Hayes Carll has just released his third album, Trouble In Mind. His first, Flowers And Liquor, for Compadre Records, was produced by Lisa Morales of Sisters Morales. His second, Little Rock, released independently, was produced by R. S. Field. One of its songs, “Down The Road Tonight,” made Stephen King’s list of 2007’s top tracks. And now with Trouble In Mind, produced by Brad Jones, Carll has co-writing credits with the likes of Ray Wylie Hubbard and guest musicians such as Dan Baird, Will Kimbrough, and Fats Kaplan. Plus it’s on the “label of the iconoclasts,” Lost Highway.
Carll is the newest addition to the long line of renegade musicians who combine folk, country, rock, a little blues, and honest, usually smart lyrics, into music that fits no niche but their own: Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Robert Earl Keen, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson . . . the list is long and impressive (and that’s without including “nearbys” such as Louisiana-born Lucinda Williams). Colloquially referred to as the Texas Troubadours, they are a select — not to mention selective — bunch. They are also supportive, and they’ve taken Hayes Carll in.
Carll was born and raised in the planned community of Woodlands, Texas, outside of Houston. A town that isn’t likely to breed anything more revolutionary than future country-club members, it’s about the last place to give rise to a rebellious singer-songwriter. It did, however, and how it did sounds like something straight from an earlier era. “I was a restless kid,” Carll says. “I started reading Kerouac and listenin’ to Dylan and the magic of this world got me excited and made me want to get out and hitchhike my way across America and soak it all in. Where I was living was light years from any of that.”
Part of the magic came from music. “We used to go to the Unitarian church,” Carll relates. “The Unitarians aren’t known for their choirs, so they bring in people to sing. One day it was this folk group and they did three Bob Dylan songs. It’s corny, but it really did change my life. I walked out with a new appreciation of the power of song, went home and asked for a guitar. My folks got me one and I started diving into the seedy world of songwriters.”
Carll’s next step was to head to Hendrix College, a small liberal-arts school in the equally small town of Conway, Arkansas — not exactly the bold jump into America that he had been planning, but it did result in a degree. “Hendrix said they had a radio show that freshmen could be a part of,” Carll says. “It looked like a cool place, so I decided to go. It was kind of on a whim.”
From there, Carll started to live the Kerouacian life, spending a summer in Iowa, six months in Croatia, a while in Austin. Eventually, he settled in a remote cabin in Crystal Beach, on the Bolivar peninsula across the bay from Galveston, Texas. Home of shrimpers, drug dealers, and others who wanted to drop out near the ocean, Carll worked odd jobs and began to write and perform in earnest, mainly at the Old Quarter in Galveston. He was there for three years.
“I never had a band,” he says. “I was always solo and I was tryin’ to emulate the guys that I like. So for a long time everything that I sang sounded like an 18-year-old kid trying to sing like Bob Dylan or Lyle Lovett, which is fairly ridiculous. But then, when Bob Dylan was 18, he was an 18-year-old tryin’ to sound like Woody Guthrie, so I try not to beat myself up over it too much.”
Also like those singer-songwriters, Carll’s stage persona became an integral part of his appeal. Honest, with a healthy dose of dry humor, it’s a combination of his personality and desperation. “I was doin’ four hours a night of cover songs at these shrimper bars,” Carll explains. “But every once in awhile I’d get an opening slot for Ray Wylie Hubbard or Sisters Morales or Willis Alan Ramsey – all these great songwriters who were comin’ through. I would have 40 minutes to play and I would only have five songs that I’d written. I had to get through the set, and so I would talk. I would do my song and then tell a five-minute story to segue into the next one. Just keep my eye on the clock and try to keep ‘em laughing. What I found about a lot of people is that no matter how good you are, you get boring if you can’t let me into your world in some way. I don’t want to sit there and watch somebody play their songs for two hours and never say a word. I’m going to get disinterested. But if you can give me some insight to you as a person, or into your life or what made you write this or some humor, that will keep me listenin’ to you. So that’s what I started to do was try and inject my personality into the shows. In some ways it’s scary and I still get freaked out playing in front of people, but on the other hand it’s the greatest thrill in the world. For me, the risk of humiliation or fallin’ on my face or just being mocked or criticized was nothing compared to the upside.”
Carll has grown in confidence musically over the course of three albums, and Trouble In Mind takes advantage not only of guest artists and songwriting collaborators, but also Lost Highway’s ethos of supporting their artists. “Musically I’m still finding my way as far as what the possibilities are,” Carll says. “You know, I come very much from a three-chord-and-lyric perspective and I wanted to push it a little bit musically this time. Not that I’m shattering any new ground or anything, but for me personally I wanted it to be a more musical record. I had the time and budget to do that and Brad was all about it. That was kind of why we ended up together. And he did exactly that. WE tried things in every direction and some worked and some didn’t, but at the end of the day at least I knew what they sounded like and I could make my own choice.”
A recurring theme through Carll’s career has been an ease with paying his dues. Neither impatient nor entitled, Carll has been touring the country building up his fan base show by show, club by club, person by person. For every Stephen King, there have been have-filled clubs or long bus rides. It’s grueling enough to start asking if he’s getting to where he wants to be in his musical career. He is.
“I’m in a good place right now. It’s been a slow gradual progression to get where I’m at so I don’t feel like the bottom’s gonna fall out. The base that I’ve built up isn’t going to just disappear overnight so I think hat I can make a livin’ for awhile still, which is nice. For a long time that was just the goal: to be able to make a living. My heroes, for the most part, were underappreciated and in some ways struggling songwriters. I always identified with that and so my idea of success was kind of freaky and inappropriate. I’ve gotten over that. I wouldn’t mind doing well and doing what I love at the same time.”