Hayes Carll on ‘Lovers and Leavers’
Over the past 15 years Woodlands native Hayes Carll has gone from obscure barroom singer to one of the best recognized names in the Texas music scene. Spanning four albums, Carll’s humorous brand of tongue in cheek songwriting has garnered acclaim from the press and devotion from an international audience. His recipe for success has been quite a simple one. By alternating between self-effacing, folksy narratives and rock bottom first person pathos Carll has created a travelogue of the American working class hugging the Gulf of Mexico from Beaumont to Nashville.
The first introduction to this phenomenon came with 2002’s ‘Flowers and Liquor.’ The raucous debut drew immediate attention, with critics quick to paint Carll as a latter day Townes Van Zandt. It’s true the two share the rare ability to illicit both tears and cackles of laughter within the span of a single album, and both paint characters that are simultaneously larger than life yet immediately recognizable at family reunions. While the comparison is accurate, it does something of a disservice to Carll. Legends such as Van Zandt aren’t burdened by contractual obligations, they aren’t expected to regularly add to their cannon. They exist as myths, parodies almost of the people they actually were, stories mere mortals can only immolate.
Breakthrough first albums aren’t exactly a rarity. Wheat separates from the chaff through practice, and with his follow up, ‘Little Rock,’ Carll proved there was more to his abilities than a passing similarity to one of the greats. It seemed the music industry was taking notice, too. In 2008, ‘Trouble in Mind,’ further cemented Carll’s reputation as one of the finest young singer song writers in the Americana market by attracting collaborations. The lead track, a co-write with Ray Wylie Hubbard, inspired The Drunken Poet’s Society, a membership fan club of enthusiasts with swelling ranks and an annual private event hosted by Carll himself. Carry Anne Hearst, one half of the celebrated duo, Shovels and Rope also appeared on ‘Trouble in Mind.’ The duet, “A Lover Like You,” pitted America’s most vitriolic enemies, Republicans and Democrats, in the embrace of a romance where lust conquers despite polarizing political opinions. A working relationship with Canadian Scott Nolan delivered perhaps the album’s most arresting inclusion. “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” might be the perfect country western song. It begins with a hangover and ends with the possibilities of every lost love dancing through your head. “Doesn’t anybody care about the truth anymore,” Carll utters over the bridge in his characteristic drawl, “Maybe that’s what songs are for.” He concludes in a fit of meta-musical self-realization.
As a general rule, troubadours exist outside the mainstream consciousness, but with mounting success, there was little room for expansion to anywhere but Main Street. The release of ‘KMAG YOYO,’ placed Carll on the top 20 country charts. For the plot of the titular track, imagine the entirety of Winston Groom’s best-selling novel Forrest Gump boiled down into a four minute piece of pop mastery. While addressing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unpopular subjects to this very day, ‘KMAG YOYO’ went on to win AMA’s song of the year. And success followed success with Carll contributing to the majority of 2010’s ‘Country Strong’ soundtrack.
But if one were expecting the same old tropes about hard drinking, loose morals, or road weary rotgut dives on ‘Lovers and Leavers,’ (Hwy 87 Records) Carll’s April 8th release, there will come a reckoning. You see, while the new album contains the same clever poetics and heartfelt sentiment of past endeavors, it is also strikingly somber. Like a cold turkey dose of sobriety dealt upon waking up in the klink Sunday morning, the tracks are a little slower and the laughter a little lower.
It begs the question, “Why?” The easy answer is to attribute it all to maturity. A type of “Local boy done good puts down the bottle and gets real,” angle but after absorbing ‘Lovers and Leavers’ from first to last it was clear there was more to the story than some easy explanation. Doubtlessly, lesser journalists will claim it’s the curbing of passion that comes with age. But the STEAM readership deserves more, so we got in contact with Mr. Carll to discuss it.
Indeed, over the phone from Port Aransas, Texas the musician sounded a bit wore out. Fresh off a five performance week at SXSW, a bit of fatigue should be expected. “Humor is a really effective tool to bring a point across,” he agrees. “Or even just for kicks. But at this stage my life is not particularly humorous. I got a lot of joke songs I could have thrown out there but it didn’t feel like that was where I was at.”
One might have known something was changing with Carll by lag time alone. More than five years expired between ‘KMAG YOYO’ and ‘Lovers and Leavers.’ “This record is really about the things I was going through in my life. You can’t put art on a timeline. And to make the kind of records I made when I was 25 didn’t seem honest or sound like fun at 40. I enjoyed what I did back then but I don’t want to be stuck in the same place. ‘Lovers and Leavers’ was a conscious decision to write about where I was at.”
While age plays some part in the new direction for Carll’s material, there is undoubtedly larger forces at work. And rather than a focus on cooling temperament or aging, the heart of the issue lies closer to evolution of craft. “It began with a song about my son. “The Magic Kid,” which felt honest, authentic. It felt personal but universal and I wanted the whole record to go in that direction. For ‘Lovers and Leavers,’ I didn’t really feel like singing about drinking, about the road as much. I’ve been through a divorce. I’m trying to raise a teenager, and I’m in a new relationship. I’m in love. And I wanted to work through those things on this record.”
The issue has grown larger than just this Texas troubadour. We have to accept the fact that Americana is evolving, too. To survey the growing success of the genre with acts like Shovels and Rope, Turnpike Troubadours or award winners Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, or the Alabama Shakes it becomes apparent Americana itself is turning a new page. With national acceptance by an audience increasingly turning away from the lobotomized old mainstays, rock, country, and pop, our music now requires a more substantive touch than the previous gutter buzz majesty of youthful hedonists like Ryan Adams or The Drive By Truckers.
“I’ve been associated with the Americana genre for a long time now. They gave me a home on Texas radio, in the media. It’s an umbrella for a whole lot of different types of music. A lot of the people I like, the people I’ve come up with, my peers, songwriters I admire fall under that umbrella.” Carll answers when asked about ‘Lovers and Leavers’ place on the crest of Americana’s rising wave. “I doubt it’ll get any mainstream play, but you know what I never have. I’ve never had a presence on mainstream radio, but I’ve made a career on a national and international level by finding the spots in-between. There are a lot of people who don’t rely solely on mainstream radio to get their music out there. And there’s even more people who don’t want to hear mainstream radio anymore.”
While ‘Lovers and Leavers’ is a far cry from ‘KMAG YOYO’ or ‘Trouble in Mind,’ it is still quite unquestionably a Hayes Carll record. Old friends grace its tracks. Darrel Scott, a longtime collaborator co-wrote what might be Carll’s best versed song to date. “Sake of the Song,” is a litany of every hayseed git-fiddler working the circuit these days trying to cut out a living. Another co-write by Scott Nolan, “You Leave Alone,” details the lonesome circuitry of our solitary existence, “When you leave this world,” the line goes. “You leave it alone.”
“It took a long time to get this record made. It’s not that I didn’t have songs. I did, but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.” He says with a sigh. “I’m proud of the process that I went through to make it. My life was changing and like a lot of people I was just trying to figure some things out creatively and personally. It would have been really easy to make the same record, to not grow as an artist, but that’s just boring to me.”
Originally appeared as cover story for STEAM magazine.