It's hard to write a song when you're three-fourths gone. -- Hayes Carll
With his lanky six-foot-three frame slung haphazardly on a worn-out couch, tousled blond hair hanging in his eyes and a pair of bare feet that could still use some growing into, Hayes Carll could be a frat boy ready to gather up some of the dirty clothes strewn about and head over to Mom's to do laundry.
And some days, the 26-year-old does get to be a kid again, vanquishing virtual foes on a computer in one of the four cramped rooms that make up the Spartan Galveston apartment he shares with his girlfriend. But other days, those days he has a gig, he's this other guy, the one attached to the older-than-his-years voice who spins tales about hard-fought battles with booze and heartache. It's hard to connect Carll the video game-playing kid with the tones that propel his very promising soon-to-be-released CD, Flowers & Liquor.
Shakespeare's Coffee House, 12127 Sabo Road
Friday, January 25. 281-922-6176. Opening for Sisters Morales on Saturday, January 26, at the Old Quarter Acoustic Caf, 413 20th Street, Galveston, 409-762-9199.
Carll speaks slowly and softly in our interview and works his way through one Marlboro after another. The darkened patches under his eyes have been painstakingly nurtured everywhere from the Bolivar Peninsula, where he performs regularly at tough-guy hangouts like Bob's Sports Bar & World Famous Grill, to the former Yugoslavia, where he spent four months in 2000 drinking homemade wine out of a Pepsi bottle and writing all of two songs.
"I guess you could say I'm still waiting for the day that I can churn out 20 songs a year," Carll admits. "It's just so frustrating, and I can't relate to it being some kind of science. I envisioned that I'd have a lot more material by now, like working on my third record by the time I was 22 or something. I'm not very disciplined, but I wonder: Is this the way I function, or is it just laziness?"
Either way, there are some older writers who would kill for the fruit of this kid's slacker habits. Carll's lyrics are virtually cliché-free and evoke emotion without stating the obvious, and his styles range from country lament to Robert Earl roadhouse. In "Perfect Lover," he's the cynical guy who knows just how to please a woman, at least temporarily, and he's downright creepy: "I've been locked up here with all these lonesome questions / I need a new word just to whisper in your ear / Baby right now I am open to suggestion / I'm gonna tell you all the things you need to hear."
Carll worries that his suburban childhood in The Woodlands irreparably damages the cool cred that automatically adheres to Texas singer-songwriters lucky enough to have been born in garden spots like Tyler, Beaumont and Lubbock. But Carll has seen and consumed his share of sin, both in rural Arkansas when he attended Hendrix College and while living on his own in Crystal Beach -- where the folks wade through a three-day work week to gear up for four days of drinking, and where he often fished as many joints or pills out of the tip jar as dollar bills.
Carll got his first guitar when he was in ninth grade, a 12-string Alvarez with only six strings, but he didn't pick it up for more than a year. Finally, he began learning songs in earnest, starting with Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." Carll played basketball and fit in with the jocks, but he wanted a more cerebral pastime, which he eventually found in the theater club. "Imagine all of a sudden these girls, even seniors, talking to you and hanging out with you. We'd be backstage, and they'd be changing clothes like it was no big deal," he says, still relishing the imagery.
In college in Conway, Arkansas, Carll pursued a history degree, spending most of his four years on academic probation and graduating last in his class. But, as he puts it, "When I was playing guitar and singing, fewer people would leave the room. Some even came in."
After graduation, Carll eased into the slow lane. He moved into his parents' $100-a-month summer cottage in Crystal Beach and worked on his songwriting craft -- not to mention how to fit a beer, a cigarette, a joint and his guitar in his hand all at once. Rather than study influential singers, Carll would just write under the influence.
One night in the fall of 1998, Carll and some friends finished their wait shift at Landry's on the seawall and went barhopping in downtown Galveston. Carll followed the music into the Old Quarter Acoustic Café. He asked owner Wrecks Bell if he could haul his guitar out of his trunk and do a song.
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Noting the shrine to Townes Van Zandt on the wall, Carll played a couple of Townes songs. "I mean, it was this place where they had music that I liked, and this cute girl working behind the bar. It was my kind of place," Carll says. The fact that he sang a couple of Townes songs endeared him to Bell, the troubled Texas singer's former bass player and runnin' buddy.
Carll hung out and soaked it all in. Bell introduced him to sisters Lisa and Roberta Morales. Lisa saw the kid's potential and agreed to let Carll open for them at the Old Quarter. The partnership stuck, taking Carll to bigger venues in Houston and around the state and ultimately leading to the recording sessions for Flowers & Liquor. Scheduled for release in the spring, the CD was produced by Lisa Morales and features an exceptional cast, including guitarists Bert Wills and David Spencer, Jeff Plankenhorn (Dobro) and Michael Ramos (accordion). Morales has done an amazing job of interpreting Carll's solo performances and turning them into full band arrangements without losing the songs' emotional core.
"I can't say enough about Sisters Morales. They have gotten me into clubs and places I never could on my own," Carll says.
Once in the door, Carll can take it from there. Last summer, when he performed as the first act of the day on the side stage at Willie Nelson's Woodlands Pavilion gig, Carll kept the crowd in thrall. Not only that, but he managed to sell a very respectable 47 copies at $8 a pop of the six-song self-produced CD Heaven Above. Like the title suggests, there's somebody watching out for this kid.