Known for his clever lyrics and turn of a phrase, I didn’t know what to expect when I interviewed Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll. The man writes incredibly clever lyrics that can be awfully sharp-witted at times. And I had given him reason to be annoyed with me. I live in Boston, MA; he in Austin, TX and we set up a time on my lunch break from my real job for a phone interview. I called as scheduled, only in spite of working for nearly a decade for a national non-profit that had one of it’s primary offices just north of Austin, it slipped my mind the city is in the Central Time Zone, so I called an hour early. I sent a contrite text and nervously awaited a reply. Over the next couple hours and a business like exchange, we set up another interview the next day. I expected some sort of reprimand, a demand to keep the interview short, or at least a snide remark. I got none of that, only a gracious acceptance of my apology. It struck me that Hayes might be a nice guy. What a relief! I really needed this interview!
Since we’ve taken the title of this site from his song “Hard Out Here,” it seemed important that he be one of the first artists we profile. What would it look like if he said no? He’s one of the artists I most wanted to write about. I’ve been a fan ever since his song “Waiting for the Stars to Fall” from a promotional sampler from the Lost Highways Records brought him to my attention. (You can also find it as a bonus track on the vinyl of Trouble in Mind.) It’s an amazing, stark, tug at your heartstrings ballad, one of two kinds of songs he does really well. The other kind are the clever, witty songs full of wordplay. The lyrics often contain sharp irony and can be controversial, but more often than not the songs are light hearted. To cite an example, I’ve not been able to get “Another Like You” out of my head since I first heard it during a show in Boston, just before the release of the album KMAG YOYO from which it comes.
People who saw the 2010 movie Country Strong starring Gwyneth Paltrow have heard examples of both, though they may not know it. Hayes contributed three songs to the soundtrack of the film, but they’re sung by the actor Garrett Hedlund portraying the character Beau Hutton. Maybe it was because I recognized the songs, but the character very much reminded me of Hayes, most specifically his uncompromising devotion to his music. Beau’s decision to leave a profitable tour that could well launch his career to play at a bar in cattle country is definitely evocative of the stories Hayes tales of his days in Crystal Beach. On the other hand, there’s a bit of movie star charisma in Hayes, as well, though he doesn’t recognize it.
In a GQ interview with Stayton Bonner, Hayes spoke about slow dancing with Paltrow at a party for the movie, while Hedlund sang one of his songs. He said, “It was like watching a better-looking, more talented version of myself performing my songs.” That’s typical of Carll, self-deprecating and humble. He’s not his own best salesman. For example, when in the course of our conversation about his musical style which is not typical of what tops the country charts today, he said, “at the end of the day I’m a songwriter who works within his various limitations both musically and vocally.” The fact is that in the category of tall, thin, blond-haired, blue-eyed, country boys, Hayes did well in the looks lottery, and he’s got the charisma to make up for whatever might be lacking. As for the vocal limitations he may have to work with, I’m no voice specialist, but it obviously doesn’t span octaves or do vocal acrobatics. On the other hand, it can rip your heart out on the right song.
His live shows are always fun, with a good amount of interaction and stories about the songs, life on the road, and whatever else comes up. Most recently I caught the first of two back-to-back shows Saturday, May 11 at Johnny D’s in Cambridge. The Warren Hood Band, who had also opened, served as the backing band, adding some nice texture with a keyboard and fiddle, as well as a rhythm section, and additional guitar. Hood, on violin, had attended the Berkelee College of Music, so he had a kind of local connection. The tour with the band lasted six weeks and was has creatively stimulating, according to Hayes.
“It’s been a nice change of pace to be out with a fiddle player and a piano player and a few other things that I haven’t really worked with before. It’s requires more and different musical airs than I’m used to. So I’ve been fooling around with that.”
