It’s Getting A Little Easier Out There For Hayes Carll, But He’s Still Going Hard
2011 has been quite a year for Hayes Carll. He had appearances on The Tonight Show and Austin City Limits. He took his band to Bonnaroo and The Barn up at Woodstock. His record, KMAG YOYO, was written up favorably all over the country and charted on the country, pop and rock charts. As I finish work on this piece, I note that American Songwriter just placed KMAG #6 on its top 50 for 2011. Hayes was nominated for Artist of the Year and Song of the Year by The Americana Music Assocation. While all this was going on, he kept on doing what he does, which is play music out on the road, and play it well. And often. On February 8, he played the White Water Tavern in Little Rock, Arkansas. According to his website, that was the first show of the year, although the Tonight Show appearance came a couple of weeks before that. Some 105 load in/load outs after Little Rock, Hayes played Williamsburg Music Hall in Brooklyn, New York, on November 4, where I managed to catch his show.
I had seen Hayes a few weeks earlier in Nashville doing a showcase for Americana Music Fest and again the next evening when he took the stage at the Ryman to perform his AMA-nominated song KMAG YOYO. But it had been a few years since I had seen a full concert, and I was happy that schedules worked so that I could see him play Brooklyn. After seeing the showcase, I knew his band was hot. All members are veterans of previous years, save one. The new guy is Cody Foote (formerly with The Gougers), who plays bass. Hayes told me, “[Cody’s] first gig was the Tonight Show, then we opened for Levon Helm at Woodstock. It’s been pretty much downhill from there.” Travis Linville plays electric guitar, pedal steel, dobro and mandolin. He’s a singer-songwriter himself who played with Hayes for about 3 years, was off for about two and a half and now is back. If you see them play, he’ll be the guitar player to your right. On your left is guitarist Scott Davis, who took over when Linville left the band and has stayed on. Hayes went to high school with Davis, who ended up in the Fort Worth band scene. They ran into each other years later, and Davis introduced Hayes to Kenny Smith, another Fort Worth musician who plays drums in the band. Bottom line on the band is that they are tight and really seem to enjoy playing this music. Two guitar players this good is probably a bit of a luxury, but the effect is impressive.
Hayes probably wasn’t as fresh in Brooklyn as he was back in February, but you couldn’t tell it from the output. I counted 26 songs including 6 tunes after the first encore: Grateful For Christmas This Year, Beaumont, Highway 87, Little Rock, Bye Bye Baby and It’s A Shame. The show opened with Hard Out Here, Chances Are, Wild As A Turkey and Wish I Hadn’t Stayed So Long. Hayes missed a line on Wish I Hadn’t Stayed So Long and joked that four songs in, he had remembered three and a half. He then told about singing KMAG YOYO at the AMA’s, saying that the song has 3400 words and he got 2400 of them right [I’m approximating on those numbers as I’m sure he was]. He then launched into KMAG YOYO and, as near as I could tell, he nailed it, or at least 3399 words of it. After that, opening act Caitlin Rose came out and helped out on Another Like You, a song of opposites finding a way to connect. Hayes offered this introduction: “There’s nothing that can’t be overcome with physical attraction and a lot of alcohol.” Having heard Cary Ann Hearst and Bonnie Whitmore sing the female part of that song, it’s no small thing to say that Ms. Rose held her own. But she did. I am very disappointed that we missed her opening set. During the show, Hayes covered I Don’t Wanna Grow Up; One Bed, Two Girls, Three Bottles Of Wine; and threw in a little of I Fought The Law for good measure, but the balance of the show was his stuff. It’s a rich catalog of music to draw from: self-deprecating, smart, upbeat songs with vocals that are uniquely Hayes Carll. Not many left early that night in Brooklyn, it’s really hard to disengage from good music delivered with this much energy. Quite a show.
In his song, Hard Out Here, Hayes Carll quotes someone as saying, “Boy, you ain’t a poet, just a drunk with a pen.” I’ve previously written about the cognitive dissonance produced by close inspection of this alt-country rocker, and concluded there that he’s much less the Drunken Poet than he would have us believe. His tweet in response to that piece was dead on and fully in character: “Ha! You got me. Sort of. I enjoyed the read. Now I’m off to the bar.” That exchange put a full interview on my to do list, but as of the Brooklyn show I still hadn’t lined it up. Standing there mid-show, surrounded by a bunch of New Yorkers trying to put a little twang in their sing-a-long, I decided it was time to get it done. We soon arranged to talk on the phone a couple of weeks later, after Hayes finished the last non-Texas leg of the 2011 tour (after Brooklyn, he went to Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama before winding up in New Orleans). Still suffering a bit from a road cold, Hayes picked up on the second ring at our appointed time, ready to answer questions about everything from the new Guy Clark tribute record to bowling (he’d supposedly bowled a 196 the evening before), with songwriting and the music biz tucked in between.
