sounds like a relic of the past, Crockett would invite you to look at the current statistics for poverty in the U.S. He was living his life on the fringes of society, and a guitar was the only thing separating him from much darker existences. “I saw an enormous amount of homelessness traveling around this country,” he said. “I’m talking about homeless people with disabilities, veterans, people from outcast sections of society, people with mental problems, deep systemic multi-generational poverty, [and] drug addictions. It was never lost on me how close I was to that, sharing the same space.”

He was living his life on the fringes of society, and a guitar was the only thing separating him from much darker existences.

***

Plenty of people have their own stories about Jeff Liles, but no matter who’s telling the story, they all seem to agree that he’s someone who’s lived many lives. He’s a guy who could refer to founding NWA member Easy-E as “Eric” (he was also the first DJ in the country to play an NWA song on the radio, in Dallas, and was fired the next day for it). He’s likely booked more ultra-famous bands in Dallas than there are albums in your record collection. He performed an alternative spoken-word act on the same Lollapalooza tour as Snoop Dogg and Devo.

But in 1985 he was just a kid trying to convince a guy named Russell Hobbs at the Theatre Gallery, a rundown venue Hobbs had just opened up in an even more rundown stretch of warehouses, to let his band perform there. In-between booking the show and the date of the performance, Liles’ band broke up. He went back to Theatre Gallery to tell Hobbs.

“I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t walked through those doors,” Liles said, parked outside of where Theatre Gallery used to stand, over 35 years later.

Hobbs asked him if he’d be interested in a different task: helping him book bands. Together, Liles and Hobbs would become the early architects for what some would refer to as the “golden age” of Deep Ellum. It wasn’t called Deep Ellum then, in the sense that a place where no one went to with nothing to offer didn’t need a name. It was Hobbs who had read about a bygone era of music in a place called Deep Ellum. Liles was originally afraid to use that term as it was essentially a reference to an African American pronunciation of Elm Street. Liles lost the argument.

Theatre Gallery was a refuge for musically inclined misfits as much as it was a concert venue. Everything about its early days was DIY and, in all likelihood, very illegal. “We just gave away free beer,” Liles said. “You paid $5 and got beer all night. There were no licenses.” The Republican National Convention was held in Dallas in 1984, and the Dead Kennedys performed outside the convention in protest. According to Liles, when the police came to break it up, they mistook Hobbs, who was simply watching the performance, as being involved and demanded he get the stage off the property. That stage made its way to Deep Ellum and became the Theatre Gallery stage.

Soon, Hobbs opened up the Prophet Bar and Club Clearview in 1985, Club Dada in 1986. A new Gypsy Tea Room opened up in homage to the old Deep Ellum. Liles says a movement started with three specific bands from three Dallas suburbs: Three On a Hill from Carrollton, Shallow Reign from Richardson, and End Over End from Highland Park. “Those three bands were bringing in suburban kids,” he said. “They were hiding from their parents. Those kids started the music scene in Deep Ellum.”

Those bands were eclipsed by Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, arguably the first great band to come out of modern Deep Ellum — The New Bohemians would break up after the release of their second album, in 1990, and Brickell would marry Paul Simon. Liles and Hobbs hired Jim Heath to be the “sound guy” for Theatre Gallery and Prophet Bar despite his lack of experience. Heath would form The Reverend Horton Heat, a modern “psychobilly” band with a large cult following.

In the mid-80s, Deep Ellum was a scene with no rules and no definition of cool. It was the height of J.R. Ewing’s Dallas and rebellious teens were being suffocated by the images projected on their North Texas lives. It coincided with radical punk movements also manifesting in New York and Los Angeles. In a 1987 story in D Magazine, Skip Hollandsworth wrote of Deep Ellum, “The little underground scene, mostly centered in new-music nightclubs, was so ephemeral that by the time mainstream Dallas had heard of one of these clubs, it had already shut down and another had opened somewhere else.” Deep Ellum became a place where Dallas parents were terrified their children would be exposed to drugs, crime, skinheads, and violence. None of those worries were unfounded.

Still, it was growing rapidly, partially on the strength of Liles’ bookings. Dinosaur Jr. played Theatre Gallery for $50. The Replacements played and hung out in Deep Ellum for three days. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, the Flaming Lips. Liles has a story of Michael Stipe of REM doing yoga naked on the Theatre Gallery roof. It was a mixture of bands, kids, punks, and misfits walking the streets in the shadow of downtown Dallas.

