Hayes Carll Is Closing Up the Honky-Tonks For a While

By now it's a familiar anecdote, passed along through the years by programs like Extra! or Entertainment Tonight. Cut to an awards show, where the combination of nerves and the refreshments on hand is just too much for some nominees to handle. The moment their name is read from the envelope, after months or even years of anticipation, instead of making their way to the podium they're off answering nature's call.

Something like that happened to Hayes Carll, whose “She Left Me For Jesus” was named the Americana Music Association's Song of the Year for 2008. Not at that show; those awards are held in Nashville anyway. This one was in Houston, at our own Houston Press Music Awards. The year was 2002, and Carll, now 39, won for Best New Act. Someone had tipped him off he had won, so when he heard his name, Carll started heading to the stage. Prematurely, it turned out.

“I’m almost up on the stage and I realized that they’re still listing the nominees and not the winner, so I ducked out real quickly and ran into the bathroom, totally ashamed of myself,” he recalls. “So then they said, ‘The winner is Hayes Carll,’ so I sheepishly came up and took my award. I swore I would never let that happen again, but unfortunately it’s happened a couple of other times.”

In those days, Carll says he remembers running around a lot with John Evans, the rakish rockabilly/honky-tonk front man who dominated the HPMAs in those days. Carll, who was raised in The Woodlands, managed to regularly book himself into both “folkie” clubs like the Mucky Duck and Galveston's Old Quarter, as well as more rock-oriented rooms like the Continental Club and Dan Electro's.

“Coming up I always did the listening rooms, just solo with a guitar for the most part,” he says. “Having crowds that listened and strained to hear the songs made it easier for me; I felt like I was more in my element. But all I really wanted to do at that time in my life was to be able to rock like John Evans.”

Carll says reconciling the folksinger and rock and roller inside him isn't so much an internal conflict as it is a matter of deciding which tone and which songs are right for his given audience; he's done OK at it thus far. He eventually moved to Austin, playing at smaller rooms like Threadgill's and the Saxon Pub while watching his audience steadily grow. With shades of Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt and actual help from Guy Clark and Ray Wylie Hubbard, his 2005 LP Little Rock was wordy and witty enough to impress the Americana snobs, but plenty country enough for the dancehall crowd; the closing track is a tribute to chickens, especially fried, and sure enough features some chickin'-pickin' guitar.

Little Rock caught the attention of scouts from Lost Highway Records, the Universal-owned Nashville label that did its best to break alt-country artists like Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and Ryan Bingham with mainstream audiences. Lost Highway was eventually dissolved into Universal's overall Nashville operation, but not before Carll made two albums for the label, both of them keepers. Trouble In Mind, released in 2008, let Carll's inner rock and roller come out in “Faulkner Street,” “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and especially “She Left Me For Jesus,” a bit of borderline barroom blasphemy that easily caught on with the Texas-country crowd besides winning the aforementioned AMA award. Still, songs like “Willing to Love Again” and “Girl Downtown” took Carll (and his listeners) straight back to the Mucky Duck.

Three years later, KMAG YOYO repeated those same steps with even greater success, picking up another AMA nod for the title track, a soldier's whacked-out account of a UFO sighting in Afghanistan co-written by Evans. Among a host of other year-end accolades, American Songwriter ranked the album at No. 6 while “Another Like You,” Carll's red-state/blue-state folie a deux with Shovels & Rope's Cary Ann Hearst, took No. 1 in the magazine's Best Song poll.

“I love having a room in the palm of your hand, and [it's] way silent and you feel like you’re having a real moment,” Carll says. “In that way it’s an amazing feeling, but it’s also an incredible feeling to look out at a thousand people with their fists up in the air, singing along to every lyric. There’s a real energy there that’s unlike anything else. In a perfect world I could meld both of those, and my struggle is to try to do that. It isn’t always easy.”

It still isn't. After touring and touring and touring behind KMAG YOYO and splitting with both Universal and his wife, Carll is a free agent and only very recently began pre-production for his next album. The confidante/sensei he enlisted for the project is Joe Henry, the acclaimed singer-songwriter and artist-friendly producer whose recent credits include Bonnie Raitt, Beck, John Doe and Emmylou Harris. Carll says thus far the two men haven't had a whole lot of interaction beyond a long conversation about the artists they both admire (Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Rodney Crowell), but even that was enough for him to recognize Henry as a kindred spirit and to know what kind of record he wants to make.

“I think it’s going to be pretty focused on my voice and my guitar, and then we’ll just try to enhance that and make it as beautiful and relevant as we can,” Carll says. “But I think it’s going to be open, present record. There probably won’t be a lot of two-stepping going on to it, and that’s OK. That’s what I need to do right now. I’ve got more of that other stuff down the road for me, but I need to accomplish this right now so I can move on.”

Hayes Carll plays tonight after the Houston Press Music Awards at Warehouse Live. VIP tickets, $25 apiece, are available here.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray