Hayes Carll is a Texas singer/songwriter, which is a categorical description that holds a lot of artistic weight. After all, this subset also includes Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt. And heck, let's not forget Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
But what exactly makes Texas singer/songwriters so special? Well, it is about more than just being born in that big state. Rather, it likely has something to do with a territorial individualistic streak, where when it comes to Texas songsmiths -- as with fingerprints and snowflakes -- no two are ever alike.
The hard part is trying to choose which particular Texas favorite Carll is most like. On his Lost Highway debut, "Trouble In Mind, " Carll's third release, many differing, yet equally valid comparisons, can be drawn. With "She Left Me For Jesus," about a man who must come to grips with his woman's Jesus-loving Christianity, a Lovett-ian sense of humor clearly comes through. This guy is jealous of Jesus, not because he sees him as the savior of mankind, but because this unfamiliar Jesus guy presents romantic competition. Like Lovett, the song shows how Carll can look at familiar subject matter in a unique way. But then again, with "I Got a Gig" Earle's road warrior mentality stands out most of all. Thus, Carll is a composite of many fantastic performers.
Only a fool would try and choose the best-named country song of all time. Nevertheless, "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" certainly deserves plenty of first place votes. That title about says it all. A broken heart leads to a bad liver, in the same way the law of gravity postulates that what goes up must come down. Call this the law of romantic gravity, if you will.
"That's by a buddy of mine named Scott Nolan, who lives up in Winnipeg, Manitoba" Carll explains in a phone call from Texas. "He got the title, I believe, from a Tom Waits lyric – we're all stealing from each other. He comes down to Texas a fair bit, and I go up to Canada a fair bit. I generally don't do a lot of cover songs – I think that's my third one in three records – but there's just something about it that really spoke to me. Partly it was the Arkansas reference, and then partly it's about being a musician on the road."
One of the song's best lines has little to do with liver disease or broken heartedness. Instead, it's borderline philosophical. "Doesn't anybody care about truth anymore?/Maybe that's what songs are for." This ability to tell the truth in ways that non-musicians and non-songwriters can rarely do, grants Carll a special privilege to tell it like it is with song.
"That's a lot of what attracted me to this profession," Carll admits. "Even before it was a profession for me, it's just what attracted me to writing - with literature and poetry to start off with - and then more so with music. Whether it's a political issue or a social one or just trying to say how you feel about your lover or about family in two minutes. Or sometimes even with just a lyric, where one line can speak more than a two-hour speech. It cuts to the point more quickly. And when you put music behind it or a voice singing, to me that always had more resonance and effect. On my walls at home, I have quotes from people, but I also have song lyrics that people put up. What I aspire to is a Kristofferson lyric or a Dylan lyric or a Townes lyric, and they say things where there's so much truth in one line. You can spend 10 years trying to write a book and not have as much clarity and beauty as you can get sometimes in one line of a song."
Carll, ever the modest one, doesn't place himself up there on a pedestal with some of the songwriting heroes he just rattled off, however.
"I'm happy with my progress, but I learned early on that I'll always aspire to get where those guys were and try and compare myself in a way that keeps me going forward," he says. "I realize I'm not in that league and, in reality, no matter how good and how much of my potential I fulfill, I'll probably never be there. There are some guys that are truly geniuses at this. I think I write a good song, and I hope people out there relate to it and like it."
"But I don't fool myself into thinking I'm at that level. You just keep going. I realized when I was 21 that I was not on the Bob Dylan career path. By that point, he'd already put out ‘Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' and had written ‘Blowin' in the Wind' and ‘A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall.' He'd already shown the potential that he had, and I was singing in Bob's Sports Bar and World Famous Grill, playing Merle Haggard covers. But that doesn't mean I have to give up just because I'm not as good as the greatest songwriter of all time. It makes me never settle. And I try and compare myself to my heroes, to see if I think they would like the song. Does it feel unique and have its own qualities? Does it have my voice? But I try not to get too down when I realize I'm not Kris Kristofferson."
After developing a following in the Houston area, Carll signed a one-album deal with Compadre Records, releasing "Flowers and Liquor" in 2002.
The follow-up, "Little Rock," was released under his own label, Highway 87 Records and produced by R.S. Field. The CD became the first self-released album to reach number one on the Americana music charts. In May 2006, Carll announced that he signed with Lost Highway.
Despite the respect Carll obviously has for those he admires, he was once blessed with the chance to write with Guy Clark and didn't turn it down. "I always find it's difficult to write with somebody, no matter who they are," he explains. "It can be an awkward experience because you completely have to open yourself up and throw out ideas. I think Steve Earle said it's like letting somebody watch you have sex. You're completely opening yourself up."
"Working with Guy was a great experience," he recalls. "We met at a party one time. We did a show together somewhere in Texas and afterwards hung out and had a few drinks and talked a bit. I was coming through Nashville so I just called him up and said, ‘You probably don't remember me, but we met at this show. Would you like to write a song together?' And much to my surprise, he said, ‘Sure.' So I went over to his house. I tried not to think about the fact that he was one of my songwriting heroes and just tried to sit down and get on the same level and write a song together. Eventually I threw out some ideas, and he found one he liked, and we started working on it. It was a great experience, in that there's no songwriter's school. You're just trying to figure it out on your own when you're coming up. I'd never had anybody show me any tricks or gotten to really see how they work, and with Guy it was really a good education watching him work on the craft of a song and see how he approached it -- with each line and the emphasis he put on each and every single word, which was somewhat different from how I approached things. Not only did we get a song that I liked out of it and he was extremely gracious and great to hang with, but I thought I learned a lot in a short period of time."
Ironically, one other cover song on this disc is "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," which Waits – the songwriting inspiration for "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" – helped write. "That was one where I heard his version and then I heard -- I believe it was The Ramones -- do a version of it. And I'm sure several other people have recorded it as well. That's another one, where just the truth behind it and the kind of humor and universality of it jumped out at me. That's something that everybody can relate to – not wanting to grow up. Not wanting to have to have all the worries and the stress and the mortgages and the heartbreak and the reality of adult life. And just wanting to hang onto that innocence and youth for as long as you could. If I cover something, I try and put my own spin on it, performance wise, and I heard those (by Waits and The Ramones), and I thought they were really cool versions. But I thought that I could do it a different way and still have that message come through, but kind of do it my style."
"It's hard for a kid to grow up," Carll relates. "All they know is their youth. And you want to grow up as fast as you can and do all the things that seem like they'd be a lot of fun when you're younger. But with that, comes the things that aren't as much fun. If you could know then what you know now, you'd probably enjoy your youth a lot more. But that's not the way it goes so we have to sing about it so that kids will get it."
Carll, who grew up in the Houston suburb of The Woodlands, is a college graduate who majored in history and minored in theater at Hendrix College in Arkansas. But music was more important to Carll than using his collegiate education after leaving the university.
"I always thought I was going to be a songwriter," Carll confesses, "and I was just kind of biding my time going to class occasionally and doing just enough to not get kicked out. That was a time in my life where I was away from home, living in a different place and soaking up the different experiences that came with it. I just thought this was a great time in my life to learn as much as I could, but after about a year in school in Arkansas, I had pretty much decided that when I got out I was gonna go try and be a songwriter. I was just hanging out and living for a few years and trying to come up with some experiences to write about. At that point, I hadn't really done anything, and I didn't feel like I was ready to move to Nashville or move to Austin or something and give it a shot. I was enjoying myself."
‘I remember going to my counselor when I was about to graduate -- and I graduated last in my class. So having a 2.1 GPA with a history degree and minor in theater, I wasn't very employable. And going up to my counselor I said, ‘Okay, well I'm about to get out. What are your recommendations?' He said, ‘Well, you could go to graduate school.' ‘Well, I don't think four more years of school are gonna do it for me.' There really was no other job - other than teaching high school or something - that my degree and my grades was gonna allow me to do. So, I just moved down to the beach and started singing in bars."
It doesn't always turn out this well, but Carll went from last in his class, to becoming a first class songwriter.