Then Trees opened in 1990. “Trees took it to the next level,” Liles said. A venue on Elm Street with a capacity of about 500, it would book Radiohead, Soundgarden, Elliott Smith, A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill, and Geto Boys, all at the height of their popularity. Pearl Jam performed for less than 40 people at Trees and played basketball in the parking lot beforehand.

But to some people, Trees, and Jeff Liles, will always be known for the night they booked Nirvana in 1991. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had come out four months earlier and there were more people outside trying to get in than had tickets. Trying to accommodate Nirvana’s label, Liles hired more bouncers to prevent the crowd from rushing the stage, but a few songs into the performance Kurt Cobain lept over a bouncer with his guitar into the crowd. The guitar hit the bouncer in the head. Furious, the bouncer punched Cobain in the face. Cobain retreated backstage.

…a few songs into the performance Kurt Cobain lept over a bouncer with his guitar into the crowd. The guitar hit the bouncer in the head. Furious, the bouncer punched Cobain in the face. Cobain retreated backstage.

One thing was clear to everyone there: If Nirvana didn’t finish their set, there would be a riot in Deep Ellum. Liles had to convince Cobain. He found him hiding in a broom closet sniffing heroin and managed to get him back on stage.

“The rest of the show was great,” Liles said.

***

By 2008, Crockett had mastered survival, but he was just starting to master music. He’s a self-taught guitar player, originally unable to play the most basic G or C chords. Instead, he would wrap his thumb around the top of the guitar’s neck to hold down strings, “like choking the neck of a chicken.” He wrote his first song (“Fool Somebody Else”) this way, by experimenting with this finger and thumb placement, moving up and down the guitar’s neck until he’d found enough strums that sounded right. He went 10 years before recording that song.

“Why don’t you fool somebody else.

Do it to yourself. Tell me how it feels.

When you hold somebody tight

And the trust is gone

In the middle of the night

Got to fool somebody else.

Do it to yourself, tell me how it feels

When you hold somebody tight

Then they gone

Like the middle of the night.”

To this day, he has almost never used a guitar pick for a live show or recording. His travels and the musicians he met influenced his music. Older musicians heard him play open-mics and told him he was playing the blues, something he was barely conscious of. He realized that Robert Johnson’s lyrics sounded a lot like the life he was living.

It was in Manhattan, in Lucky Jack’s, that Crockett got the invitation to go to Europe. A regular there from Denmark had heard him play multiple times and told him he’d be a hit there. He offered up his place in Copenhagen and said he’d set him up with gigs at bars and cafes. Crockett took him up on the offer but ended up making as much playing on the streets as he did in bars and cafes, and before long, he’d overstayed his welcome. So he took the money he’d made and bought a train ticket to Paris without knowing a word of French.

He started playing the streets with a surprising amount of success. Perhaps to the French, there was a novelty to this American playing his version of the blues. “They could hear the Louisiana thing in me, which obviously the French have a big connection to that culture,” Crockett theorized. Remarkably, Crockett survived in Paris for almost a year without ever learning the language. “The language barrier was a surprising gift in that it separated me from the culture and put me in a place where I lost all fear,” he said. He couldn’t understand what anyone was saying about him, anyway, so he just played with confidence.

American culture tends to demand that we create self-narratives by which to live by, false identities that dictate the person we become. “I think in the streets of Paris, I killed that person,” Crockett said. “When I hit New York stateside again, I was a changed person. I just had no fear.”

American culture tends to demand that we create self-narratives by which to live by, false identities that dictate the person we become.

Back in America, he was starting to expect to make money playing on the streets, and he was getting results. He’d mapped out cities like New Orleans and figured out where to play and when in the day to move from Royal Street to jostle for space and ears in Cafe Dumont before finding a blues jam later that night. He was playing at least eight hours a day, whether in New Orleans or New York. “Do you know how good it feels to go from begging and stealing to having $30 in your pocket?” he asked. “And as soon as that money goes out I could just make $30 more right then.” Some of his music might lean toward country, gospel, or even jazz, but now he could command a room or a block of street, which was more important than any technical skill he’d learned. Even now, he won’t commit to a traditional genre of music, coining the term “Gulf Coast Boogie Woogie” for what he does.