The first show was sold out, rescheduled from a snow storm a couple months earlier. He played a nice variety of some new material and selections from earlier albums, and fans were delighted. Some tickets were still available for the second show when I left, and I wanted badly to stay, but I couldn’t. Apparently, I missed the more interesting of the two sets! The set up of a room can really make a difference. Though they occurred on the same night in the same venue, Hayes described “a weird sea shift between the first and second show. It turned into some sort of Honky Tonk. They took out the tables and everyone started raving.” It would have been fun to see. I do think that if anyone could be please both the diners in an “Uptown Restaurant & Music Club” and the ravers in a spontaneous Cambridge Honky Tonk, it would be him.
Hayes Carll released his last album KMAG YOYO in early 2011 to a great deal of critical acclaim. American Songwriter and Spin where among the magazines to list it as one of the best albums of the year. The singles “Another Like You” and “KMAG YOYO” where similarly honored. The album also reached the Top 20 on both the Country and Rock charts in Billboard. Yet by the end of 2011 this stubbornly independent artist walked away from an option to renew his contract with Universal/Lost Highway Records. It was a time of transition at the label and he didn’t like the way things were changing. I asked him how he made his decision.
“I had a great run with Lost Highway and they helped me enormously. But the company was sort of downsizing to say the least and the people who had worked there when I came on were disappearing one by one. So the, the A & R folks, the marketing people, and all the people that have been part of the team from the four or five years that I was there were disappearing. And it was pretty much a writing on the wall that that they probably weren’t going to be a company for too much longer.
So Luke Lewis, the creator of Lost Highways Records, was incredibly generous and though I was still contractually signed for several more records, he came to me and said, ‘Hey, here’s, here’s the option. If you want, get out now and, and go independent. Or you can stay and we’ll, we’ll keep doing like we’ve been doing.’
Hayes acknowledges that the record business is changing and says that Lost Highways had been “a little oasis for total creative freedom.”
They were the smallest part of the largest record company in the world so they have some of the muscle there if they needed it but, they were pretty much left with their own devices. That was starting to change. Universal was starting to play a bigger part, and they did not have that hands-on connection with with me and the other artists that that Lost Highway had…Everyone that was there from top to bottom for the time period that I was there was amazing and, and it you know, uh, changed my life in a positive way…But it was no longer the record company that I signed up with by the time that I left and it was just heading in the opposite direction. So anyway when Luke gave me the chance to, to go on my own, it seemed like a good idea and a good time.
Hayes has distributed his own records before with his album Little Rock on his own Highway 87 Records, but he’s not yet decided to that route, unlike label mate Ryan Bingham who also left Lost Highway at the same time he did. He is taking advantage of his new found freedom to release experiment with releasing new music in different ways. The most recent example is “Love Don’t Let Me Down,” a charming duet with Caitlin Rose released digitally. The song was written out on the rod with Darrell Scott and Caitlin. They played it live and people liked it. Hayes, seems to be taking this opportunity to really assess where he wants to go with his next album, and is still trying to figure out who he wants to work with in terms of a band and producer. So he decided to seize the opportunity to record some stuff with some different people to see what it sounded like.”
Here’s the song, though with the touring band.
Once he had it, it only made sense to put it out there as a single to test digital distribution and social media as a means of promoting his own music.
“the way the record industry is changing these days, I don’t know if I’ll end up on another label or if it’s something I’ll put out myself. So it was a good opportunity to kind of test the reach of Twitter and Facebook to see if anyone paying attention to this, and to try to use some of the social media sites and the cellphone to get it out there. So that’s what I did. We just kinda– just stuck it up on uh, you know, to iTunes and to Amazon and then just kinda plug it for a week or two uhm, through social media just to see what kind of reaction we have.”
He’s happy with the results, and even more so with what he learned from the experience.
