by: Thomas D. Mooney
Hayes Carll just may be the best songwriter writing right now. There. I said it.
It’s pretty easy to recognize and claim that Carll is a great songwriter. It’s another to call him the current greatest. Once you start a list, you have to really begin to split hairs. Hell, you may even think someone different each day. To say the least, I’ve put a lot of thought into that statement.
And for now, Carll holds the crown. Of course, Carll would probably just laugh off such claims. I mean really, it’s a pretty trivial argument and discussion. But, that doesn’t mean I’m not right.
Carll though, he’d probably rather you think of him as just that drunken poet with a pen. Which is fine. It’s all part of why he’s able to right about what you and I think and feel.
His songs are able to walk the fine line of depressing, hilarious, and overall charming. Not many songwriters can make you chuckle about your own misfortunes–or the misfortunes of someone–whether it’s you, Carll, or a common drifter.
I’ve said it before (and only say it again because it’s true), the true mark of a songwriter is that they’re able to write lines that are both simple enough you wish you had thought of it yourself, but so clever and sharp, that you never could have. Just think about that. How many times have you heard a song that you thought that about?
Numerous times. Probably every time you listen to a Hayes Carll song.
New Slang: You grew up in The Woodlands outside Houston. Middle-class family. Seemed like you felt you had to really go and find your songs in another environment. After college, you moved to Crystal Beach and really started writing songs and playing.
Hayes Carll: Yeah. I grew up in the suburbs. In a sort of planned community. You know, it was a good place to grow up I guess. At the time, when you’re in your teens, you hate your hometown and really just want to get out as quickly as possible [laughs]. So it was that combined with pretty early on, knowing that I wanted to be a writer of some kind. There was a severe shortage of things to write about in a town like that. Everybody is white, has money, and plays golf. There’s not a lot of country songs that come out of that or stories or poems. Whatever I was trying to write at the time. So yeah, it was a little one dimensional. I knew I wanted to write but just not what to write about. I didn’t have any life experience–very few people do at that age–but I got turned on early to the idea of traveling around and seeing the underbellies of the world [laughs]. There was something that really appealed to me. Maybe because it was the opposite of my upbringing or maybe because all my heroes had sort of glamorized that lifestyle. There was something about the travelling and the booze and the women that turned me on and I was hooked. I got a taste of it and followed that path for a while.
NS: I really find it interesting that a number of singer-songwriters have kind of taken that same path. Guys like Townes Van Zandt, Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, they all kind of did the same thing.
HC: Yeah. But also for every guy like Townes or Gram Parsons, there’s those who really were born affluent and taken a different path, there’s a Merle Haggard and Billy Joe Shaver who came from the other side of it. So some of those people come by those stories honestly through their upbringing and others have to go out and find them. For me, more than anything, it was a sense of adventure and I really wanted to be a part of it and felt like on a personal level and on an artistic level, that’s where I wanted to be. It didn’t necessarily mean I wanted to be broke or going through hard times, it was just that most of these adventures that I could find, most of the people I found interest in, were living that life. They just had better stories to tell then the investment banker [laughs]. And it wasn’t like I had a lot of options either. I didn’t have any other career prospects outside of being a songwriter. I had years of waiting tables, digging ditches, being a test patient, and all this other stuff. I really wasn’t qualified to do much else. That was really my only option at the time [laughs].
NS: Yeah. One of my favorite stories I’ve heard about your time in Crystal Beach was about you having a sign in front of your tip jar that said “Margaritaville $20” and the arguing couple. Did playing that crowd every night help you with handling crowds today?
HC: Yeah, that was my school. That was my performance survival school [laughs]. You know, there’s no classes for this kind of thing. You just get up and do it. For me, that’s where I was doing it. Those were my first gigs down in Crystal Beach. It was pretty invaluable for me. I would start playing for literally for one person. There was a guy named Homer Fry who lived in a trailer behind the bar. He was an alcoholic, 70-year-old retired accountant who had checked out of society basically. He was like my one guy who was there every night, every gig. Other than that, you never knew. Some nights, there’d be a handful of fisherman. Some nights, it’d be packed with tourists depending on what season it was. I wasn’t a confident performer when I started out. Wasn’t really sure of my own abilities. So for me, it was a great to start. Sort of ease your way in. On one level, this sort of small crowd is easily entertained and then on another level, kind of learning how to handle people at their worst. Anything could happen. Whether it was a bar brawl or a guy gutting and cleaning a fish on the table or someone shouting out the same terrible requests every night. Probably no different from a million bars in America. This one just had less clothing and education. But it was great for me. That repetitiveness of going in six days a week, four hours a night and playing song after song.