One day in 2010, Crockett was busking on the subway platform at the Lorimer stop in Brooklyn. Riding the G-train was a 19-year-old street musician named Jadon Woodard, rapping to passengers for tips. When the doors opened, Woodard could hear the rhythm of Crockett’s guitar playing and thought he could rap over it. He convinced Crockett to move from playing on subway platforms and get on actual trains with him. Crockett had a song called “You’re So Strange” that Woodard loved. Together, they each started making more money than either had on his own.

The next time Crockett returned to New York the following year the two linked up with another guitar player and a trumpet player. The group would play on moving train cars for 12 hours a day. “We were making hella money,” Woodard said. On a good day they’d pull in $600 or $700. They called themselves the Train Robbers.

The four band members and a videographer who filmed their performances split a $500 apartment in Bushwick and paid the deposit in small bills. Crockett convinced them to play folk and blues rhythms and Woodard found them easy to rap over. New York runs off the subway system, and thousands of people were seeing them perform each day, some of them in the music industry. They were getting interest from record labels and getting offered residencies to play a few hours a night. A lost Train Robbers album was recorded in the women’s bathroom of a rehearsal space in Brooklyn. Eventually they were making enough money to split two apartments among themselves.

‘Do you know how good it feels to go from begging and stealing to having $30 in your pocket?’ he asked.

Thinking they’d finally made it, they signed a management deal that would ultimately tear them apart. Looking back, Woodard and Crockett agreed that the management was determined to change their sound to something more mainstream and was unfair in terms of publishing rights. That same management arranged a deal with NBC that would largely increase their visibility but would surely push them in a different direction musically. As they walked into a Manhattan office to sign the deal, Crockett backed out and disavowed the management label. “The band didn’t even know how I was feeling,” Crockett said. “I just dropped the bomb on them in that office.” They were still technically handcuffed to the management deal, but Crockett’s decision essentially ended the Train Robbers.

“I harbored some [negative] energy for a while,” Woodard said. “But we were all young and we were all caught up in everything.”

***

The first time Ken Bethea, guitarist for the Old 97’s, went to Deep Ellum was in the fall of 1987. He’d just graduated from the University of Texas. In Austin, he had been indoctrinated to believe that everything in Dallas was lame, but his favorite band, the Butthole Surfers, was playing at Club Clearview on Main Street, just off of Elm. “I thought, ‘I bet that’s in the Deep Ellum place they talk about. Elm? Ellum?”

He left the show with a black eye and a notion that there was something special about the area. “I went there on a Wednesday night and had the best time that I’d ever had in my life going somewhere solo,” Bethea said.

After that night, Bethea ended up living in Denton, Texas for a year, where he’d meet the drummer Philip Peeples. When they moved back to Dallas, Deep Ellum was evolving quickly and driven by music. Bands were meeting other bands, breaking up, and the best members of each band were forming newer, better bands. Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond were hanging around the scene, playing in bands or individually. Eventually the four of them would meet and form the Old 97’s.

The Old 97’s didn’t originally try to play Club Dada or the early days of Trees. They aimed lower than that and played in places without cover charges. One of those places was a cowboy/country bar called Naomi’s Lounge about the size of a Starbucks. “I’d be standing right next to the door as people would come in and I’d have to lean away while playing guitar to let them in,” Bethea remembered. They were winning over fans, and the physical area that made up Deep Ellum was so condensed that the whole scene could hear about a great performance in the same night. “We were playing all the time,” Bethea said. “Rhett was writing so many songs.”

The seeds of Deep Ellum that were planted in the ’80s were growing uncontrollably in the ’90s. Suddenly, along with national acts that Liles and others were bringing to the area, homegrown bands were catapulting from Deep Ellum to national success. Tripping Daisy was a Deep Ellum act that became a household name. Toadies, a Fort Worth band that broke into the Deep Ellum scene, released Rubberneck in 1994, which would sell over a million copies. The Old 97’s would go on to have an enormous national following — one they enjoy to this day. In all likelihood, each member of each of those bands saw each other perform multiple times in Deep Ellum. “The butterfly effect of hearing that things were working out for Tripping Daisy was huge for us,” Bethea said. “We thought, ‘if they can do it, and Edie Brickell can do it, we can do it.’ You want to keep up.”