I didn’t know much about Nick Lowe until 5 years ago, probably, when I got super into his record The Convincer, I believe. All the songs on it are amazing, eloquent, well-written and just delivered in a really special way. And so that kind of turned me on to him. A couple of years after that they told me about the project…They recommended the song I ended up doing, “(I’m Gonna Start) Living Again If It Kills Me,” I liked the idea. I thought it was cool. But if I’m gonna cover somebody, the idea of trying to do it the same way that they did but better is generally a losing proposition. I like the idea of trying to put a twist on it. So I sort of made it a light shuffle, turning a pub rock song into a light country shuffle with harmonies and all that. That was fun to me to show that a great song can work in a variety of different styles.
If you’ve caught Hayes on tour recently, you know he’s been working on new material of his own that has yet to be recorded, or at least, released officially. The most recent, “The Magic Kid” is a sweet song about his young son’s talent for magic. But Hayes says no new album is in planning. If we look at previous records, we shouldn’t expect one before next year. Flowers & Liquor came out in 2002, Little Rock three years later in 2005, Trouble in Mind three years after that in 2008, and finally KMAG YOYO three years later in 2011.
So can we expect a new album in 2014? He has lightened his summer touring schedule in order to do some writing.
“My summer is a little lighter than normal. We’re just trying to clear the decks a little bit so I can get some more writing done.”
On the other hand, he continued,
“I don’t have any kind of term line or, or even really an idea of what exactly I’m gonna do with the next record. Right now I’m just trying to get the songs together and then, and see where that leads me.”
You can get an inside look at his songwriting technique this summer during a workshop on songwriting at Grand Targhee Music Camp, August 5-8, an experience that is bound to be useful for budding songwriters. Hayes honed his own craft by working with people like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Guy Clark, and Darrell Scott who he considers the masters.
“If they would just let me in the room, I was content to sit down and watch them work. That was a real educational experience just seeing how they worked and what they’re process was. I was trying find guys that, that I admire and enjoyed and convince them to let me in the door.”
He still finds collaborating on songs to be a valuable experience, provided his partners have something to bring to the table.
I started writing more with friends or acquaintances. And now these days I write with pretty much anybody if they’ve got a good idea or if they’ve got some stuff that I’ve heard that I enjoy. It’s fun for me. I’m generally more productive when I co-write with someone because there’s a bit more of a sense of urgency to finish what you’re doing and to stick with it. I’m fairly ADD and if I get off track kind of done for the day. At the first road block I run into, I generally just kind of move on to something else. But if somebody is there in the room with you, you’re kind of driven to stick with it…
Also, I end up writing a lot of things that I never would have gotten to on my own. I have my own sort of style and aesthetic that I do, and a lot of times we bring in something else, they can put completely different twist on it or offer an idea that you never would have come up with. And so a lot of songs that I’ve written with co-writers were things that I know I never would have approached on my own. And that’s fun to kind of get outside your normal wheelhouse and, and write from different perspectives and, and, and in different styles and genres and things like that.
Hayes knew he wanted to be a writer at a very young age. He remembers writing poems and scribbling lyrics. Then he got a guitar when he was 15.
When I learned how to play the guitar, it was sort of game on. I was just playing for fun and scribbling stuff down. I was always such a huge fan of country music, then I eventually got into Dylan and started turning on to this whole songwriter genre of Jim Croce and Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor, Woody Guthrie, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lyle Lovett, John Prine, the list goes on and on. All these kind of guys that could take lyrics and a fairly basic tune or melody and something magical happen.
Without much else to do in college due to lack of places to play in a dry town, he passed his time further honing his skills. By his own admission, he was “a terrible student” who graduated last in his class. It wasn’t for lack of ability, it’s just that the young history major “was dying to get out on the road and give it a go.” He didn’t know what that meant, but he knew it was what he wanted to do. He didn’t go on the road right after leaving college, but he did find a place to play.
“When I got out of school I moved down to Crystal Beach, Texas, an even more remote place than Conway, Arkansas was, but they did have bars. I figured I’d live down by the beach for a while, write songs, and have fun. I was twenty-two and up for anything. So I’d walk into these bars and ask them if they’d let me sing for free and if they liked it, come back and put in a tip jar. Eventually it got to where I was playing 5, 6 times a week.