I understand you contributed a song to This One’s For Him, the Guy Clark tribute record, which comes out December 6. Can you tell us about that?
I just got a call, heard they were putting together a tribute record, and saw who all was involved, it was just a no-brainer. I grew up a Guy Clark fan, continue to be a fan. I think a good bit of the recordings were done here in Austin at Cedar Creek Studios, so I went over there, Robert Earl was walking out, he’d just finished his. I went in to do mine, there’s Shawn Camp, Verlon Thompson, Lloyd Maines, all these great players who were sort of the house band for a good part of the record. Not a bad band at all. It was fun to come in and get to do that. When we were discussing which song to do, somebody said, “Emmylou and John Prine are already doing that one.” I never get tired of hearing stuff like that in a project I’m working on.
Sounds like you caught a pretty good song, though [his song is Worry B Gone].
I haven’t heard the record yet, but yeah, I just had this cool experience with Guy. We got together and I distinctly remember him showing me this song, seeing how pumped he was about this guitar lick, this song. It was cool to see how he still had this enthusiasm for it after all these years. That kinda stuck out, though there’s a million Guy Clark moments I have. I used to cover that song occasionally live, so I thought it might be a good fit.
[Here’s a video of Hayes talking about Worry B Gone and Guy Clark’s killer weed – it also includes some footage of the recording session for that song and a bit of the recording.]
Guy Clark is kind of an obvious influence, but who are some of the less obvious influences for you?
It’s hard for me to pin down, outside of a couple, Dylan, Willie, Prine, guys I know I lived with for years and years, wanted to be (laughs). There are artists I listened to a lot yet realize that they had no effect on me, actually, and there are some I didn’t listen to that much who had a big effect on me. I think Chuck Berry had more of an effect on me than you would think, yet I never went out and bought a Chuck Berry record.
There’s a guy named Bill Morrisey. To me, anyway, he was a fairly obscure songwriter from the Northeast. A girlfriend gave me his first record when I was a freshman in college. He was just a great singer-songwriter with an amazing attention to detail and a good sense of humor. He just passed away a few months ago on the road, but he was an influence. He just opened a world to me that I didn’t know much about.
Who else? You know, Todd Snider’s a big one. Obviously, later in life for me, but I think Todd’s the best at what he does and what he does is a lot of what I want to do. So I’m constantly kinda pissed at him that he’s already nabbed my glory.
I don’t know. I’m not sure who would not be obvious. Adam Carroll, he’s a Texas guy, my age. When I was first starting out I used to skip my own gigs to go watch him. In Texas in the late 90’s, early 2000’s, he was by far my favorite, somebody whose writing style I emulated in some ways.
You mentioned Todd Snider. He and Corb Lund sing Bottle In My Hand with you on KMAG YOYO. Great song. Tell me about your relationship with Corb Lund. He’s a fascinating fellow.
I met Corb at a poker game in Manitoba (laughs). That’s the start of a song right there. I’ve been up to Canada a lot. Fred Eaglesmith is how I got to Canada. I became friends with his band, went out touring with them individually. So I was at this country festival in Manitoba and Corb was there. He was starting to do really well. He had had a great career as a bass player with a punk band called The Smalls. I guess that had ended and he became a country singer, which he comes by very honestly. He was a steer rider and grew up in a ranching family. I think his dad, maybe both his parents are in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Canada. [Note: I tried to verify this but my searches kept coming up with “Famous Mormons in Rodeo,” so I quit.]
Corb’s career was starting to really take off, and I met him at a poker game after playing this festival, and that was sort of the beginning of our relationship. A couple of months later he invited me to go out on tour with him in Canada, and I did, and we started trading tours. He would come down to Texas, do some shows, or we’d do the Northeast together. I always got the better end of the deal because of his crowds in Canada. We’d play for 2000 people, he’d turned into a full-on rock star at this point. We played Edmonton, had 7000 people for a show. Every night was great, hockey arenas and cool clubs. And then he’d come to Texas and I’d say, “Hey, here’s a hundred people!”
But they were hard core.
They were hard core. To his credit, he’d busted his ass coming down to make Texas work, to make America work. He has invested in himself over and over. The guy works his ass off all the time trying to get it built up. Because he can play in front of huge numbers of people in Canada but he wants more than that, wants his music to be hear all over. So he’ll work Australia a lot, works in the UK, and spends a lot of time humping it in the states. Anyway, we realized we both like gambling and drinking, both had an appreciation for each other’s songwriting, so we became friends and that’s lasted 6 or 7 years now. He’s one of my favorite writers and favorite people.