Every North Texas band with any semblance of success that decade had to play Deep Ellum. The band Funland was an area favorite. Deep Blue Something and Bowling For Soup would be loosely affiliated with the scene. A young St. Vincent saw Tripping Daisy perform at Trees multiple times before eventually joining the Polyphonic Spree, a large choral rock band founded by Tripping Daisy front man Tim DeLaughter.

Meanwhile, when the New York rap duo Mobb Deep came to Deep Ellum, a local singer named Erykah Badu opened for them. Badu’s 1997 debut album, Baduizm, has sold over three million copies. Labeled “the queen of Neo-soul,” Badu has mostly remained in Dallas for the past two decades, almost like she’s looking over its music scene, popping up for surprise performances or guest DJ sets in Deep Ellum and hosting a birthday concert event there every year.

But as Deep Ellum’s streets were packed every night, the crime didn’t seem to be receding. The depiction of crime in Deep Ellum over its various eras has usually been exaggerated but rarely unfounded. Fights broke out, and rich kids were mugged, and for the first time, perhaps ever, greater Dallas was paying attention. A shift was happening in the early aughts as devotees to the scene grew frustrated seeing it be co-opted by polite society, and polite society was just as quick to label it dangerous.

Things came to a head in 2004 when the Old 97’s, by then a popular national act, returned to Deep Ellum for a show at the Gypsy Tea Room. A man named David Cunniff attended the show with his two teenage daughters. Cunniff got in an altercation with a man that quickly turned violent. It would end with Cunniff temporarily immobile, his neck broken in front of his children.

The man who Cunniff fought had affiliations with skinheads. By most accounts, any legitimate skinhead presence in Deep Ellum was long gone and largely an ancillary product of the ‘80s punk movement. But greater Dallas had heard the stories. “I remember people saying, ‘If you can’t be safe at an Old 97’s show, something’s wrong,’” Bethea said. Within a year, Deep Ellum was basically a ghost town.

“This area went dormant in the 2000s,” Liles said. “Trees closed. Dada closed. Bomb Factory closed. Clearview was gone.”

***

Crockett’s journeys can sound like a romantic ode to a simpler time, but outrunning poverty can bring mistakes, and risks can seem smaller when you have almost nothing to your name. Even before Crockett left Dallas his half-brother got him in legal trouble by getting him involved in stock manipulation. “My brother got me into some under-world Dallas stuff when I was younger,” he said. “All that stuff blew up and everybody went to prison.” His brother was sentenced to seven years. Crockett says he had to defend himself in court but wasn’t convicted based on his apparent ignorance of the scheme’s machinations.

In 2014, he says he’d find himself on the wrong side of the law again, when Virginia police caught him with a considerable amount of marijuana. A sentencing was pushed back and jail time was a possibility, but even probation could prevent him from traveling state to state and ending the musician’s life that he’d adopted.

Photo credit: Bobby Cochran

With that hanging over him, he realized he hadn’t seen his mother in nearly four years. He decided it was time to go home. While in Dallas, he decided to check out a blues jam happening in Deep Ellum. He met a guitar player named Alexis Sanchez, who currently plays guitar in Crockett’s band. That same night, Sanchez introduced him to a guy who had been performing in Deep Ellum named Leon Bridges. This was before Bridges would release his debut album with Columbia Records and win a Grammy, but his name was bouncing around those few blocks. “Something about meeting Alexis and Leon allowed me to realize that there was a renaissance happening in Deep Ellum,” Crockett said.

Crockett was as confident in his abilities as he’d ever been, but his publishing rights were still controlled by his old managment for almost another year. So he went back to Northern California and worked manual labor, waiting out his contract with a head full of songs. When the time came, he recorded an album on his own and received donations from locals up there in order to print copies of it. He called it “A Stolen Jewell.”

In 2016 he faced a judge who held his future in his hands. Crockett told the judge about his musical journey, his progress, and his determination to make a real career of it. He even had a record he could show as proof. “They were going to take everything away from me,” he said. “I begged him. Told him I wanted to be legit.” Crockett’s plea resonated with the judge, who spared him any serious punishment for the 2014 marijuana charge. Armed with a guitar, an album, and a second chance, he went to make a name for himself, and he knew exactly where to go.

“It was from that moment,” Crockett said. “I hit the bars in Deep Ellum [as a performer] harder than I ever had.”

