Nashville Preview: Hayes Carll
Time was you could use the phrase "Texas singer-songwriter" and there'd be no mistaking that you were talking about the literate, rough-hewn, folk- and blues-based songs of Lone Star troubadours like Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark.
Over the past decade or so, though, a new breed of Texas singer-songwriter has emerged — a rowdier, less nuanced tunesmith typified by the frat-friendly likes of Pat Green and Cory Morrow.
A sixth-generation Texan, Hayes Carll might pack the dance halls of his home state like Green and Morrow, but his drawling, finely wrought originals reveal him to have more in common with Crowell and Clark.
"When I started writing, I was (going to college) in Arkansas and there was a Texas music scene that was starting to get rolling that I was completely oblivious to, and I think that's probably for the best," said Carll, alluding to the party-hearty followings of Green and Morrow.
The 32-year-old Texan, whose new album, Trouble in Mind, came out on Nashville-based Lost Highway Records last month, plays the Belcourt Theatre with Canadian kindred spirit Corb Lund on Thursday.
"To me, the Texas music scene was guys like Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett — Lightning Hopkins, too," Carll went on to say. "Those were my influences. It was awhile before I realized that there was this other big scene going on."
Bookings like the Belcourt are still fairly new to Carll, who only graduated to bigger rooms when Little Rock, his self-released second album, started getting airplay on Americana radio in 2005.
"All of a sudden, instead of playing to 30 50-year-olds in a folk club, we could play to 300 people of all ages in a rock or a country bar. For the first few years it was a little frustrating," he admitted, looking back on the years leading to that breakthrough, when he was still a scuffling singer-songwriter. "I was making music and not getting a crowd of any kind, while there were dance halls all across Texas being sold out by lots of other guys.
"In the end, though, it was best, because I wasn't influenced by that stuff. I was influenced maybe by the guys who had a little more depth."
'Not in the dance hits business'
Even the titles of Carll's songs betray his literary ambitions. On Trouble in Mind, for example, there's "Faulkner Street," "Drunken Poet's Dream" (written with Texas real-deal Ray Wylie Hubbard) and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart."
"She Left Me for Jesus," the sardonic blues shuffle that closes the record, might even be worthy of Lubbock iconoclast Terry Allen. Scoffing at Jesus' "freaky" long hair and sandals, the song's bigoted protagonist reckons, "I bet he's a Commie/Or even worse yet, a Jew."
"I wrote that one with a friend of mine, a Nashvillian named Brian Keane," Carll said. "We were talking about a relationship he'd been in. At some point the girl asked him if he was prepared to handle her relationship with Jesus Christ. So we got to thinking, 'Well, what if he wasn't? Or worse, what if he didn't know who Jesus was?'
"So we created this character — an ignorant, prejudiced good ol' boy — and imagined what he would do if he found out his girlfriend was fooling around."
The lean, unvarnished arrangements on Trouble in Mind only deepen the emotional impact of such plainspoken character studies. Recorded at Alex the Great Studios with producer Brad Jones, the album features a heady array of Nashville pickers — everyone from Pat Buchanan, Al Perkins and Will Kimbrough to Dan Baird, Fats Kaplan and George Bradfute.
"We kinda ran the gamut," said Carll, alluding to the mix of session pros and indie types who played on the record. "Whenever it would start to sound a little overproduced or polished, I would pull it back down and remind everybody that I'm not in the dance hits business."
"I started out as a solo singer-songwriter, with just a guitar, playing in bars," he went on to say. "It was all about the songs and the lyrics. Obviously, you want to put great music behind 'em, but I wanted to make sure it wasn't weighted down with walls of sound."