Hayes Carll Q&A – Texas Music Magazine
Hayes Carll blasted his career out of a cannon in 2004.
The Woodlands native’s sophomore effort, Little Rock – a salt vortex of machetes and memories that measured a young poet’s wanderlust against a seasoned brawler’s will – became the first self-released album to top the Americana charts. Its golden key: boundless ambition. Carll deepened the dimensions of Tin Pan Alley (“Long Way Home”), stretched country music’s walls thin (“Hey Baby Where You Been”) and practically redefined roadhouse blues on the title track.
Little Rock spun inimitable wordplay onto Technicolor narratives that established the droll 32-year-old as a singular songwriter. Moreover, splitting pages with Guy Clark (“Rivertown”) and Ray Wylie Hubbard (“Chickens) exponentially boosted his craft. On Trouble In Mind, Carll’s unblemished major label debut for Lost Highway Records, the fiercely independent Austin resident deftly outlines his trade. “Doesn’t anybody care about truth anymore /Maybe that’s what songs are for,” Carll sings. “You’re the wind and I’m on fire/In this line of work, no one retires.”
Exhibit A: Hubbard himself. Carll again matches his wits with the tireless troubadour on Trouble In Mind’s opening track. “Drunken Poet’s Dream” – a love-struck ballad as bold and dangerous as fans might imagine – draws elegant, insightful lines between sensuality and spirit. “There’s some money on the table, and a pistol on the floor/Some old paperback books of Louis L’amour,” the story goes, “She says, ‘Honey don’t worry about Judgment Day/All these people going to heaven are just in our way.”
“I always like writing with Hayes,” Hubbard explains, “because he’s fearless.”
Q: How did Little Rock’s success affect your career?
A: It helped on a couple levels. The radio in Texas really got behind it. Before Little Rock, I was a really obscure singer-songwriting playing to a handful of people a night. It was going good, but I wasn’t really drawing a lot of people outside of a few small pockets. Radio definitely helped with the crowds in Texas. I could feel the impact on the road, too. Little Rock gave satellite and Americana radio something to play and the press something to talk about. It got my name out there.
Q: You did get a lot of great press.
A: Yeah, I was real fortunate with that. For the most part, everybody has had really nice things to say. It’s better than the alternative, I guess. I keep waiting for someone to trash me, but so far I’ve been really lucky in that regard.
Q: I heard that you struggled with writer’s block after Little Rock.
A: Yeah, I’m always writing and keeping journals and jotting down ideas, but transferring that into songs is more of a process for me. Jenna and I had our son, Elijah, when we were recording Little Rock. I released the record a week after our wedding, we went on our honeymoon and I hit the road for two years doing 200-plus dates a year. With a new family – and we moved four times in the past four years – all those things combined led to me not writing like I should’ve. The career was going great, but the art was lagging. I didn’t have a single song ready when I signed onto Lost Highway.
Q: You made a name as an independent artist. How does it feel to be signed now?
A: I just see it as I’m me. Lost Highway’s been great and I’m really excited about the potential they give me, but at the end of the day it’s not about labels or publicists. You’ve gotta have the songs. If you don’t have the songs it’ll dry up at some point. Obviously, I work hard at my career and try to stay afloat, but I’ve always focused on that. At the end of the day, I’m a songwriter. Delivering on that allows all the other stuff … it just arts and ends with the songs.
Q: Do you feel pressure being on a label?
A: Not really. Lost Highway’s been really involved, but in a positive way. It’s like, “What do you want to do, and how can we make it happen?” That’s been refreshing. I was really worried about that – I enjoyed my independence and not having anyone looking over my shoulder. Creatively I can do whatever I want, and they just help me implement it. I don’t think I’m chasing anything other than trying to make good music. Hopefully, no one sees it as a betrayal of my folk roots or my country roots or my Texas roots – it’s just me trying to make good music.
Q: Well, Trouble In Mind definitely touches on folk and country. There’s plenty of rock, too.
A: That’s just how they came out. I went into the studio with a lot of downer songs, and when I was in there I ended up writing a lot of songs that made the record and gave it more variety and energy. We ended up with 23 cuts – 18 of mine, five covers. It ran the gamut from gospel songs to acoustic songs to balls-out rock to low-down honky-tonk songs. There was no particular style in mind. The end result was kind of a hodge-podge, but that’s how I am musically anyway.
Q: With so much new material to work with, why did you rerecord “It’s a Shame” from your debut, Flowers and Liquor?
A: A lot of the material from my first record is unknown. There were some great songs on there. As well as I thought Little Rock did, the reality is that a fraction of the world heard those songs. And I think I only sold 5,000 copies of Flowers and Liquor. If the song held out, the idea was that it could have another life on another record. I’d always wanted to give that one another shot, and the label agreed.
Q: Tell me about writing “Drunken Poet’s Dream” with Ray Wylie Hubbard. It touches on so much common ground you two share.
A: I’m such a big fan of Ray as a person and a songwriter. Sometimes I sit down with the mentality of doing something in his style. For this one, I just had this line, “I’ve got a woman, she’s wild as Rome,” and a groove. He came over to the house and we started writing. We did about half the song and went our separate ways. We each finished the song on our own and ended up with pretty different versions. They’re probably 60 perfect the same. As he likes to say, I ruined it by putting a bridge in there: “Me and Hayes wrote a song together, but his has a bridge. He’s just showin’ off.”
Q: In “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” you sing about songwriters being responsible for delivering the truth. Is that your primary job?
A: Well, some people view it as their job to comment on society, and some are more introspective about it. I don’t know that there’s a job description for a songwriter. Some people just write songs for people to dance to because it makes them feel good. My reason’s always been a little selfish – it’s cathartic to me. It allows me to talk about what’s going on in my life and to tell stories and capture memories, which a lot of the new record’s about. Like Todd Snider says, “I’m not trying to change your mind, I’m trying to ease my own.”
Q: Do you worry about establishing a reputation as a serious lyricist, then having a radio hit or two and having your show turn into a traveling party?
A: Yeah, it’s a weird balance. I never thought I’d have to consider that. I started playing in honky-tonks where no one listened either way, and then I played folk clubs and singer-songwriter things where they’d be stone silent and hang on every word. When Little Rock came out, I put together a band and went to Dallas to play a radio station festival. I show up and there’s like 5,000 people singing “Down the Road.” I look out and 5,000 people are singing every word to a song I don’t even know. I mean, I have the words written down on a piece of paper in front of me and I’m reading them off the stage. It’s a huge rush when there’s that energy, but I also want the crowd to listen when I have something to say. I’d like them to appreciate the more subtle things that go on lyrically. But you can’t always have it both ways.
Q: Isn’t that the idea behind your Stingaree Music Festival coming up in April?
A: We bill it as a songwriter festival. We have some rock bands and party bands, but the common thread is that everyone there is writing their songs and they’re pretty damn good at it. It’s about appreciating songwriters. We have a good time, though – it’s not church.
Q: Some say Texas music has been moving away from that focus on lyrics.
A: I have to disagree. I look at it as a pretty wide umbrella encompassing Texas music, you know. Some of the stuff that’s more southern garage rock or sing-along is definitely having resurgence. People are into it and loving it. On the same hand, there’s Adam Carroll and Walt Wilkins and Sam Baker, who are true poets who are on the opposite end of the spectrum. In my perfect world, Todd Snider would be a platinum artist, Ray Wylie Hubbard would be winning Grammys and Adam Carroll would be selling out Gruene Hall. But that’s just my taste.