The Bolivar Kid Strikes Again

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.

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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.

"I call some records 'economy with dignity,' but this was almost economy without dignity," says Field with a laugh. "We had a stripped-down band, and I don't know that we ignored the more acoustic elements of his first record -- we honored that on a couple of tunes -- but we tried to have that Hill Country Texas, mid-'70s, anti-hipster, regular approach to a song."

Both Carll and Field are too cool to name-drop that stripped-down studio band, which included growlin' monster of a guitarist Kenny Vaughn (who tours with Lucinda Williams), former Ben Folds Five bassist Jared Reynolds, Los Straitjackets drummer Jimmy Lester and backup vocals from Allison Moorer. Carll's songs also are studded with star co-writers: John Evans pitched in on the anti-bad-country fight song "Sit In with the Band," Guy Clark helped Carll come up with the brooding "Rivertown," while Ray Wylie Hubbard assisted the penning of the bluesy ditty "Chickens."

"Guy was very, very deliberate," says Carll. "Every word had to have a specific meaning. Even after we were done, he would call me on the phone and say, 'We should change this to that' or 'and to the,' you know, just little things that made a lot of difference. And Ray definitely goes for a certain feel with the lyrics that he's putting down. It was a real education."

For Carll, most of the schooling was in the key of "try, try, again." "I learned a lot of lessons in persistence," he says. "I don't mean to seem half-assed about it -- I write all the time -- but I don't really stick to it after I hit a roadblock. I'll give up and move on to the next song. All three of these guys were like, 'We're not quitting till we're done with this.' In three days I got two songs, and usually that's a couple of months' worth of stuff for me."

The highlight of the album for me is "Down the Road Tonight," a J.J. Cale/ Dylanesque stream-of-consciousness white-boy rap Carll describes in the liner notes as a song about all the things he would like to write about but lacks the discipline to try. (The list includes, but decidedly is not limited to, Van Zandt groupies, right-wing radio ranters, hard-partying Quakers, Michael Jackson and tantric teachers.) It's a surefire Texas music classic, but don't expect to hear it live yet -- in a concert setting, Carll still can't remember all the words. There are some things, it seems, Hayes Carll won't do for a song. Like memorize it.

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More national validation for Houston's burgeoning young songwriter scene (indie pop division): Arthur Yoria's "Call Me" aired on The O.C. on March 24, alongside tunes by little-B buzz bands Kasabian, Kaiser Chiefs, LCD Soundsystem and Eagles of Death Metal. In other Yoria news, keep an ojo out for his first Spanish-language EP, which is coming soon…The Hollisters aren't the only killer turn-of-the-century Houston band to reunite this spring. While many of us were away at South By Southwest, swamp crawlers Jug o' Lightnin' played their first show in months, if not years, at the West Alabama Ice House's annual crawfish boil/art show on March 19. Drummer Chris King says the band will be playing more shows, maybe one or two a month, but he added that the band is still pretty vague about future plans…Also vague are the plans of Alvin honky-tonker deluxe Johnny Wolfe, who finally has started work on a follow-up to the criminally underrated 2001 album Bad Tonight. His Web site also says that there are "whispers of an overseas tour."…Still speaking of second albums, soulful and tasteful young local blues-rocker the Mighty Orq will stack up a pile of Milk Money CDs on a merch table for the first time on April 30 at the Rhythm Room. Check this paper the week of the show for more details…Congrats are in order to Bob Morgan, who was inducted into the Jazz Educators Hall of Fame earlier this year. Morgan directed HSPVA's jazz studies program from 1976 to 1999 and vaulted it into national prominence and acclaim. Here's a partial list of his former pupils: artists/bandleaders Jason Moran and Everette Harp, composer-arranger Ed Smart, New York pianist Helen Sung, Al Jarreau music director-bassist Chris Walker, Duke Ellington Orchestra saxophonist Shelley Carrol and McCoy Tyner drummer Eric Harland. And there are many, many others.

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