Trouble in mind
He was born in The Woodlands, but stints in other places have deepened Hayes Carll's outlook on life. And when it's time for the singer/songwriter to get busy, he often goes to a place or recalls a time — the unhappier, the better — to inspire him.
By ANDREW DANSBY
Copyright Houston Chronicle 2008
Hayes Carll tells a story about drinking on a porch on Davis Street in Conway, Ark., with a group of friends during a summer long past.
His girlfriend at the time — her name was Dinger — painted abstract art and asked her beer-soaked buddies for interpretations. Then she flipped the images and asked again. She played Iron Butterfly on the turntable very loud. You know which song.
If there were troubles back then, they remained largely dormant or merely suggested, which is why Carll put a chorus of "trouble in mind" into his song about those days, Faulkner Street.
Davis Street didn't work in the song, so he took a few liberties: Faulkner was the county he lived in. Those details are technical. The coiled nature of youth is what he wanted to get across.
"It's about that weird point in youth where you haven't got where you're going, but there's still endless potential in front of you," Carll says. "You're at that point where you can do anything and get away with it. That little window in life ... I should call it a fairly large window in my life. You could do nothing for three days straight or make the greatest memories of your life.
"Or get arrested."
Carll is 32 and married with a kid now. The Woodlands native lives in Austin. There's less trouble in mind these days, though that doesn't stop him from writing about it.
"I'm still attracted and drawn to the same kind of things that I was when I got into this," he says. "The travel and the lifestyle and the loneliness of life and things like that. When I sit down to write, it's rarely a song about how much I love my wife."
So those freer days inform a lot of music on Carll's third album, Trouble in Mind, out Tuesday.
His songs are infused with vividly and efficiently described settings and no small amount of humor.
There's no drumroll with Carll's jokes. In conversation, he'll sometimes squint a bit when he delivers one, but he doesn't laugh at his own punchlines or stories.
It's not until later that it seems funny when he suggests we sit behind the Continental Club for an interview, "where we can get some fresh air and smoke some cigarettes."
"I admire his sense of humor," says singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard, a friend, mentor and collaborator. "You hear all the comparisons with Townes (Van Zandt) and everything, but people don't always know that Townes was really funny. Hayes is like that. Old school guys like Mance Lipscomb. Guys who were intelligently witty, and fast with it too."
To wit, Carll dryly admits that formal education in Conway, home to Hendrix College, was something of an afterthought.
"I just didn't really ever think about what I was doing there. To me it was just about learning. But I didn't put it into a practical side; you know, what are you applying this to? I just soaked up as much information as I could. But I was a horrible student. I was last in my class."
"Dead last. Which I didn't realize until four years later. I was looking at my diploma and it says '248 dash 248.' I thought, What does that mean? Hmm, there were about 250 kids in my class, I was on academic probation for three years. I graduated with a 2.1. ... "
Carll has found his place since then, a job that allows him to look back on those days for inspiration or a laugh or a phrase like "trouble in mind."
Even that title draws a self-deprecating story.
He was about to perform at a festival in Colorado before about 1,000 people he describes as "drunk and rowdy." Two minutes before Carll went onstage, Hubbard asked him if he'd come up with a title for the record. Carll told him.
"I said, 'Man I love that song,'" Hubbard says, laughing. "Hayes says, 'What song?'"
Hubbard told him about the old blues classic Trouble in Mind. Right then the announcer introduced Carll.
"So I had to walk out onto that stage," Carll says, "and all I could think about was the title had already been done."
If Carll went out shaky at that Colorado show, he sounds assured today. Trouble in Mind is a strong record, smartly sequenced with a light and dark dynamic between honky-tonk rockers and contemplative narratives. Its winding path reminds me of Exile on Main Street, but with a little more distance between the singer and his torn and frayed characters.
At the South by Southwest Music Conference last month, Carll played a blistering set at the Cedar Street Courtyard, taking the stage a few minutes early and stomping through some of Trouble's louder songs. His voice was raw after a touring jag through Canada but had a grittily gruff allure as he played through it.
"Was it loud?" he asks, taking a drag on a cigarette, the nails on his right hand long and milky white. "It seemed loud up there."
Trouble in Mind is Carll's first album since signing with Universal's Lost Highway label, home to artists such as Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Ryan Adams and Willie Nelson.
He laughs off the suggestion there was a big signing bonus, saying any advance money went into his house. But from a creative standpoint Carll got to audition producers ("speed dating," he calls it) and some of Nashville's best players trying to find the right sound.
Carll's deal was signed on the strength of his two previous recordings, but when he joined Lost Highway, he didn't have a single new song written.
So he looked back.
Carll sets a scene like a novelist. He jokes he's a "city name-dropper," but his use of place is deeper than that.
"To me, saying 'Beaumont' evokes something. It may not to some guy in Minnesota, but there's a smell and a taste and a vibe to Beamont that's special to that place. I try to give all these songs a setting, and for the most part they're about people who were a part of my life. There's not much fiction there. For me it's not so much about the present but capturing the past before I forget it."
Carll is diplomatic when he talks about growing up. Now a father, he can appreciate the safe comfort The Woodlands provided. He vaguely references a laser light show and some other entertainment he regrets having taken in as a kid, but by the time he was 15 he was more obsessed with the Beats and rambling songwriters. He itched to move.
"When you listen to Bob Dylan you're fairly certain he did not write that stuff in The Woodlands. Or reading Kerouac or Ginsberg. These guys were expressing things I wasn't hearing in my hometown. To express myself I needed to go where they went, either physically or psychologically. ... It's hard to write about being broke and beaten down when you're not. I had to go live it before I could go write about it."
At first, the closest he got to living like his heroes was a job at Pizza Hut. "I heard Lyle Lovett worked at a Pizza Hut," he says. "So I thought maybe there was something there."
Carll began playing and writing more. He found encouragement while living in Arkansas. He remembers the first time a bar patron complimented him on an original song. There was no turning back.
"I remember going to the guidance counselor my senior year," he says. "So what kind of jobs can I do? I'm a history major with minor in theater and 2.1 GPA. She said, 'Have you considered changing majors?'"
After school he took odd jobs, waiting tables, selling vacuum cleaners and working for the U.S. Census Bureau, which he calls "the best job I ever had," counting the homeless on Bolivar Peninsula. Because he had a college degree, even as "248 dash 248," he was a team leader.
"I would've been bad off if I'd waited for them to call me back about a job. I think we're still two years from the next one."
He cut a demo with some of the money from that job and used the rest to travel to Croatia.
His Census earnings depleted and back in the States, Carll sought experiences of any sort that might yield a song about solitude or wandering. He also took stage time where he could get it. He got a break from Rex Bell at the Old Quarter in Galveston, who would make his stage available.
In 2002 he made a strong impression with his first album Flowers and Liquor, released on Houston-based Compadre Records. Three years later came the even more assured Little Rock, which he tirelessly took on the road for two years.
Carll brings up Lovett again.
A friend of Carll's used to work at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion and would get him backstage for the meet-and-greets.
Carll never introduced himself to Lovett, though. He says there was always a line of 50 or 60 people and that Lovett looked "miserable talking to fifth cousins twice removed."
Singer-songwriter Todd Snider, Carll's friend, recently introduced him to Lovett in Nashville.
"Oh yeah, Hayes, we've met before," Lovett said.
"What do you say to that?" Carll says. "'No, we haven't met, Lyle?'
"I just said, 'Good to see you, Lyle.'"
Later Carll talks about Lovett's influence. "He showed me a song doesn't have to be about a generic pace or rhyme scheme. Real simple personal details mixed with some wild random things, he just created his own style. His character and personality were in it."
Carll has been in situations without such character. He describes Nashville sessions "where they put you in an office at noon with some guy you've never met. 'Alan Jackson needs a song about cars today, but it has to sound like Kenny Chesney's song about cars from last year, but not too much.'"
He's had better luck collaborating with some of his heroes. He co-wrote Rivertown with Guy Clark. That allowed him to observe Clark's meticulous process, which according to Carll included putting each letter in each word of a song into a box on a sheet of graph paper.
With Hubbard he penned the wry Drunken Poet's Dream, Trouble in Mind's lively opening track.
Hubbard says he "was quickly impressed with the depth of his writing. You could tell he'd taken his time working on his lyrics. Something in his writing was really righteously cool."
Which isn't to say Hubbard hasn't had fun at his expense. When Carll asked for a quote for publicity materials, Hubbard gave him the exact quote he'd given to another songwriter.
"Slaid (Cleaves) and I took him on the road," Hubbard says. "We figured if a gig was upstairs he could carry our stuff."
Carll makes several references to his contentment with home life.
But his commitment to writing from the dark corners of bars makes that tough. "To me it's about writing good songs," he says, "but life and career got in the way. There's no more staring at the moon and writing songs all night. That was a different time in my life. Not as much wild (expletive) happens to me. I'm not sleeping on the beach or on a couch.
"But I'm still not going to sing a song about singing my son to sleep. I don't want to listen to somebody else doing it. From a lifestyle perspective, I'm a lot happier than I was. Now I just have to dig a little deeper."
Sometimes that means going back. Bad love inspires a fair portion of Trouble in Mind.
"It's girls like this that keep me tryin'," he sings on Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.
With less time to spend in the back of a bar, Carll relies more than ever on his memory. "What was the question?" he jokes when asked about his ability to remember.
So he obsessively buys notebooks and pens from Wal-Mart. "That's like Christmas for me," he says.
Scraps of paper contain fragments of songs, some get nurtured, others are lost. "I'm sure I've had hundreds of hits disappear into the ether," he says, squinting a little.
Carll sounds frustrated that inspiration can be so fleeting. He quotes Van Zandt's analogy that songwriting is like trying to catch butterflies: Your net must always be at hand.
By the time he gets out of the shower or pulls over the car or gets out of bed, he's sometimes lost the spark.
But he seems to fare well keeping a foot in the past. Carll wouldn't trade his life for the days living in Bolivar. But it's not like he's cut ties with the area around Galveston Bay, which was home and a place that nurtured his career. It's also the setting for his Stingaree festival, a three-day event with songwriter friends on Crystal Beach. Hubbard, Terry Allen and Eliza Gilkyson are among the more than 20 acts performing this year.
"A lot of the songs on this album are about specific memories," he says. "Living on the beach, capturing those places in time, those moments. You move from this place or that place and you lose track of how close you might've been to a person.
"So I'm trying to capture that moment. That person. That place. That's what this record is to me."
HAYES CARLL CD RELEASE SHOW
When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 12
Where: McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk
Tickets: $15; 713-528-5999
STINGAREE MUSIC FESTIVAL
When: April 18-20
Where: Tiki Beach Bar and Grill, 1369 Highway 87, Crystal Beach
Tickets: $75; www.stingareemusicfestival.com
When:6 p.m. April 16
Where: Cactus Records, 2110 Portsmouth