Carll finds a home on the road
Growing up in the Houston, Texas, suburb of The Woodlands, Hayes Carll didn’t have a wealth of experience to draw upon when he started writing country songs.
“One of the things that I always worried about was that I didn’t have anything to write about. I had grown up in sort of a not interesting place,” says Carll, who plays the Redmoor in Mount Lookout Wednesday night with his Gulf Coast Orchestra after visiting the WNKU studio earlier in the day.
“If I tell someone who knows Texas that I’m from the Woodlands, their first (impression) is that I was rich. It was a little one-dimensional for my taste growing up. It is primarily white, affluent, and there are a lot of golf courses. As a teenager, it wasn’t exactly Kerouac material, and that was what I was looking for.”
Carll might not have known it at the time, but the Kerouac material was on its way. After graduating last in his class at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., with a history degree, he was ready to go out into the world, so he headed for the Texas Gulf Coast.
“My experience didn’t open a lot of doors, and I didn’t really have a skill set,” he says. “So I was singing at night, and during the day I would do landscaping and go dig ditches at 5 in the morning. I worked for the Census Bureau, I waited tables for years, tended bar, and worked on the beach for a shrimpery.”
In other words, he wasn’t much different from many young men, except he had the energy to write and sing songs after a long day at a bad job. Most of his peers were more likely to have a few beers after work and call it a day.
In a “World Cafe” interview after the release of 2011’s “KMAG YOYO” (a military acronym for Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re on Your Own), Carll told David Dye that he wrote what he knew about: “alcohol, travel and depression.”
“I joke about that sometimes,” Carll says, “because Ray Wiley Hubbard and I wrote a song called ‘Chickens’ many years ago. Ray had been writing a lot of songs about farm animals, and I said that was sort of a new genre for me. Most of my songs are about alcohol, depression, drug abuse, travel and all of that.
“When I started out, the writing was about the things that I was feeling at the time, doing at the time, and basically what I was doing was being a 22-year-old kid. I was drinking too much, chasing girls, living by myself on a pretty isolated, desolate ... beach town, and was trying to figure out his life and do something that would last and had value as a person. But that was all sort of my life at that time, and those are all still touchstones for me.”
Those touchstones are tried and true for a generation of Texas singer-songwriters, so Carll, who is 36, was learning from the best. He might not have won academic awards in college, but learned the power of observation and the value of determination.
“I still love playing music, but back then I would have done five shows a day, do whatever I needed to do, because it was still so new and exciting that even if there were two people there watching me, there were two people who were watching me,” he says.
“Now I’m much more jaded and callous,” he says laughing. “Back then, just the mere fact of being on a stage with a guitar would make me do what I needed to do.”
Doing what he needed to do eventually paid off. Carll made his first record, “Flowers & Liquor,” in 2002, then followed with “Little Rock” in 2004. Those albums led to a deal with Lost Highway, then the gold standard of alt-country labels, in 2008. “Trouble in Mind” featured “She Left Me for Jesus,” which won song of the year at the Americana Music Awards. That set the stage for “KMAG YOYO,” which won best album at last year’s Americana awards.
In the music business, however, nothing is forever. Uneasy about changes at the label, Carll decided to leave.
“When I signed (with Lost Highway) they had Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Ryan Adams; it was a roster full of my heroes, people that I was a fan of,” he says. “They were owned by Universal but they were able to do whatever they wanted. I said just don’t try to change anything; I do what I do and y’all promote it. And that’s exactly what they did. They said we like your music, and we’ll help you get it out there and make new fans and sell some records.
“They had this great track record and were such cool people that I took a leap of faith and said let’s do it. And they did what they said they would do with the two records and helped me in a major way. And then the option came up for my next record, and by that point things were starting to change a little bit; people were getting laid off, the company was shrinking a little bit, artists left and Universal ... was starting to exert more control over them, and in turn over me in ways that I was not real comfortable or happy with. And it was starting to kind of affect what we do and what we needed to do.
“So I decided I wanted to walk. I had a really good run, nothing negative (to say about the label) ... I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that being in control of my stuff was the side that I wanted to be on.”
Choosing the right side has earned Carll some heavyweight admirers among his peers. In addition to Hubbard, he has written tunes with Guy Clark and Darrell Scott among others, and is a charter member of Todd Snider’s “What the Folk” troupe with Elizabeth Cook.
“We have a little club, a clubhouse,” Carll laughs. “Todd is one of my all-time favorites. If I had to pick one guy who I was going to listen to, it would probably be him. And Elizabeth is just amazing. I’ve gotten to know her in the last few years.”
Snider has praised Carll as one of the top songwriters of his generation, and Cook has referred to him and Snider as her big brothers. She recently went a step further.
“With the modern country field being full of dumb, redneck, pandering (idiots), Hayes is a tall drink of water. He's an oasis to me and proves the genre can still be cool and relevant.”
Sounds like something someone might have said about Jack Kerouac in an earlier time.
Hayes Carll and the Gulf Coast Orchestra with Scott Miller, 8 p.m. Wednesday, the Redmoor, 3187 Linwood Ave., Mount Lookout. Tickets $18, $15 advance. 513-871-6789; theredmoor.com; jbmpromotions.com.
Email Bill Thompson