NS: Fast-forwarding to “Trouble in Mind.” I heard that you almost left “She Left Me For Jesus” off the album. It’s obviously one of your most famous songs, but you were concerned with people falling into thinking you were a gimmicky writer or something. Was that really a catch-22 situation for you?
HC: Yeah. I just didn’t want to be a gimmick. I just didn’t want to be a guy known for something in the middle of the road. Just being known for that song that really doesn’t show where you are creatively. It was something I did with my buddy Brian Keane. You know, we wrote it in an hour and just kind of put it away. I then just pulled it out last second when making that record. It wasn’t something that I had taken real seriously, but I could tell after seeing a few people respond to it, that it was something that was going to get a lot reaction. And here I was with my first major label release, and that was going to be coming out. There was going to be a lot of people turned onto me for the first time, and I was kind of bothered with the idea that it was going to be their first and only impression of me. You know that it can help sell a lot of records and a lot of publicity, but you also don’t want to be labeled for that for the rest of your life. I thought there was more that I did than that. It’s one of those things where if you don’t have any hits, you’re not expected to and you can really do whatever you want [laughs]. When you have a hit, people’s perception of you changes. And this wasn’t a hit per-say, but it had notoriety. I talked to guys like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Todd Snider and guys who had a song that had done really well, but wasn’t really reflective of what who they were as artists. And I got different takes from that. Ray Wylie, he was kind of saying once you let the cat out of the bag, it’s hard to get it back in [laughs]. Todd Snider, he kind of said, whatever it takes to get them in the door, I’ll do. And once they’ve gotten in the door, I’ll do the show I want. So eventually, that’s kind of what I did. And you know, the record had 14 songs and we put that song last. I figured that if they can get through these other 13 songs, they’ll have an idea of who I am.
NS: Another song on the album that I love was the Tom Waits cover of “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” It’s always really interesting to hear different takes on the same song and how you can get totally different senses of where that person is coming from. With your version, in my opinion, you sounded very desperate and dejected about growing up while Waits really just sounded pissed off [laughs].
HC: Yeah. I had heard the tune–and I really don’t do a lot of covers. To me, a cover only works when you can bring something new to a great song and put it out in a different light. With Tom’s version, it’s angry, petulant, and pissed off thing. The Ramones did a version of it, and that was really just a straight rocker kind of thing. To me, the lyrics were so universal. It didn’t matter if you were a country singer, a rocker, or an indie guy. Everyone, that’s the one thing that everyone can relate to. Youth disappearing. I thought it would translate well. I thought it would fit. A lot of that record, it was looking back at my youth and early 20s.
NS: Yeah. I agree. You’re a songwriter and have been one for a while now. But now, it feels like you’re transitioning to not only being a singer-songwriter, but also a bandleader. You’ve got to wear both those hats. I think you can really hear that transition between “Trouble in Mind” and “KMAG YOYO.”
HC: Yeah, it’s tricky for. I started out a solo player at folk bars and dives. I only got a band because I was getting played on the radio. The crowds that were coming out, it was kind of tough to appease them without some electric guitars and drums [laughs]. And I realized that it was a lot of fun too. It’s a really different thing between the two. A stripped down acoustic thing in a listening room, you’re more in control. I can tell stories and jokes and segway into songs. I can change the pace of the show in any way that I want and really keep my finger to the pulse of the audience. With a band, I’ve got a lot less control. The crowds when you’re playing a large honky-tonk or rock venue–there’s a difference between 1,000 people at a rock show than 200 people in a folk room. Controlling the crowd is an art form in itself. It’s something that I’ve not really mastered [laughs]. I’ll go out and watch guys who really know how to do it and it’s amazing to me.
NS: With the new album, something that I found interesting and intriguing is that the album is called “KMAG YOYO (and Other American Stories.)” I mean, it’s one thing to have a song called “KMAG YOYO,” but another to name the album that. What went into deciding to name the entire thing that?
HC: With that record, as the songs were appearing, I was recognizing that they were mainly about the economy, the war, or politics. The shit everyday people go through regularly these days. And with me travelling around the country, meeting people at shows, I just got the sense that people were pissed and upset about a lot of things on both sides of issues. There was this general sense of frustration. To me that saying KMAG YOYO, kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own, it had a military connotation, but I also thought that sentiment summed up a lot of these songs. The general vibe. And a lot of people saying fuck it, I’m checking out of here. The initial album cover idea was that we were going to get this bearded, Santa looking homeless guy and take him out into the desert in California with a shopping cart full of stuff that he’d have in a post-apocalyptic world. It was basically this guy saying, “peace, I’m out. I don’t need this. I don’t need this society. I’ll live in the desert by myself and figure it out on my own. KMAG YOYO.” I really liked the idea of summing it up that way.
NS: In recent months, a few songwriters I’ve talked to, mentioned how much they love your songwriting. Ray Wylie Hubbard, he said his favorite quality about you is that you’re fearless. When you’re writing a song, what goes into making sure you’re honest and fearless?
HC: Oh you know, it always felt like that was the only option. When you first start out writing–again, there’s no real school for it–try and impress yourself. I kind of figured early on, the only sort of in that I had to be true to me. Find a point of view and writing style and go for it all out…The only way I stand out from anybody is having a point of view and style that’s uniquely my own. I’m not the best singer, guitar player, bandleader, or any of these things. You’ve got to find something that’s uniquely you and write it for all it’s worth [laughs]. With Ray, I met him years ago and he was very generous. Sort of took time to help me out personally and creatively. Be sort of a mentor and helped with writing. And help with some of those fears. You still have insecurities as a writer. You’ve got to get to where you trust yourself.
NS: Last week, I spoke with Todd Snider. His last album, I can hear a lot of parallels between it and “KMAG YOYO.” You’ve both I think been able to find that pulse of the nation right now. And really, you can see and hear parallels between you and Todd as songwriters.
HC: Yeah. Todd, he’s one of my absolute favorite writers. Today, I was actually typing him an e-mail telling him how great he was [laughs]. Every couple of months I’ll send him one. He just blows me away. There’s a handful of guys–millions that I like–but only a handful that take it to an entirely different level and Todd’s one of those. Whatever he’s writing about, he does it in such an interesting and well-crafted way. And makes it look so easy that it kind of belies how much time he really puts into it. And the same thing with his life show. It’s such a great, hilarious, engaging, funny live show. He makes it look so easy and people don’t realize this is work. It’s an art in itself [laughs]. And yeah, he’s really tackled a lot of issues–much more in-depth than I have– of poverty, race, and social inequality. What I love about the way he does it, is that he does it where it doesn’t sound preachy or even trying to convert you in any kind of way. He’s showing you a side of the story. And typically, those characters have flaws, but through it, he gets the point across [laughs].
NS: Yeah. In one interview with you, you used a Todd Snider quote that I thought was great. Paraphrasing here, but it was to the effect of, I’m not trying to change your mind; I’m just trying to ease me own. To me, that really stuck with me. It’s really one of the best things I’ve heard.
HC: Yeah, I love that quote. He says it at shows a lot before he too far into it. “I’m going to say some stuff here not because it’s important, but because it rhymes. I don’t say these to change your mind, but to ease my own.” I always thought that in a lot of ways, what an artist can be or is. He’s not writing to convert everyone; he’s writing to explain something to himself. Or to entertain himself [laughs]. I’ve always liked that idea of writing to yourself. Write things that you find interesting and that you’d groove to and that would challenge you and make you work hard at it. And if people get it, great. But I’d rather not be chasing people’s approval. It’s great when they give it to you and it’s something we all want, but there’s no guarantee. So at the very least, as you’re writing, as long as you know what you’re doing is enjoyable to yourself, then at the very least, you have that. You know that you’ve pushed your own buttons and pushed yourself. It always seemed weird to go and seek their approval and when you don’t get it, what do you have? You just wrote some shit music that no body liked anyway [laughs].
NS: I think I’m going to get you out on this last question. This past year, you’ve really done a lot of great and big things. Everything from playing “The Tonight Show” to playing on Fox News. How were those two experiences for you?
HC: It was a fun year. We got to do a lot kind of what I call career highlights. “The Tonight Show” sure was one of them. The Fox thing, that was on Don Imus’ show. Imus has been really good to me. He’s had me on about four times to talk or to perform. The last three times, it’s been in the Fox news building in New York. And you load-in at like 4 a.m. and perform at like 6. It always is kind of odd, especially when you’re playing “KMAG YOYO” or “Bottle in My Hand” or something and you see the Fox news ticker scrolling underneath [laughs]. I always view it as a friend inviting you into his workplace. I don’t think too much about it. It’s not like Roger Ailes is interviewing me or something. We also got to play at Levon Helm’s last year, Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, both the festival and TV show. Really just a lot of highlights. Something I’ll always remember and hopefully something we’ll do with the next record. Right now though, I’m just enjoying writing new songs and playing. Looking forward to trying out some new stuff in Lubbock in a few days.