by: Thomas D. Mooney
“Come in cleanly, torn apart
A bad liver and a broken heart.”
Hayes Carll, “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”
So you’re telling me tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day and we get to see Thrift Store Cowboys AND Lucero AND Hayes Carll? What did we (Lubbock, TX) ever do to deserve such fine treatment? (I’m being serious. How did this show fall in our broken-hearted and single laps?)
Last May when Carll came through, I went ahead and said he was currently the best songwriter in the country. I still pretty much stand by that claim. He’s just not going to let you down or leaving you questioning he songwriting talent.
Songs don’t fade away. There’s replaying quality and staying power with his songs. Take a look at his first two albums, “Flowers & Liquor” and “Little Rock.” They’re both at least eight years old, but if you give them a listen, they’re still just as refreshing and relative today as they were when they were released. They don’t seem dated or dusty with time.
That’s a testament to any great songwriter. Their songs don’t age and grow stale. They may recall a certain era, but they certain don’t feel used up and depleted. But it’s not as though Carll has tried making carbon copies of “Flowers & Liquor.” He’s certainly grown over the years transforming into the artist he is today. Always evolving.
You just get the feeling years from now, we’ll be looking at “Trouble in Mind,” “KMAG YOYO,” and who knows what other future records the same way we look at records such as Guy Clark’s “Old No. 1,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Kristofferson,” Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” Terry Allen’s “Lubbock (On Everything),” and Townes Van Zandt’s “High, Low, and In Between.” They’re records that transcend time. They’d all be tour de force albums regardless of the year they’re released. It wouldn’t matter if it was 1967 or 2007; some records are relevent no matter the conditions.
And that’s really how Carll’s songwriting is. In thirty years, you may not get that same feeling you do now when you listen to “Beaumont,” when you’re still going to feel something. Your feelings about songs aren’t etched in stone. They can change with the person. But you’re still going to know it’s a great song that makes you feel something relevant. I guarantee it.
I caught up with Hayes Carll yesterday as he was making his way to the Cactus Cafe in Austin. As aforementioned, Carll will be playing tomorrow (Thursday, February 14) with Thrift Store Cowboys and Lucero at the Republic of Texas.
New Slang: Yesterday, you tweeted out that you met Kris Kristofferson. How was finally meeting him?
Hayes Carll: It was surreal [laughs]. I first heard Kris when I was sixteen. I was with a girlfriend and we were at her parents’ house. They had a record and I remember literally laying on the floor listening to “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” and “The Silver Tongued Devil and I.” Each song was nothing like anything I had ever heard before. It literally hit me in the core. Next to Dylan, Townes, and Prine, those are probably my top four guys of all time. To get to finally meet him was just a cool deal.
NS: The other day–or I guess not the other day, but rather a few months back now–you released a new song, “Love Don’t Let Me Down.” It’s a duet with Caitlin Rose. Talk a little bit about that song.
HC: Yeah. I wrote that one with Darrell Scott. Another amazing songwriter. Not sure if you’re familiar with Darrell, but he lives in Nashville. He wrote “Long Time Gone” for the Dixie Chicks and “Great Day to Be Alive” for Travis Tritt. A bunch of songs. He’s just an incredible musician, songwriter, and singer. He was most recently in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. Anyway, just an incredible guy. So we had written this song on my “Trouble in Mind” record called “Willing To Love Again.” So I got back together with him. He was at the piano playing this melody and started riffing and putting it together. I like writing duets. It’s good to get out of your own skin and write from a different perspective. A lot of times when I’m writing for myself, it always comes off as myself. I treat that in a different way that if I’m trying to say something that somebody else thinks and feels. I enjoy that process of kind of thinking like somebody else. Sometimes it’s easier to articulate how they’d say things than how I’d actually do it.
NS: I’d imagine that it’s a good exercise in writing. A way to challenge yourself.
