It's hard to decide right away which is more impressive, this 28-year-old Texan's delightfully crafted tales of life in the bars and side roads of rural America or the vibrant music he couches them in, a rootsy, country-based stew thick with roadhouse blues.
So why choose? Carll, who plays May 3 at the Stagecoach country festival in Indio, follows in the mighty footsteps of such Lone Star State country-folk-rock luminaries as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Joe Ely. There's a bit of Steve Earle folksy philosopher lurking there too, but Carll's voice, as a writer and a singer, is as uncommonly distinctive as it is assured.
The drawl notwithstanding, this is no simple-minded party-hearty Southern country rocker. This honky-tonk troubadour tosses off witty couplets with disarming ease: "Well, I'm wild as a turkey, higher than a Christmas moon / Empty as my wallet on a Sunday afternoon," he sings in "Wild as a Turkey." Describing the dive he plays six nights a week in "I Got a Gig," he observes, "Burnt fried chicken and Lone Star beer / Cops and the kids drink free 'round here."
Dylan clearly is an influence too, perhaps a tad too clearly in the "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35"-inspired "A Lover Like You." But even when Carll's sources are showing, it's too much sloppy fun to grouse about for long. And "She Left Me for Jesus" is a brilliant example of how to simultaneously salute and parody a time-honored musical genre.
Whatever they've got in the water down there is golden. Or maybe it's just the beer.