Eventually, fortunately, stumbled in to the Old Quarter Acoustic Café in Galveston, which was sort of songwriter hang out run by a guy named Wrecks Bell who used to play Bass for Townes. I walked in there and sort of everything good that could happen to me came out of that. It’s where I met Ray Wylie Hubbard Sisters Morales, Shake Russell… all these guys who were doing this for a living and were legitimate songwriters and touring artists. That’s when I realized you didn’t have to just be a barman playing covers; that you could write songs and there are actually people out there who would come and pay money and to listen to your songs. That there were people who enjoyed that, which is sort of an odd revelation to have, but I didn’t know that really existed. I just…I knew there were famous people who had careers and record deals, but I didn’t know there were guys who just went out and played their own songs and had a hundred or 200 people a night at their shows. That was sort of revelatory for me.”
What’s intriguing when Hayes starts to talk bout his influences is that he is quick to acknowledge them, but he eschews comparisons to them. They come up less often now that he is better known in his own right, but early in his career he was often compared to other Texas songwriters, and especially to Townes Van Zandt. It made him uncomfortable.
I was just uncomfortable with it. One because while I thought I had some talent and some potential, there will never be another Van Zandt. You know I consider him probably the greatest lyricist poet for the last 30 years. And I know the connection that people have with him and the connection that I have with him with his music. And it bothered me if I saw someone compared to that. I would take it personally Comparisons are made to give somebody something to latch onto. –Well who is this guy? He’s one of a million guys. –What does he do that’s similar to something that I like? So they’ll say –Oh it’s like Steve Earle. Or it’s like John Prine. Or it’s like Townes Van Zandt. Or whatever. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have anything in common, or that I was at their level, it’s just that and just that I was influenced by those guys. There’s a lot of terrible songwriters that were influenced by Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Steve Earle but it’s just sort of a lazy mechanism for journalists to say well I can’t describe him so here, he’s sort of like this guy. It’s sort of a disservice to both the original artist and the guy that’s up and coming. Because I want to be like me, and while I worship those guys and learned everything I could from them, I’m not them and they’re not me . It was always a weird thing getting the name check comparisons.
He’s right, of course, that comparisons are a mechanism we writers use to describe the music of artists like Hayes Carll, but that’s because they don’t make it easy for us by not being like everything else you hear on the radio if you tune into a given format, i.e. a Country or Rock station. He was quick to remind me that Country music has a rich tradition of subgenres, and that he grew up being heavily influenced by one of them. Some of the unique flavor of his music can be explained by the fact that he “just happened to grow up in Texas where country music is everywhere, but it’s the Willie Nelson country music, not necessarily what you hear on the radio today.”
More importantly, though, his music comes from some place more personal than a hit making formula or the conventions of a genre. When I asked how to describe his music yet successfully avoid comparisons or inaccurate labels he replied, “I just say I’m a singer-songwriter.”
He’s also a thoughtful, highly intelligent man, and so he eventually elaborated.
My styles and performance have changed over the years, but you know–Americana-Country-Folk-Rock. It’s like a search engine. You put in as many keywords as you can, but it’s always Americana singer-songwriter who plays Country, Folk-Rock music. I know that’s long winded and I wish there was a way to make it more concise… It always started with wit the I started with the lyrics and words, and resonated from there… I’m not a part of any particular movement but I just write songs that I enjoy and go out and try and make it fit musically in a way that resonates and appeals to me.
Perhaps that’s why the songs tend to ring so true, he writes songs that he wants to hear. If you’ve read this far and you’re still wondering what he music sounds like, you also read what he said about comparisons, and he’s asked me to send the link. So why not just follow some of the links scattered here and there, give it a listen, and find out for yourself? Isn’t it always the best way?
Start here: http://hayescarll.com/