HC: Yeah. It is. It’s easy to get caught up in your own head a lot of times when you’re sitting down and only writing about what’s going on with you. There may not be a lot going on with you [laughs]. Or it ends up just being the same thing. If you’re creating a back story for somebody else, if you’re writing from that perspective, the whole world kind of opens up. You can create whatever you want. It’s kind of liberating in a way.
NS: Caitlin Rose, who you’re singing with on the song, she just has one of the best voices I’ve heard in recent years. How did she end up on the song?
HC: I first met Caitlin’s mother, Liz Rose. She’s a songwriter. She lives in Dallas and Nashville part-time. She wrote a lot of Taylor Swift songs. But she’s also written some Eli Young Band songs recently. Some Walt Wilkins songs. Anyways, she’s a great songwriter and I met her daughter Caitlin at South By Southwest three or four years ago and gave me a record. So last year, we took them out with out for a month or so. She’s got a great band. She’s a great singer. Has a real unique voice and a cool writer. So I had this song and was thinking about who would do it justice. And actually, I think she was on the road with me right after I’d finished it. So at the end of the tour, I got her up to sing it with me a couple of times live. It went really well. So when I was ready to record it, I called her up to see if she was game and she was.
NS: That kind of sets up the obvious next question. What do you have planned as far as getting into the studio and getting another record out?
HC: Well, nothing concrete right now. Just writing. Kind of changing up the performance stuff. This weekend’s shows are going to be kind of the last ones for a while with my regular band. Been doing a lot of solo stuff. A lot of duo stuff. And I’m going out most of the spring and summer with a guy named Warren Hood. He’s a fiddle player here in town. His band, Warren Hood and The Goods, they’ll open up the shows and then back me. It’s a five-piece band. He plays fiddle, has a girl who plays piano, then bass, drums, and guitar. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun rediscovering old songs that I’ve kind of given up on. But when you play them with a different lineup or in a different setting, they kind of come back to life again. I’ve had a lot of fun with my regular band over the last two and a half years and will probably get back together with them in the winter or fall. In the mean time, I’ll just be mixing it up. I find it helps me to write. It kind of opens up the creative flow when you change up the players and the type of show you’re doing. It can be easy to get in a rut when you’re doing the same old thing.
NS: I was going to bring that up actually. Was going to ask if you from time to time liked to take old songs and kind of rework them. And just working with different people can make songs change.
HC: Sure. Everybody has different strengths as a player. If I’ve got a guy who’s a rock guitar player in my band, that’s going to lend itself to certain songs of mine and not so much to others. And the same thing with crowds as well. If you’re going in with a real honky-tonk or rock band–and it’s not that my band isn’t versatile, but you can get into a groove of doing things a certain way. When you bring in someone new, it can change things and bring out new ideas. Like I said, I’ve been doing a lot of solo and duo shows. And when I started out, that’s what I did predominantly for six or seven years. The songs I wrote for that environment are different from a lot of the songs I write for the bigger rooms. A lot of those songs kind of got put on the shelf for a number of years. It’s been fun rediscovering them again. In some cases, changing them up. A lot of times, you just get tired of them. Then a couple of years go by, you pull it out and go “that wasn’t really a bad tune.” I’ve been doing more of that lately.
NS: Yeah. In a way, that’s very Bob Dylan. Like taking songs and reinterpreting years later with a different band and having them sound nothing like they did on the studio album.
HC: Yeah. I wouldn’t put what I’m doing into that category, but I know what you mean. It’s fun to reinterpret it and keep it fresh. I think it’s important not only for the artistic process and fans who are coming out, but for your own sanity as well.
NS: Being a songwriter, how long do you typically wait on a song before playing it live?
HC: Well, you know, it depends. I usually throw them out there pretty quick. Figuring out when you’re done writing it is always the tricky part for me. I’ll set on things for years if I don’t think it’s ready. I’ll road test it in a low-key environment [laughs]. Somewhere where they either love me enough they won’t care or their too drunk to notice. We’ll pull it out and see if it works. If it does, you start working it into the set and road test it a little bit. If it’s something that I think is ready to go, I can’t wait to get it out there. It’s generally a long process though to get to where I think they’re finished.