***

Kendrick Lamar was performing at a re-opened Trees in 2012, and Cam McCloud just wanted a minute of his time. “I was at the front of the stage at the dead center,” McCloud said. “I’m watching him and turning around and watching the whole crowd, and I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do.’” After the show, he freestyled for Lamar, who validated his skills.

A few years later, McCloud was fired from his job at Olive Garden for missing a shift to open for Florida rapper Gunplay at Trees. In 2015, McCloud would become the rapper and visionary behind Cure For Paranoia, a genre-defying hip-hop/soul group that D Magazine deemed “the poster boys of the new Deep Ellum.”

Trees had been reopened in 2009 by Clint and Whitney Barlow — Clint was a former drummer for Vanilla Ice. They also reopened Bomb Factory, a 4,000-plus capacity venue that books national acts. “The Barlows, as far as I’m concerned, are responsible for the revitalization of Deep Ellum,” said Pete Freedman, the president and co-founder of CentralTrack.com, a daily cultural guide to Dallas named after the street that Central Expressway demolished and separated downtown from Deep Ellum.

Freedman has witnessed and chronicled nearly every step of that revitalization, which represents the most eclectic era of Deep Ellum. Hip-hop had never gotten much substantial coverage or attention in Deep Ellum. Bands ruled the golden era. But hip-hop is arguably the most popular genre in America now, and it’s helping carry today’s Deep Ellum with acts blowing up and being surpassed before mainstream Dallas even hears of them, like the punk acts of the ’80s. “Deep Ellum always reflects the zeitgeist of whatever’s popular,” Freedman said.

A Dallas collective of individual hip-hop acts known as Brain Gang made waves in Deep Ellum at the beginning of last decade. From that group, Blue, the Misfit would go on to have a collaborative relationship with Kendrick Lamar, Bobby Sessions would sign with legendary hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings, and the producer, Justus, signed with Interscope and was pegged as Dr. Dre’s protege.

Cure For Paranoia reached a turning point when McCloud snuck backstage at Bomb Factory for a performance by West Coast rapper The D.O.C. and saw Erykah Badu and her entourage walking towards him (Badu and D.O.C. have a child together). McCloud approached her and freestyled, impressing her. The next week he got a call. Badu wanted them to open for her birthday concert. The group played at Three Links on Elm Street every Tuesday before bars temporarily closed due to COVID-19, typically packing the venue.

“Deep Ellum is just all over the place,” McCloud said an hour before opening for Houston rapper Bun B, his hair dark purple with a strip of lavender running through it. “I think that’s why it definitely shaped me as an artist. Because you can put us anywhere. We can literally play anywhere. We’ve opened for rock bands. We’ve opened for country bands. You name it. It’s the ultimate domino effect.”

The variety in Deep Ellum, which has expanded in size over the years, but still mostly extends to about six blocks of Elm, Main, and Commerce, is staggering. Every weekend there are hip-hop, punk, country, blues, jazz, folk, and metal shows. “The Deep Ellum music scene is the Dallas music scene,” said Freedman.

“I’ve been to every town in the U.S. and played gigs,” Bethea said. “There are very few places like Deep Ellum in the United States. It’s singular.”

***

Freedman can tell you exactly when Crockett came back to Deep Ellum in 2016. “I couldn’t go to a bar without sitting on one of his CDs,” Freedman said. Crockett had taken his signature hustle, as well as the guerilla marketing he and the Train Robbers had learned, and applied it to the streets of Deep Ellum. Unlike New York, he could canvass all of Deep Ellum in an hour.

“The first night I met Charley I saw copies of his CDs on toilets,” Liles said. “I grabbed them and said, ‘Is this you?’ He said, “Yeah, man.’ I said, ‘C’mon man, have a little respect for yourself as an artist.’ I gave them back to him and told him to just hand them out to people.”

“I put them on top of urinals in every bar in Deep Ellum,” Crockett said.

Crockett was playing two sets a night all over Deep Ellum. On Commerce is a New Orleans-themed Cajun/jazz bar called The Free Man — about the same size as the now-closed Naomi’s where the Old 97’s got started. It’s hard to imagine a crowd more suited for Crockett’s music. Next door is Adair’s Saloon, a tiny dive bar Crockett could play for hours. It cost nothing to walk in and hear Crockett play and sing in rooms where he wouldn’t even have needed a microphone. After Leon Bridges broke as a national sensation, a collection of lucky Wednesday night patrons in 2015 at Twilite Lounge on Elm Street saw Crockett perform with Bridges providing backup vocals.

