With his stringy blond hair and hangdog expression, Hayes Carll looks like any other kid riding the counter third shift at a 7-Eleven or stringing phone wire somewhere beyond the realm of life as lived in the suburbs. It’s not shiftless; he’s not that motivated. Nor is it inscrutable, because that would imply he’s engaged enough to obscure what he’s thinking.
No, Hayes Carll just looks at you. With an intelligence that smolders in those eyes, suggesting he knows more than he’s going to tell you-and with a restiveness that promises this is not one for domesticating-the Houston-born ‘n’ raised, Arkansas-college-educated, currently-Texas-living songwriter is mostly a watcher.
But if the devil is in the details, and if Carll-like Chauncey Gardner from the film Being There-just wants “to watch,” then Trouble In Mind, the erstwhile indie artist’s first major label recording, is a hellacious jump forward. Always a strong raconteur, his detail-grounded writing and sweeping emotional underpinnings make his small songs seem far larger than the moments being captured.
From the moment the low-slung shuffle kicks in, skulking its way through the plucked banjo notes and wheezy harmonica riffs, “I Got A Gig” is the play-by-play on Carll’s coming of age, post-higher education in Crystal Beach, Texas.
“Burnt fried chicken and Lone Star beer
Cops and the kids drink free around here
Girl behind the bar, taking what she’s given
Lying ‘bout her past, trying to make a living
Broke pool table and hard luck kids
Go tell your mama I done paid my dues
Everybody ‘round here knows my name
Six nights a week in a neon flame
I got a gig, baby… I got a gii-i-i-i-i-iiiiiig…”
His voice is part whine, part hum, part sleep deprivation buzz, and he unfurls the Polaroids without flinching. Later he’ll sing, “Pills in the tip jar, blood on the strings/Lord I never thought I’d see these things…” and you know it’s not fiction. Hayes Carll, like so many of the best singer/songwriters, recognizes the details most miss-and then shows the rest of us.
“This is very different from walking into a bar and asking if I can play for free to three shrimpers,” he allows in a muted drawl. “Figure ten years ago…I was sitting on a porch in Conway, Ark., (where he attended Hendrix College, “majoring in History, minoring in marijuana and women” and ultimately graduating last in his class), dreaming.
“Because, you know, it takes a certain boldness to live that life, to chase it down. There was a certain magic to the lifestyle…to being part of it. You had to do it, whether it’s the writing or the traveling or exploring. And I took it one show at a time…didn’t think too far beyond that.
“I ended up, with me and the karaoke guy, battling it out for the entertainment dollar in Crystal Beach. They’d do food specials at this little bar: ‘All You Can Eat Fried Chicken & Hayes Carll for $4.99.’
“That’s the thing-these songs are about a place in my life that’s come and gone. There were good times even when they were bad, and I have fond memories of it all. There are real conversations, real people…real events. I didn’t wanna sugarcoat it; I just wanna hold onto those times, and this lets me…”
When he talks, his tone is flat, with even less modulation than his singing voice. In some ways, it allows his lyrics to do the heavy-lifting-to draw you in, to make you listen, even to glean the emotional nuances. Hayes Carll, a fan of “Kris Kristofferson, Todd Snider, John Prine-and the beat writers, people whose writing made you want to know them as people“-is good at getting whatever he’s feeling out in song.
Whether it’s the whirling “We Should Be Lovers,” about a passion that’s out of sync but always ripe with frisson; the cautionary, if high school pound-down rhythm and romanticism of “Bad Liver & A Broken Heart;” the bawdy Nicky Hopkins-piano drenched raver “I Could Never Be Friends (with a Lover Like You”) or the world-weary, almost exhaled “Don’t Let Me Fall,” the songs demonstrate that the man who released 2002’s Flowers & Liquor-which earned him a pair of Houston Music Awards for Best Song (“Hwy. 87”) and Folk Acoustic Artist-and 2005’s Little Rock has spent his time questing for authenticity.
“The primary thing I’ve got going for me,” Carll says with a “get this” sort of laugh, “is just being me. Whether it’s the singing or the stories, I’m just relaying what I see and experience in the only way I can.
“American Idol really isn’t my kind of thing. Writing Hayes Carll songs…there’s no one else doing that. I think I take a common experience and maybe put something a little different on it, ‘cause I am all over the place.
“It’s only when you start comparing yourself to other records and other writers that you get into trouble. Move towards what you like and who you are…and you’re gonna be fine.”
So just what point is his compass set to? He pauses to think about it. After close to 250 dates on the road in 2005 and 2006, self-reflection, not definition, is what Carll is calibrated towards. Finally, he responds, “These songs are all old memories and degenerate love songs. They’re not for the meek of heart or the afraid.”
Carll is neither. In 2005, not finding a home for his sinewy songs of the road, the bars and the Romeo within, he released Little Rock on his own label. Aside from picking up the 2005 Houston Music Award for Songwriter of the Year, Carll became the first-and remains the only-self-released artist to top the Americana Music chart.