NS: I was reading an old Bob Dylan interview earlier this week. He said in it that the hardest part about songwriting for him is getting that first thought, idea, or initial feeling into the final version of the song. Do you feel that’s true for you as well?
HC: I find the hardest part is finding that–well… finding that first thought and initial feeling, something that really gets you excited, that’s kind of an ongoing process for me. There are times that it comes in waves and times where you can’t buy an idea. But if that comes on strong, I don’t find it as hard to keep that idea going. To me, that’s kind of what’s pushing it. Maybe the actual translating it–the work part [laughs]. Going from idea to finished product, not product, but finished result, is tough. I generally find that getting the sentiment or mood is usually somewhat resembles what I was initially going for. I don’t feel like if I get a good idea, that I struggle with keeping it in that vain. I just struggle with doing the actual work of it all. I’m not sure if that makes sense. The idea generally stays consistent. The actual craft is the challenging part.
NS: Yeah. It makes sense. Kind of goes back and relates to you talking about knowing when a song is finished.
NS: Another thing I was wanting to talk to you about is the band Shovels & Rope. Obviously, Cary [Ann Hearst], she sang on “Another Like You” with you. They’ve really just taken off this past year.
HC: Yeah. I met Cary Ann in Charleston, South Carolina probably four or five years ago. She opened for me. I was just doing an acoustic duo show and she opened up the gig. She just blew me away. I felt like I should have been opening up for her [laughs]. My career was just a little further along, but she stuck with me. So when I had “Another Like You,” I was just kind of kicking around who was going to be the female lead. I called her up to see if she’d do it and it ended up being a wonderful thing for me. Not just to get her on the record, but to meet her and to get to know her. She’s just one of the most down to earth, coolest people you’d ever meet. Not to mention one of my favorite singers in the whole world. We ended up doing a tour for the “KMAG YOYO” record, and her and her husband Michael, who I hadn’t met at that point, they had this band Shovels & Rope, they came on your with us for probably about three months of 2011. Maybe more. We did a lot of shows together. That’s really where I got to dig into their music. A lot of times you’ll go out with an opener, and after a week or two, you can skip the show. OK, I’ve seen it four or five times. I know what I’m missing. With Cary and Michael, I never got tired of watching that show. And still to this day. We just went on a cruise with them. We did this music cruise and they were on it. It’s just so fun to watch not only them, but also the crowds discovering them for the first time. It’s just a powerful feel. I remember one time, one of my best friends from back home came up and said, “I know you’re doing good if those guys are opening up for you [laughs].” I said, “I know, but it won’t be that way for long.” But yeah, they’re just one of my favorite bands and some of my favorite people.
NS: Something else you did last year was covering Nick Lowe for that tribute album that came out. How’d you get involved? Nick Lowe isn’t a musician who you automatically think of being an influence on alternative country and Americana artists, but obviously, the tribute was made up of almost all alternative country acts (The album is called “Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe.”).
HC: Yeah. The guys who put it together, the ones who were picking the acts to be on it, the alt. country bit that the record kind of took on, that was kind of the producer’s doing. They just called me up and asked if I was a fan. I said I was and they asked if I had any interest in doing a song on the record. So we kind of kicked around song possibilities. I was looking at doing something off that “Convincer” record. They threw this song saying they thought it would be a cool idea to do “I’m Gonna Start Living Again If It Kills Me.” It’s a really cool song. It’s done in a real different way for me to be able to sing it. Kind of had to put it into that country vain. It was fun and a cool process. I just got some of my bandmates together and Kelly Mickwee of The Trishas to do some backup vocals. We cut it here in Austin and sent it up to them. But yeah, it’s just a cool record and he’s just a cool songwriter. I think it’s a testament to that; when you’re able to get people of a different genre to cover your songs in a way that wasn’t how they were originally intended, but they were that good that they’re able to work in different formats.