When he was playing in Deep Ellum he let customers name the price they wanted to pay for a copy of “A Stolen Jewell.” It wasn’t the first time people were appreciating his music, but something was happening on those streets that was new to him: He was gaining reputation. “‘A Stolen Jewell’ was the break for me because Dallas writers and Dallas musicians and the Fort Worth community started championing me immediately.”

Soon, Crockett moved from cleared out corners of bars to stages in venues all over Dallas. He was drawing paying crowds and things were snowballing behind his work ethic. Since 2016, Crockett has released seven albums to critical success with another album Welcome To Hard Times, coming out in July. He toured Texas, and then the United States. Last summer, he headlined an international tour, returning to Europe with his name on marquees in Spain, Sweden, and Paris.

“He didn’t start recording until he’d had all this time on the streets,” said Thomas D. Mooney, a music critic for Rolling Stone and Texas Monthly. “So he had a late start actually recording, but once he started making albums he had this hard-working, hustler mentality that’s in his songs. And he’s not pretentious when he’s on stage. Fans realize that he’s working just as hard at his job as they are at theirs.”

And he’s not pretentious when he’s on stage. Fans realize that he’s working just as hard at his job as they are at theirs.

In June 2019, he was invited to headline the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, arguably the most legendary country music venue in the world. For someone who’d played the streets and “backdoored” bars and clubs all over the country, it’s a surreal accomplishment. “I believe that stage was built up by a lot of artists back in the day who came at it like I have, with the real hard work,” he said. In November, Crockett headlined The Troubadour in West Los Angeles, a stage that’s helped make countless stars.

“[Being in this industry], you know when people are the real deal or not,” said Liles, who now books shows for The Kessler, a venue in a different Dallas neighborhood called Oak Cliff. “Charley Crockett is the real fucking deal.”

“I’m really happy that my brother blew up,” Woodard said. “Make sure you tell Charley he owes me that song, ‘You’re So Strange.’ I’ll come to Texas and we’ll record it.”

Crockett once begged a man to take him to Northern California just to get away from Dallas. At the time, he didn’t understand that the music he’d travel the country and world learning owed such debts to the place he was trying to escape. Knowing what he knows now, having become an obsessive historian of music, he doesn’t waver on its impact. “Deep Ellum is as important to American music as New Orleans or Memphis,” he said. It’s only fitting that when he returned, Elm Street, Main Street, and Commerce were ready for him to come back and play his part in bridging Deep Ellum to its past. He represents both the street musician whose name you never heard and the nationally touring acts that began in those same streets.

“Areas that have a micro-culture of music are based on a foundation of artists who didn’t necessarily ‘make it out,’” said Mooney. “They keep the scene what it is. I think why Charley’s been able to transcend that area and still have such respect in Deep Ellum is that he’s a lifer. He’s lived his music.”

“I feel like Crockett is the human embodiment of Deep Ellum,” McCloud said before taking the stage to rap for an audience of hundreds.

***

In 2022, Uber plans to operate over 3,000 employees out of a soon-to-be-constructed 23-story tower with adjacent parking garage on the westernmost edge of Deep Ellum. The project officially broke ground last November. “The live-work-play environment of Deep Ellum, honestly, it just has us psyched out of our minds,” Uber spokesman Brian Finch reportedly said last fall.

What this means for the culture of Deep Ellum going forward depends on who you ask and what they think about the current commercialization happening there. There’s been an influx of boutiques, restaurants, breweries, and bars with waitresses who dress like they’re catering to a college fraternity clientele.

These aren’t unique developments for an American city. “Creative people create an identity for the neighborhood, they give it a cool factor, then the real estate developers come in and price them out of the neighborhood,” Liles said. Few people have traditionally lived in Deep Ellum (though that is currently changing), so it’s not people who are being pushed out. It’s places, and if you believe those lamenting the death of Deep Ellum, it could be the music. “A building that’s committed mostly to local bands and the local music scene isn’t going to generate a whole lot of revenue,” Liles said.