“He wasn’t just willing,” remembers manager Mike Crowley, “he was willing to do the heavy lifting-whatever it took to get the music heard… He burned through four booking agencies to do it, but he wanted to stay after it.
“And I think Hayes has this gift that the more he lives it, the more he takes [in] everything around him in, the more he turns it all into songs when he’s done. He’s pretty relentless.”
In some ways, Carll’s already exceeded his own expectations. He didn’t have a band until his second album. He wasn’t sure how far the ride would carry him. That he was teamed with producer Brad Jones (Bobby Bare, Jr., Over The Rhine, Chuck Prophet), and was in the studio with Will Kimbrough, Pat Buchanon, Al Perkins, Thad Cockrell and even a guest appearance by erstwhile Georgia Satellite Dan Baird, plays to his see-where-this-all-leads vibe.
“I liked [Jones] because he had no preconceived idea of what we were going to do,” Carll admits. “His attitude was, ‘Let’s get in there, be open to anything and experiment. Some won’t work, but we’ll find out’-which was exciting to me because as a folk singer, it’s pretty straightforward. And out of that, I ended up writing some songs in the studio.
“I came in with 20, and some stayed…a few like ‘Gig’ and ‘Lover’ and ‘Turkey’ happened because there were all these amazing players who played what they felt and, it came together. It’s pretty incredible being open to that kind of creation.”
Trouble in Mind is a gritty, grimy kind of record. It’s a little shaggy, a little threadbare, but utterly human and absolutely reflective of Carll’s half-bent worldview. Undoubtedly singular, it’s consumed by a strong dose of hormones that live more in memory than reality.
“I daydream about it…a lot,” he concedes, pulling on a cigarette and pushing his hair out of his eyes. “There were a lot of misadventures, because I like women. I’ve always been drawn to relationships, or rather, the idea of relationships-you know, the fantasy of it…more than the reality.
“There were a lot of off-and-on things, ill-fated, short love affairs. As soon as they started participating, I tended to check out before it got messy…”
To that end, he teamed with legendary Texas singer/songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard for the lurchingly fetching “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” a song about a girl who understands what makes the man a songwriter. Again, stretched taut over details about Louis L’Amour novels, squalid morning afters and plenty of cigarettes, papers and dominos, she encourages, “You be the sinner, and I’ll be the sin.”
“It’s interesting watching Ray Wylie because after all of it, he’s still an artist, writing new songs all the time-some blues, some stories. A lot of people are where he’s at…they’re kinda riding their greatest hits and letting it go, but he’d rather make his music, keep evolving and get by.”
For “DPD,” the pair got together, swapped lines on the phone, agreed on the vibe-and then ended up with two different versions of the same song. “I think it’s about 60 percent the same, with some completely different verses, but you’d recognize it.”
If that was composite, the fragile “Willing To Love Again” is grounded in Hayes’ life beyond the footlights. “After my last record, I’d toured so much-traveling and playing shows-that my writing had fallen away…and when I got off the road, I opened all my notebooks and started looking: where I’d been, the people I’d met…
“I have a weird sentimentality. I probably spend more than my fair share of time reflecting on the past, what went on. My wife tells me that [I’m self-involved] all the time…at least in terms of how I live my life with regard to songwriting. But, you know, I write to get that sentiment out…or that memory.
“Songwriting is my outlet. Wanting to be a songwriter came from other people’s poetry, other people’s songs affecting me. I mean, I don’t sit around discussing this stuff with people. You know?
“So when I started going through it all, well, it occurred to me what my life is, where it is…and this song came out as sort of an apology to [my wife] for putting up with me. Writing it, the idea that after all of it, you’re still willing to love me, well…maybe this is what this record is about.
“All I can do is tell my stories, make my apologies and amends. I started digging up old memories of being in Little Rock, those first shows, Crystal Beach and playing for free, sleeping on couches and dreaming of going places….when you start sorting through it all, you realize everybody’s got commonality. We’re all living and dying, breathing, falling in love-and the smaller individual stuff is what makes us unique. It’s how we deal with those big themes, the specific details, that maybe stands out. But you know, even when we’re standing out, I think it’s still about standing together.”
Hayes Carll isn’t quite embarrassed as he says this, though you can tell it’s not some kind of universal, emotional group-grope he’s endorsing, either. He is tired-again-from too much traveling. He is willing-as always-to do what it takes to get his music heard.
He didn’t write to stand out, it seems, but to connect to the rest of us-to write songs “that will endure…that will still be good in time, because you want to create something that’s true and that lasts.
“I mean, I had to believe I had something to say that’s worth hearing, or I wouldn’t have set aside everything in my life to do it. I never thought beyond other people responding to the songs…maybe what other writers would say. But that doesn’t matter; you know whether you’ve written something you feel strongly about. To me, that’s always the point in doing this.”