Hayes Carll is nothing if not affable, with his ever-present half-smirk and aw-shucks persona. But don't be fooled by his nonchalant swagger. The 35-year-old Carll, born and raised in The Woodlands, is also quite self-aware. Almost ridiculously so.
See, Carll knows what's on the immediate horizon of his career. He knows that, with last month's release of his new album, KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories), his whole career could change. In some ways, it already has.
In January, in the build-up to KMAG's release, Carll performed for the first time on late-night television, stopping by The Tonight Show with Jay Leno with longtime friend and fellow former Houstonian John Evans to perform the title track of his new disc, a song that derives its title from the military abbreviation for "kiss my ass, guys, you're on your own."
Just before that honor, Carll scored another coup: "Hard Out Here," also from the new album, was added to the soundtrack for Country Strong, the recent Gwyneth Paltrow flick about the Nashville country scene.
It's a lot to process for a guy who, as recently as a few years ago, was mostly unknown, struggling to make a name for himself in the Houston market and in Texas. When Carll wrote "Hard Out Here," he really meant the words he was putting to paper, both as a performer on the road and as someone faced with the difficult task of asking cash-strapped strangers to support his endeavors.
"I've been through years of touring," the performer said over drinks during a recent stop through Dallas, his slumped shoulders telling as much of the story as the words coming out of his mouth. "You go out every night — 150, 200 nights a year — and talk to folks every night across the country. I couldn't escape the fact that everyone, everywhere was telling me, 'It's rough out here. I'm losing my job, can't afford to buy your shit. We're having a rough time, y'know?'"
Looking back on the song these days, though, he said he sees another meaning.
"I was kind of lamenting whenever I bitch about the road," he said. "It was, in relation to myself, more than tongue-in-cheek."
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And rightfully so. After all, even with more widespread appreciation coming around the bend, Carll has it pretty good these days. His audience has caught up to the critical acclaim his songs have been receiving for years. And surely he'll have plenty of packed houses this week as his mini-tour of Texas swings through the Houston area this weekend for dates at Dosey Doe and the Firehouse Saloon.
It's a way for Carll to say thanks, certainly. More than that, it's a way to further distinguish himself from the cluttered Texas country world. He's trying to distance himself from that scene, though his music boasts some similarities.
"Everything I do, I do with a kind of a twang," he said with a shrug. "So even if it's not technically a country song, it gets labeled as that. I always try to keep one foot in and one foot out. I have no qualms about being labeled a Texas singer-songwriter. I think I have a certain sense of pride in it, actually.
"But the market's pretty cluttered right now, so that could mean a number of things, when you label somebody that."