Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll recently put out an exceptional album. Trouble in Mind is Carll’s third — and once again, he shows himself as one of the brightest and most self-effacing figures you’ll see taking to a roadhouse stage. Sometimes he’s plugging in with rough humor — you’ll even hear a bit of Tom Waits — and he rocks out with unabashed ease. Just as often, though, he’s giving a hushed, slightly twangy voice to loves and years that have been damaged or outright lost. This guy does great bringing sorry-asses to life.
Carll earned two Americana Award nominations this year. One’s for the album’s hilarious closer, "She Left Me for Jesus," which is a straight-faced parody that achieves an effect not unlike The New Yorker’s recent Obama cover. Carll’s first local stop on Thursday, July 24, is at ear X-tacy (1534 Bardstown Road, 452-1799) for an in-store appearance at 6 p.m. LEO Weekly recently caught up with him to ask what he’ll bring to Gerstle’s Place (3801 Frankfort Ave., 899-3609) for his show later that night (showtime 9 p.m., tickets $10).
LEO: Are you going to be solo?
HC: Still figuring that out. Going to have a picker with me. … We just got back from a run where we had a five-piece out. But I think I’m going to strip it down for this run. It’s always my choice, but economics figures into it.
LEO: When you change from full band to acoustic duo, do you get in more of the poignant, quiet songs?
HC: I guess it’s a different show sometimes. … It depends on the crowd.
We just got done playing a tour with the Old ’97s. Playing to a lot of people who didn’t know us. For thousands like that, I try to amp it up a bit. We still bring it down a couple of times, hopin’ for a special moment.
When I’m out by myself or do a stripped-down band … you’re more likely to hear the full range of my catalog than at a big rock show.
LEO: You’re with Lost Highway Records now. You and Willie Nelson.
HC: The way I thought about them was that they had some of my favorite artists, and that piqued my original interests. Willie, Lyle (Lovett) and Lucinda (Williams) are three of my Top 10 influences of all time.
They have a good mix of the established, and then they were taking chances. Like me and my thing. And Mary Gauthier. People that hadn’t broken out yet, but who they believe in.
LEO: Do you get any pushback on the Jesus song?
HC: I guess it depends on where and when and who it’s heard by. Most people seem to get the joke and think it’s fun. But there’s certainly a lot of people who are gonna hear "Jesus" and "ass-kicking" in the same sentence, and their red lights are gonna come on. I thought I made it pretty … explanatory [sic]. Sometimes there’s people who don’t pay a whole lot of attention, and they hear that there’s this guy who wants to beat up Jesus and they don’t investigate further. We’ve got a couple of guys who call in advance of all my shows — they call the clubs and let them know what kind of artist it is that they’re bringing in.
The only thing that bothers me about the song is that if somebody thinks it’s me who’s an intolerant, anti-Semite racist hillbilly. And that’s not my personality at all.
LEO: You often portray honest characters, and vulnerable ones. So when you turn on the humor, I think people understand that it’s going into character. I think some expect you to be all novelty, like Ray Stevens, or a confessional singer-songwriter like Joni Mitchell. The way you combine the styles, you’re throwing them a curveball.
HC: One thing I did think about with its placement on the record is that after 13 pretty-much-autobiographical songs, many from a pretty earnest point of view … all of a sudden I switch into character, into parody.
LEO: Autobiographical? So, who’s the chick who likes to kick back naked (on "Drunk Poet’s Dream")?
HC: To protect the innocent and keep up appearances, I can’t give away names on that one. But it’s pretty open-ended. … I had someone in mind when I came up with the initial line — but I like to think that there’s a little bit of that in everybody.
LEO: Do you see yourself in the tradition of Texas troubadours?
HC: The tradition is pretty eclectic and wide. I mean, it’s what I grew up on and a lot of what my major influences are and a lot of what I aspire to do and to be. At a certain point, you start writing for yourself and you take your own way — but among those who write folk-country music and listen to a lot of Ray Riley Hubbard and Townes Van Zandt, I can’t totally disassociate myself. I guess in some way I’m in that world, for sure.
LEO: There’s something about the great wry humor that sticks with a lot of folks on the Texas scene. I think about how even Joe Ely and the Austin crowd can sneak that in. You’re holding up a noble tradition in that way.
HC: Thanks, man. I remember the first time I saw a Ray Riley Hubbard show. Within 10 minutes, I was completely entranced. … it was a combination of song and story. He brought me into his world and was telling stories and was making me laugh. It was fascinating to me — that kind of performance level. And as I went around, I realized that a lot of these songwriters from Texas — along with their songwriting chops — have picked up the ability to entertain and crack a joke and keep people interested. I think a lot of this comes from working clubs every night. … It’s a survival deal.