According to an article on savingcountrymusic.com, back in the early noughties Houston-born singer-songwriter Hayes Carll was hailed as a potential successor of Townes Van Zandt “in Texas and beyond.” And now, twenty years on, some of americana’s most promising young singer-songwriters are hailed as possible successors to Carll. That’s a testament, the article argues, to how “Carll’s early catalogue has held up so stoutly, and he’s proven longevity and earned peer respect in a life pursuit that chews up and spits most out.”
It’s not just Carll’s early albums, kicking off with ‘Flowers and Liquor’ in 2002 that have gone the distance musically though. Carll’s third album, ‘Trouble in Mind’ (2008) has proved to be one of his most enduringly appreciated. Then after the slightly more varied reception given to ‘Lovers and Leavers’ (2015), ‘What It Is’ (2019), the sixth of his seven so far, also drew widespread applause.
What has actually made Carll such a key reference point throughout these near two decades, though? One key element is surely that no matter which corner of americana he’s coming at you from, be it southern rock, honky-tonk, country and folk, it’s invariably tightly delivered, well-arranged and easy on the ear. Another is his seeming insistence on accessibility. No matter how far off the beaten track he’s taken you in terms of the lyrics and no matter how surreal his humour can get, even if you’d just woken up and were not in the mood for the slightest joke, put on some Hayes Carll and you’d probably still end up singing along in the shower.
When it does come to the content, you find yourself hearing out stories of ordinary and not-so-ordinary folk, artfully told in what seems to be the same natural, everyday language you’d hear everywhere and nowhere in the USA. The sheer breadth of the characters who appear in his songs puts Carll in a league of his own and needless to say is another major draw for listeners. Ever hear the one about the army kid who went to Afghanistan, thought he’d do a little line of dealing in heroin and ended up on the moon (literally)? Or about the bar which was a shrine to Elvis Presley and Jesus, both at the same time? Or about the diehard fake-tanned conservative who ends up screwing the penniless left-leaning outlaw musician who thinks Dylan is over-rated whilst “singing Tangled Up In Blue”? or about the life partner who has to paint the front porch purple to keep the spirits away “because that’s the way we do things in the South”? These characters might be from some very different walks of life in the real world, but somewhere in Carll’s music and as another song of Carll’s so memorably puts it, they’re “all going down the road tonight.”
As for the Van Zandt similarities, certainly the dishevelled southern outsider appearance Carll opts for on a couple of album covers provides visual parallels, even if the notably hapless, hangdog expression he has on the front of ‘What It Is’ is all his own work. Either way, when he does things like deliberately lift a TVZ track title, ‘The Sake of the Song’ for one of his own creations, it’s clear Carll doesn’t resent what similarities there are between the two of them. Rather as he said somewhere, he’d like to think that Van Zandt wasn’t amongst the purists throwing up their hands in horror at his borrowing one of TVZ’s song titles.
In much broader terms, Carll’s resoundingly unpretentious, rootsy style, with some deep poetic leanings, certainly has a lot to do with Van Zandt. But overall Carll’s carved a much less precarious pathway to fame, with his non-musical jobs including a spell selling vacuum cleaners, time serving tables in some very dodgy bars on the Texas coast and writing a long out-of-print comic book called, of all things, ‘Hayes Carll in the Search for Ooga Kabooga Juice and Other Adventures’. When it comes to music, he’s much less mystical and much more plainspoken and way rockier than TVZ’s folk-influenced work. He’s also way more ironic about his own artistic status. “You ain’t a poet,” as he sings on ‘Hard Out Here’ about one unappreciative audience and how they view him, “you’re a drunk with a pen.”
Truth to tell, Carll spins fine line after fine line of self-deprecating humour in his songs, something which – no disrespect intended – is notably lacking from most of TVZ’s work. But for all the sense of fun and the punchlines, there can be some telling, beautifully angled moments of heart-rending despair in there too. Ultimately, though, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s pulling apart clumsy, well-meaning attempts to hit on a smalltown waitress, skewering billionaires for “taking all my time trying to tell me I was treated unfair”, marvelling at his nine-year-old son’s confidence when peforming magic tricks (a personal favourite) or imagining how it must feel to be a prisoner etching ‘Live Free or Die’ on a never-ending stream of car registration plates. As friend and co-writer Ray Wylie Hubbard once put it when recommending Carll to another musician: “He gets it”.
Number 10.: ‘Little Rock’ from ‘Little Rock’ (2004)
Hayes Carll has spent past chunks of his life living on the Texas coast, in London and (fun fact) Croatia. But when it comes to a solid rock’n’roll stomper about a road trip with drinks and smokes and cruise control and traffic cops giving you grief, it kind of makes sense he’s bound for somewhere as typically American as Little Rock, Arkansas. The music’s just as ragged and raw and direct and adrenaline-pumped as you’d want any self-respecting roots rock to be. The lyrics unspool as easily as driving along one of those American desert highways, and while you might get thirsty or run out of gas on a real road trip, in comparison, ‘Little Rock’ is both risk-free and a truly irresistible slice of road travel. ‘Little Rock’ was also Carll’s first number one in the Americana charts back in 2005.
Number 9: ‘Be There’ from ‘What It Is’ (2019)
For all the constant comparisons he gets with other Texas singer-songwriters, Carll’s realism about the end of relationships arguably moves in a league of its own and this song surely hits the greatest heights of all. ‘Be There’ is about somebody who Carll knows is going to leave him, even though she’s promising exactly the opposite. In a word, harrowing.
Number 8: ‘She Left Me For Jesus’ from ‘Trouble in Mind’ (2008)
Probably Carll’s best-known track, co-written with Brian Keane, nominated as ‘Song of the Year’ for the Americana Music Awards 2011, and an irreverent but very funny take on religious intolerance. Carll and Keane’s insight into bigotry is deftly enshrouded in deadbeat but warmhearted humour and it all gets amplified by a rip-roaring country-rock melody that allows Carll to deliver one zany punchline after another without ever going off-piste. At the same time, despite singlehandedly wrecking an apparently beautiful relationship and incurring some serious redneck wrath in the process, Jesus actually comes out of it pretty well, too.
Number 7: ‘Don’t Let Me Fall’ from ‘Trouble in Mind’ (2008)
We’ll say it once, we’ll say it again. Carll’s non-humorous work regularly gets eclipsed by his funnier material and this song is a great example why that shouldn’t be. Somebody who is seemingly at the end of the road, mentally and spiritually, reaches out for support even as the hopelessness levels rise remorselessly over their head. Cheerful it ain’t, but this is one of those songs that’s worth a whole album, or maybe even a whole career.
Number 6: ‘Times Like These’ from ‘What It Is’ (2019)
A song about somebody watching their country get torn apart by populist politicians and the media not doing its job and how that affects them, emotionally and in their daily lives. In the original version on the ‘What It Is‘ album, ‘Times Like These’ is a no-holds-barred dance hall rocker, with some wonderful fiddle and guitar work to push its already high-level listenability up a couple more notches. Then it reappears on his ‘Alone Together Sessions’ album as something much more mournful. Either way it comes at you, if you wanted top-class proof that Carll is never going to bow to the ‘shut up and sing’ crowd, then this is exactly the place to start.
Number 5: ‘What It Is’ from ‘What It Is’ (2019)
Divorced himself and married to a divorcee, Carll’s never been afraid to look at the potentially rockier sides of relationships. On this song, the title track of his album produced by partner and artist Allison Moorer, he two-steps his way through the doubts that afflict anybody who’s been through the mill a bit, but who wants to keep the ship as stable as they can. It’s also a great illustration of how Carll can hit the ‘pure’ country genre out of the park just as well as he can any other americana styles.
Number 4: ‘I Got A Gig’ from ‘Trouble in Mind’ (2008)
This is Carll’s homage to the time he spent on the Texan coast at Crystal Beach as a budding musician singing for his supper. Desperation to gain a foothold on the greasy pole of regular playing opportunities, rubs shoulders with colourful lowlifes in a seamy coast road dive. But as any freelance worker will recognise, no matter the day or time – “Hurricanes, Easter and New Year’s Eve” as Carll sings – all that truly matters is getting that gig.
Crystal Beach sounds like an interesting sort of place to be eking out a musicial existence. In an interview with Coast magazine Carll recollected that the local Crystal Beach zoo owner, who was a fan, would bring one of his lions along to his gigs and leave him sitting outside the bar window as Carll played. “Sometimes you’d turn around and there’d be a lion” Carll told the magazine. How many musicians can say that?
Number 3: ‘Down the Road Tonight’ from ‘Little Rock’ (2004)
“Moonshine mommas – panty droppers, Dalai Lamas,old pill poppers, my grandmother’s name was Spiller, Michael Jackson peaked at Thriller”….If you tried to describe it, ‘Down The Road Tonight’ doesn’t really seem feasible as a song. After all, just how can a stream of consciousness-style telephone list of various permutations of humanity and some one-liner fun facts be melded together into something that’s really great to hear?
Yet work it does. And what makes GDTRT even funnier is that in the last verse, Carll pretends he’s run out of ideas for more characters to fill up the song, and starts yelling the tune wordlessly instead. Maybe it’s to avoid any kind of debate as to what should be mentioned last? Who cares, as the rock and roll backing music chugs along, the wacky unpredictability of it all carries the song so effortlessly you’re at the end of the line before you know it – and wanting to have another ride. Pure musical energy crossed with a heck of a lot of fun.
Number 2: ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’ from ‘Trouble in Mind’ (2008)
Written by Canadiana artist Scott Nolan (definitely worth checking out, by the way) and originally a thumping anthemic rocker of a song on ‘Trouble In Mind’ this song is turned into something far more melancholy on his 2020 acoustic album ‘Alone Together Sessions’, with accompanying harmonies from Moorer. Either way, this is a towering piece of music about life on the road, its miseries and the very occasional gleams of joy. It’s also true that worrying medical conditions have rarely, if ever, made you want to get up and dance about them so much as on ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’. But some might answer that’s just part of Carll’s appeal.
Number 1: ‘Long Way Home’ from ‘Little Rock’ (2004)
It might come as a surprise that for an artist with such a range and depth of humour in his music that one of Carll’s most memorable songs is a lament and eulogy for a friend. This isn’t a Carll-esque attempt to be witty or whimsical, it just tells it how it is: the guy who went too far, too young, and who now won’t be coming back. The final minute and a half are a stunning piece of interplay between two guitars that acts as a final, wordless outpouring of heartbreak.
Good news for all Carll fans: he has an eighth album, ‘You Get It All’ due out at the end of this month and so far the three songs we’ve heard on pre-release all indicate it’s a cracker. Indeed, of those three, if this list of ‘Essentials’ was given the ‘Spinal Tap’ amplifier treatment and suddenly broadened from ten to eleven then ‘She’ll Come Back To Me’ – as featured already on AUK – would likely make the grade.