The Texas music scene, for all its grounding in outlaw country traditions, has become a big tent in recent years, and one of its most consistently entertaining acts is Hayes Carll. Born in the Houston suburbs, Carll’s music career was a slow starter; unable to make a go of it in Austin, he worked a variety of odd jobs before finding some success as a songwriter for other artists. By the time his first record came out, he’d found a distinctive voice, a combination of Willie Nelson at his most laid-back and Townes Van Zandt at his most confessional. His 2008 album, Trouble In Mind, was a breakout success, taking him past the Americana and country charts and into the unfamiliar territory of mainstream critical success. It also displays the sly humor that makes him so appealing, as proven by its hit single “She Left Me For Jesus." Before his performance tonight at The Birchmere, Decider spoke to Carll about his ties to Texas music, his adventures in Europe, and his own version of payola.
Decider: You’re often cited as one of the leading lights of Texas music, but you really seem to be of that scene without really being in it.
Hayes Carll: I left Texas when I was 18 to go to school in Arkansas. I started writing and performing in Conway, Ark. and then in Crystal Beach, Texas—two towns that weren’t known for their music scenes. I didn't have a TV or a computer, and really didn't get off the beach much. So, outside of Jack Ingram, I didn't even realize that there was a scene. The clubs I was hanging out at weren't exactly what you would call "college bars." Over the years, I've sort of eased my way into the scene—made a lot of friends in it and been embraced by it to some degree—but I've always wanted my career to be just as viable in New York, Atlanta, Vancouver, England, etc. as it is in Texas, so I've tried to not cater to it too much. I'm a fifth-generation Texan, so I can't help but write about the place I've lived most of my life, but while a lot of the settings may be in Texas, I think the themes are pretty universal.
D: Now that you're beginning to develop a wide national audience, how important is it to maintain ties to Texas?
HC: First off, Texas will always be home. I can't think of any state that so wholeheartedly supports their music scene, and the musical tradition here is second to none. But from the beginning I realized that I wanted to be able to play a show anywhere in the world and have people come out. The fact that I wasn't really drawing outside of Houston made it an easy choice to start working the rest of the country.
D: What was the strangest culture-shock moment you encountered playing country music in Europe?
HC: I played a country festival in Norway once that made a Skynyrd concert look like the opera. There were all these trailers and buses behind the stage for the headliners, who were apparently the biggest country band in Norway. They came out and opened with George Jones’ "The Race Is On" in Norwegian, and the crowd went nuts. All they sang was country covers in their native tongue, but you would have thought it was The Beatles. It made me want to learn another language.
D: Was it a strange experience to find Trouble In Mind —which is representative of a kind of music that rarely gets coverage in the alternative press—showing up in places like the Village Voice's best of 2008 list?
HC: People think that payola is exclusive to radio, but you would be amazed how much press a bottle of whiskey and an autographed headshot of Willie can get you. I've always thought people would enjoy this music if they gave it a chance—I’ve just been fortunate with this record that a lot more people have. The crowds have changed some, but it seems like some new groups of people come on board with every record, and hopefully that will continue.
D: Trouble In Mind was a big leap for you critically, commercially, and artistically. Did you approach making the album any differently?
HC: I wanted to try and make it a more musical record—and I don't mean extended jamming or anything. I just had the opportunity to spend more time on this one, and I wanted to bring in some new brushes to paint with. The songwriting was mostly autobiographical, but I think that's true for most of my stuff.
D: Your songwriting seems much more steeped in imagination than a lot of storyteller-style songs. How much comes from real life, and how much is drawn strictly from your imagination? Is it ever hard to tell the difference?
HC: I would say that I borrow liberally from people that have influenced me. I listen to a lot of music and try and incorporate certain elements in to my songs, but through my own filter and sensibility. When I first started, I realized I was just doing really bad rip-offs of the people I admired, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could achieve the same effect they had, but in my own way. A lot of that starts by just writing what I know about and how I feel about it. Throw in an active imagination and you’re off and running.
D: A lot of people have talked about your influences in terms of Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, and Townes Van Zandt. There's also some Willie Nelson in there, and you've covered Tom Waits. What other musicians do you like that might surprise people?
HC: I'm a huge fan of [Portland alt-country singer-songwriter] Todd Snider. Corb Lund [of the Hurtin’ Albertans] and [Houston country singer] John Evans are two of the best songwriters and performers I know. My influences are all over the map—everything from Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry, and Lyle Lovett to Lou Reed.
D: At a pretty critical time in your career, you turned down a deal with Sugar Hill to stay on an independent label. How important is it to you to retain a certain level of independence? And now that you're with Lost Highway, are you doing things any differently?
HC: I hate to say I turned [Sugar Hill] down because it’s a great label with an incredible roster. At that point in my career, there were not really many labels showing any interest in me, so I felt flattered and somewhat validated that they wanted to sign me. But at the end of the day, I just felt that no one would care about that record more than I did, and I was going to sink or swim on my own. I had gotten some insight into the business of putting out a record from my previous release, and I had just started working with my manager, so we decided that we could do it on our own. I still do a lot of the same things with Lost Highway that we did on our own…. I just have a lot more help.
D: You've worked a lot of odd day jobs over the years. What was the worst?
HC: I worked for a hospital in Galveston, Texas as a fake patient. In order to help the doctors-in-training with their bedside manner, they would have them practice on civilians who were paid to act sick. I would get a script telling me that I was a schizophrenic with herpes, and then I would spend the day pretending. It's exhausting work!
D: You had a bouncy castle set up at a past show, wherein you explained that you were trying to test the limits of your tour rider. Have you made any other odd requests of that sort?
HC: I'm usually pretty easy on that stuff. I mean, I'm still a little surprised when they give us beer. But every once in a while we'll ask for seven blond virgins, just to keep 'em on their toes.