I caught your Showcase appearance at the AMA’s and, as you know, saw you play in Brooklyn. The band sounds great. I think it was Emmylou who compared taking a band on the road to supporting a family?
Yeah, but they make it fun. And the pay part, we work out (laughs). One of the things I always thought helped me out going on early was the luxury of not having to have a band. I mean, I started out without one and went years solo, and then played with Kym and Carol [now The Greencards] for a long time. I could do stripped down formats of stuff, and that gave me the opportunity to take a lot more work than someone with a 5-piece band, road crew and all that. You know, I could go play, open shows for somebody for $50 or $100 bucks and hope to sell a few CD’s and I’d be fine. I did a whole lot of opening shows, kind of invested in my career by traveling around, keeping the overhead really low and building it up. And then when my record got noisy, I would alternate and bring the band on some of the tours, but it took a lot of years for me of just coming out any way that I could to get some fans before I could afford to bring the band. That’s still iffy, they still have to wash the car or something in exchange for dinner (laughs). But they’ve been good about it, helping me build my career, investing with me. I try to be smart about it so that we can afford to go out and play for all these crowds.
Of course, [my wife] Malinda and I were strangers in a strange land in Brooklyn, being from Mississippi, but I was impressed with the crowd there and their knowledge of your material.
Yeah, I went out last night with a friend here in Austin who was at that show and he commented on his surprise on the same thing, “They seemed to know your words and everything!” (laughs) Yeah, you never know who’s going to show up. I’ve invested a lot of time in New York, the last 6, 7 or 8 years going up there. It was nice to see a good crowd there that was familiar with what I did, cause I’ve certainly seen the other end of it enough times that I always appreciate it when it works.
So, “Hard Out Here” is autobiographical?
I’ve certainly spent a lot of time on the road, struggling, hoping anybody would show up, wondering how the hell am I going to pay for this and wondering what am I doing out here. For my first tour, I went out with a guy, Mondo Saenz. Mondo lives in Nashville now, and I think he just did some co-writing on the new Stoney LaRue project [Velvet]. He’s a great writer and a great singer. I met him at the Continental Club in Houston. I said, “Hey man, I’ve got this two-month tour, do you want to go?” He said, “Sure.” (laughs) I said, “Cool. You’ll be opening for me.” So, we go out, and I’m drawing 5 people a night, and he’s getting to open for that and usually be the door guy because there’s no door guy at the clubs we’re playing. About two weeks in, we’re out of money, got robbed, we’re sleeping in our car in New York, Boston, you know, head-to-toe in the back of my jeep. We were just playing one gig after another where you walk out there going, “What the fuck am I doing out here?” So that was sort of my initiation into touring. I don’t know what I was thinking of when I wrote the song, I was probably half asleep, kind of dreaming when the idea came to me, but I have to laugh when I sing it because I think about all the shitty time put in (laughs) to get to where they actually give you a case of beer at the show and people aren’t there with their backs to you. It’s been a fun ride and a memorable one but it hasn’t always been easy.
But 2011 has been a pretty good year. KMAG charts across the board. You get a lot of notice, they use your songs in the film Pure Country, you play the Tonight Show.
Yeah, it’s a very good year. Always like to release a record early in the year for a lot of reasons but one is so that at the end of the year I can look back and see how the whole thing went. KMAG was out in February and yeah, it’s been an amazing year. We started off the year with The Old 97’s doing some touring, put the record out with a great run of Texas dates, doing a mini-club tour, which is fun getting to play a bunch of small clubs that I don’t get to play anymore. We got to do Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits, two things I’d never gotten to play before. We did a handful of shows with Levon Helm, which feels retirement-worthy, you know. We got to do a bunch of stuff with Squidbillies. And the crowds have gotten consistently better. It’s been one of those years where a lot of fun stuff has just continued to pop up and the touring has been rewarding. I don’t mean financially but I mean it feels like we’re moving in the right direction. Like the Brooklyn show where you have people responding and coming out to your gigs.
So, just a few more dates there in Texas through the end of the year. What’s coming up next for you?
We’re mapping 2012 out. I’ve got a pretty light schedule the rest of the year and I’m going to take January off to keep writing, at the end of January or February we’ll get back after it. The goal in January is to write a couple of albums worth of stuff. I’ve been so busy this year, been traveling so much. I have this cycle every time where I put out a record and then go tour for what seems like forever, and I don’t write particularly well when I’m shooting from Toledo to Buffalo, trying to get there with no sleep, etc. So I tend to only write when I’m at home. As a result, it takes me two to three years to put out a record. I’m really hoping this time to get something out sooner rather later. I’ve got a few songs, I wrote one with Darrell Scott the other day that I’m pretty excited about, so I’m kinda getting started on another record, not really any rules these days, I’m just writing what I want. I’d tell you what direction I thought that record was going to go in if I knew, but at the moment, I’m just having a good time writing.