It won’t surprise you to hear that this isn’t the first time that Deep Ellum has been pronounced dead, and while it’s certainly changed over the years, devotees of the scene were panicking over its changes during the height of its most exciting movements in the ’80s and ’90s. Freedman believes that Deep Ellum operates in 30-year cycles and attributes much of the hysteria over its current changes to “good ol’ days syndrome.” He points out that Uber is building its tower over four vacant lots and that most of the trendier places popping up are doing so in empty building spaces or struggling businesses that the frustrated parties weren’t supporting anyway. “Deep Ellum of today shouldn’t be the Deep Ellum of 1988,” he said. “Under what guise should it be? There were skinheads.”

Deep Ellum’s music survived during the racism of the 1920s (and the less transparent racism since). Will it survive the capitalism of the 2020s? Prior to the restrictions due to COVID-19, the streets of Deep Ellum were flooded with people every weekend, even as crime in the area remains a talking point. Deep Ellum’s cool factor is built on the credibility of places like Trees, Bomb Factory, Twilite Lounge, Three Links, The Free Man, Club Dada, Adair’s Saloon, and so many more. Dallas has woken up to Deep Ellum. “I think it’s amazing,” said McCloud, the last person to be accused of conforming his music to anyone. “It just means more money coming in. The music will be fine. That’s what they’re coming for.”

Dallas has woken up to Deep Ellum.

The rapper Post Malone, from the Dallas suburb Grapevine, is not a Deep Ellum artist — prior to his national ascent, he was characterized as a soundcloud artist — but after his single “White Iverson” went viral in 2015, making him a household name overnight, his first Dallas show was at Trees. He played “White Iverson” two times during a 25-minute show, latching on to a bit of the neighborhood’s credibility. “These things don’t happen by accident,” Freedman said. “Deep Ellum is still unequivocally, without a shadow of a doubt, the proving grounds.”

The story of Deep Ellum is the story of music’s relationship to physical space. It can feel like there are no traceable links of influence or even knowledge between the various musical eras of Deep Ellum. Whenever an era ended, it must have been impossible to imagine music ever coming back. But it always did, behind musicians and the people who wanted to hear them play. “In 25 years there won’t be anything wrong with [Deep Ellum] turning over a little bit,” Bethea said before smiling. “As long as they’ve got a statue of the Old 97’s down there for people to worship.”

“Maybe one day all this will go away,” Freedman said from a dark booth in Twilite Lounge. “But for now, I’m still going to play in it.”

***

Now, imagine it’s a Friday night at some point in the future when public gatherings and live music are allowed and deemed safe, and you just saw a show at Trees that you’ll talk about for weeks, exaggerating whatever details you still remember. You’re walking out the front door onto Elm Street with about 400 other people. It’s entirely possible you haven’t been sober since halfway through the set list. It’s 11:30 and the streets are packed with people, some of whom are probably going to manage to find a little trouble to get into, and you haven’t yet determined if you’ll be one of them. Maybe you aren’t ready for the night to be over. You could grab another drink somewhere or find some late-night food. Or you could walk around the area and settle for the first place that’s playing the kind of music you want to hear.

As the Trees crowd pushes you about 50 feet down Elm Street and you try to determine your immediate future — the only future that seems remotely important in that moment — you might look up and see a mural facing you from the brick wall across the street. It’s a tinted image of a man dressed in black with sunglasses and a cowboy hat standing in a field of bluebonnets. The man’s name isn’t on the mural, which is fine. A mural like that in Deep Ellum is for the type of person who already knows who Charley Crockett is.

Or maybe, you’re ready to go home and bask in the buzz of the performance you just witnessed. You’ll have to find your way to the designated ride-share pickup zone on Commerce — the necessity of which is a testament to just how much Deep Ellum has changed. It’s two streets over, so you’ll probably want to cut through Radiator Alley to get to Main Street. As you breeze through the alley, you might see another mural of a stout man wearing a suit and holding a guitar with two musical legends flanking him on each side. Their names are Freddy King and T-Bone Walker, and little crowns are painted above their heads. But those two are clearly in the background. It’s the stout man who’s front and center. No crown is above his head; only a bright circle, almost like a halo. The image is a recreation of the only known photograph to ever exist of this man. His name was Blind Lemon Jefferson.

* * *

Jonny Auping is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work has been featured in Texas MonthlyThe New YorkerVICENew York MagazineSlateand McSweeney’s.

Editor: Krista Stevens

Fact checker: Matt Giles