When singer/songwriter Hayes Carll returned to his Crystal Beach, Texas, home in 2008 following a tour of the UK, he found his house destroyed, along with 90 percent of the surrounding buildings, all caught in the path of Hurricane Ike. Somehow, miraculously, his friend’s pet lion survived.
“There were a lot of colorful characters in town,” Carll says, offering the backstory. “This one guy I knew had an illegal zoo, and sometimes he would drive his lion down to the bar where I was performing and park right behind the stage, where there was a window. Every now and then I’d turn around and see a lion, just sitting behind me.”
The lion, turns out, found sanctuary, quite literally, in one of the island’s last-standing buildings: a Baptist church. The animal weathered the storm locked in the sanctuary while its owner and a few other refugees waited it out in a separate area. Carll laughs,“That’s a redneck Life of Pi story right there.”
With a tale like that, it’s no wonder Carll has risen to the top of the alt-country music scene, filled as it is with great storytellers. Now living in Austin, the songwriter has four well-received albums to his name and co-writing credits with everyone from Ray Wylie Hubbard to fellow Texas troubadour Mary Gauthier (who also performs at the Triple Door this week). He was also the inspiration for fledgling country songwriter Beau Hutton in 2010’s Nashville biopic Country Strong. Carll, 38, has been touted as Spin’s “Next Big Thing” and next in line to the likes of Guy Clark (whom he’s also collaborated with) and Townes Van Zandt. It’s a distinctly American role for the songwriter, albeit a semi-accidental one.
photo courtesy artist’s site“When I first started singing, I don’t know if it was [intentionally] American-specific or not, you know. People’s occupations, lifestyles, the way they deal with hardships—a lot of that’s universal. I think the details, as in how I’m writing about them, tend to color those songs. Things like the cities those folks are from, the bars they go to.”
Carll’s most recent album, KMAG YOYO & Other American Stories (whose title refers to the army-derived acronym for “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re On Your Own”), was the artist’s highest-rated release, reaching #1 on the Americana charts while topping year-end lists from American Songwriter, Spin, and Rolling Stone. On it, as on his previous two recordings, Little Rock and Trouble in Mind, Carll’s knack for compelling songcraft is undeniable, a mix of barstool wisdom and wry commentary rendered in a dusty Texas drawl. Everything from the guy next door (“Grand Parade”) to the party-down ethos of what some folks do to get by (“Stomp and Holler”) gets the treatment.
“On [that] record, I wrote a lot about America, the economy, the war, and the political divide [because] that was specific to the times,” Carll says. “I’ve spent a lot of time in bars, in different places, places you can’t even find on the map,” he says. “That was just what I was seeing.”
Those observations come through in the music, and echo the nation’s polarized politics with real pathos that goes beyond the cover art of Carll in an ill-fitting American flag-patterned sweater. Two songs, in fact, mention the Taliban. The first, “KMAG YOYO,” concerns a young army recruit “standin’ in the desert with a gun” who “thought of going AWOL but I’m too afraid to run,” and is set to the rollicking tempo of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” his ramshackle ’60s counterculture anthem.
The other is “Another Like You,” a duet with Cary Ann Hearst (of Shovels and Rope) about a bar hookup between a liberal and a conservative, both three sheets to the wind. It’s a fitting scene for Carll’s mythology; he cut his teeth performing in bars, and still spends hundreds of days a year on the road performing live (though now he’s booking bigger venues). And of course, so many Texas singer/songwriters—Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle—have turned to drink not only for lucidity but to buffer the more complicated realities of life.
He’s heard the comparisons. “I’m always flattered to be compared to great writers, but it’s a double-edged sword,” Carll says. When he listens to those artists, “I can only hear their music with certain expectations. The most that I can hope for is to have a distinct voice, to be Hayes Carll. I just want to be me, and unique at that.”
photo courtesy wikipedia.orgBy most accounts, he’s succeeding, though not without a little help from his friends. Carll has a strong oeuvre of collaborative material—songs like the hilarious “Bible on the Dash,” written with Corb Lund and Todd Snider, about pulling out the Holy Book when you get pulled over to dodge the ticket—and he’s just as willing to share his talents onstage, as he did last year as part of Todd Snider’s Traveling Folk Show. He’s co-headlining his current tour—The World’s Greatest Living Songwriters of All Time Tour—with Austin singer/songwriter Bob Schneider.
“We’re going to tell some stories, sing some songs,” he says of the show, which features a 75-minute solo performance from each artist. Both songwriters have distinct audiences, he says. “It’s been fun to see what Bob’s fans think of me, and how my fans react to him.” He also mentions that on stage, the two “may collaborate on something.”
More collaborations will likely result in September, when Hayes heads back into the studio for a new album. The new material will issue via his own imprint, Highway 87, and “will hopefully be out in the spring.”
“One Bed, Two Girls, Three Bottles of Wine,” for instance, a song he co-wrote with Bobby Bare Jr., has yet to be included on an official release.
“It’s fun sometimes, to get out of your head,” he says. “There’s something about having someone there with a different perspective, and a different line on things. A lot of the songs I co-wrote I could never have written myself.” Especially writing and collaborating with mentors like Guy Clark and Darrell Scott, he says, which gave him “an incredible education. It shows you a way of doing things you hadn’t thought of before.” Plus, he adds, “it’s just a really good hang.”
HAYES CARLL With Bob Schneider. The Triple Door, 216 Union St., 838-4333, thetripledoor.net. $25–$35. 7:30 p.m. Thurs., June 26 (selling fast)—Fri., June 27 (sold out).