You should have at least 12 months after releasing a record like KMAG, shouldn’t you?
There’s no definite timeline on those things but yeah, it was a good run. I don’t want to say it’s been a certain amount of time and I just have to get a record out. It’s better to just be consistently writing so I can do that when I want to.
Seems I read that with KMAG you started with music in the studio and then put the lyrics together after the music tracks were down?
Yeah, in part. There were some songs that were already fully formed, but for a lot of them that was the case.
Is that your typical way of putting a record together?
No, it never had been. Most everything I had done before was the result of me sitting on a couch stoned, looking at the ocean with an acoustic guitar strumming until 4 in the morning until an idea pops in my head and then trying to make it rhyme. This was because I never had a band for so long and then when I did I didn’t really think to use them in the writing process. On this one I had this band that I was touring pretty hard with so I took advantage of them as far as working stuff up on the road musically and then writing to that. I had started with this a little on the previous record. Brad Jones [who produced the last two records] was in the studio with me on Trouble In Mind and I had a couple of songs that weren’t complete, just had an idea and the band was there, and I’d start playing something and all the sudden I’d have Will Kimbrough, Al Perkins, Darrell Scott and Dan Baird jamming with me. We’d just hit record. I found that was a fun way to work in a way that I actually did pretty well with. So on that record I wrote I Got A Gig and A Lover Like You in the studio last minute, they weren’t songs we had going in. We just hit record and chased down an idea.
So, for KMAG I wanted to continue that process. As I writer if I sit down to write there’s a lot of bullshit that happens during the day it’s just hard to flip that switch and just open up your mind to all the stuff that’s out there. I found that when I don’t have the time to think about it first or self edit — I mean I do go back and edit eventually — but if there’s a track laid down and I just hit record and start spitting stuff out, I can go back and listen to it and go back and say with this line what am I trying to say? I’m singing about a guy doing LSD on a spaceship? That’s probably not something I would have written just sitting down thinking about it. But there wasn’t time to catch yourself in the studio, and I found that a lot of good ideas came out of that spontaneity, that spur of the moment writing.
So, you’re no longer with Lost Highway. What’s your thinking about how you will approach the next record?
Yeah, I’m on my own for the first time in a while. I don’t know what I’m going to do exactly. Right now I’m just checking everything out, whether it’s other labels or new ideas or doing it independently, which I’ve done before. It is changing, and I don’t know the answer, and I don’ t know who does. What I’ve always tried to do is work as smart and with as much control as I could in my career.
I had a really good run with Lost Highway. They did not restrict or inhibit me in any way. They did exactly what they said they were going to do and exactly what I needed them to do. It was a really great relationship, and it came along at the perfect time for me. But, they don’t operate in a vacuum. They are the smallest part of the biggest label in the world. That was starting to be restrictive in some ways, and I could see the writing on the wall. I just felt like it was time to find the next way to put records out. I haven’t found it yet, I’m not sure what that is, but I’m just trying to make it like everybody else, figure it out. At the end of the day, to me it’s about control of your content, being able to take advantage of opportunities when they come up. I’m just looking for a way to maximize that. There’s so many musicians out there and there’s so many different types of career paths. To me the people who are going to be successful are the ones who can stay close to their fans, be honest with them about what they’re doing but do whatever they want to do.
Well, thanks for your time. Before I let you go, I have to inquire about this 196 you supposedly bowled last night. That sounds a bit suspicious.
It was suspicious as hell. Fucking unbelievable. My high is a 165. Last night I went out with these three high school buddies of mine, we have this occasional guys’ night when I’m at home, leave our wives and go do something exciting like bowl. We had teams, one guy and me against the other two. My first game was 106. I started the third game, I rolled six strikes and three spares, so in the 10th frame if I marked in any way I was going to break 200. I knocked down nine on the first roll and I missed the spare shot. I didn’t even get the bonus frame. I was just on this jag like I’ve never seen, I wouldn’t let my friends talk to me, I was just in the zone, like a no-hitter was going. I was super pumped that I rolled a 196 but bummed that I could’ve had a 220 or something. Yeah, that was like Haley’s Comet or something, won’t come around again any time soon.
You can follow Mando Lines on Twitter @mando_lines. Hayes Carll is also on Twitter @hayescarll.