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By Jef With One F
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By Sonya Harvey
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By Nathan Smith
And sometimes I can't believe I did all that for a song / Hey I'm glad I came just wish I hadn't stayed so long.
So sings Hayes Carll in the chorus of "Wish I Hadn't Stayed So Long," the opener to Little Rock, his long-awaited second album. For Carll, if you believe his lyrics, the "all that" he did for his songs includes an arrest or two, whiskey by the gallon and weed by the bale, thousands of miles on the road, countless gigs in tough shrimper beer joints up and down the Texas coast, and a string of women from his Bolivar beach digs to the small town in Arkansas where he went to college. And unlike so many of the Coors Light Crooners on the alt-country scene, you do believe the words in his songs, because it's apparent that he has lived 'em.
There's no yee-haw-Shiner Bock-on-the-Guadalupe-with-Ol' Willie crap here, just honest stuff about what happened to your high school buddies, getting robbed on the road and plain old chickens. There's also a touching lament for a dead friend and a refreshingly nuanced breakup song. Equally refreshing is the fact that when Carll does resort to geographical references -- as the Texas Bowel Movement jake-legs do on every album -- he at least breaks out a map of Arkansas. ("Everybody back home has been making a lot of money writing songs about Texas," Carll writes in the liner notes. "I got in the game a little too late to take advantage of it so I've started writing songs about Arkansas. My tour bus is on the way.")
Clearly, Carll failed to succumb to a sophomore slump. Not that the pressure wasn't on. Songwriters like Carll often have a hard time following up debuts as successful as his Flowers and Liquor. First records are adorned with a lifetime of material, and the element of surprise works in the artist's favor. People want to like music by strangers; they want to make discoveries.
But after that the burden gets heavier. It's like a high-jump competition: Whatever fans you made of your first record set the bar for your second, and you've got to hurl yourself over it. Carll has done so, and what's more, he's done it all on his own.
A year or so ago a major independent label, one that is home to a few artists Carll idolizes, offered him a deal. Carll turned it down. "I just couldn't see spending the next ten years of my life not controlling what I have," he has said. He later said striking out on his own helped him sidestep some of the pressures of the sophomore album. "I guess there is a bit of pressure in putting out a good record by yourself, but I guess the good thing about not having millions of fans and a record company is that expectations aren't that high from tons of people," he says. "I felt like I could make a good record and please the people who like me, but I still felt unformed enough to where I could do what I wanted and not feel too guilty about it."
Carll enlisted veteran roots-rock producer R.S. Field, the Kanye West of Americana, whose credits include albums by Buddy Guy, Scott Miller, Sonny Landreth and Billy Joe Shaver. "I met R.S. when he was doing Freedom's Child for Billy Joe Shaver in Nashville," says Carll. "We just kind of hit it off -- he's a funny guy, and I liked his thoughts on making records and he liked my stuff, so we talked for about a year."
"I liked his personality and sitting around talking with him," says Field. "I kinda liked his first record, but then I heard him play a couple of times at the Sutler in Nashville, and there were maybe 12 people there, nine of who came to see this Australian songwriter. And I just thought Hayes was really good live. He just had that bucolic, amiable, self-deprecating sense of humor, and over the course of hearing him two or three times, I would just hear more and more songs that I liked."
Field was once a Texan -- in about 1976 he was part of a mass migration of Mississippians that congealed as the Howlers, which Omar Dykes still fronts today. And while Field self-identifies as having been more of a rollicking Commander Cody-style sky pilot in those days, he says he always had an affinity for the then-fading progressive country movement, one that he sees reborn in Carll. "Willie, Ray Wylie, Jerry Jeff and all that," Field says. "That kind of non-hipster, Texas, folk songs, pot, old Gibson guitar aesthetic. One thing I liked about Hayes was that he was like that; he appealed to me more than the new college alt-country branding that was going on."
Since Carll was self-financing the record, it took both extra time and extra goodwill to get in the studio with Field. "There was a pretty limited budget, but he pulled in some favors and got some studio guys to work with me," says Carll.
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