The Coffeehouse Kid

If you were to meet Adam Carroll at a bookstore or coffeehouse, the sort of place where he hangs out when not playing gigs, you probably wouldn't surmise that he's one of the most esteemed new Texas singer-songwriters to emerge in some time. A squat, shy and quirky young fellow with a slight limp, the result of a mild case of cerebral palsy, Carroll has neither the rugged authority of, say, Guy Clark, nor the gaunt eccentricity of the late Townes Van Zandt. Yet when he sings, his material announces with cinematic vividness and novelistic detail that Carroll is an artistic force to be reckoned with.

Despite his skills, Carroll would seem to be a man of modest goals. He has released two albums on his own Down Hole label, South of Town and Lookin' Out the Screen Door, and he journeys the Lone Star State and beyond plying his wares in almost classic troubadour fashion. "I think it's kinda cool to be a merchant and sell your shit and all that stuff," he says.

Such unpretentious pursuits can't conceal the artistic influences heard in Carroll's music. His raspy pipes, aw-shucks delivery and talent for divining gushers of poetry from characters who would seem to be dry holes has invited deserved comparisons to John Prine, as well as evocations of Van Zandt, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. That heady praise has yet to go to Carroll's head. Although he admits the Prine citations are "a good comparison," he feels they stem mainly from the fact that "people are gonna compare you to somebody," he says. "I'm a little bit intimidated by that sometimes, because I wonder if they really think I'm just who I am. But on the other hand, I've listened to a lot of Prine, so it makes sense. I take it as a compliment. It's better than being compared to Britney Spears, although it wouldn't be so bad if I looked like her."

Carroll was raised in Tyler, the son of a lawyer father and a music teacher mother, who both imparted their love of song to him. "The way I got into singer-songwriter music was because of my dad. He'd have these big parties, and they'd be playing John Prine and Willie Nelson and people like that. My mom liked James Taylor," Carroll recalls. "I remember I used to go in the car and listen to all that stuff, so it's in my subconscious. Later, I got back into it on my own."

Carroll spent seven years in junior college searching for a direction while also dealing with the effects of his palsy-induced learning disabilities. "But I knew that I liked poetry and storytelling. "I just never really knew it until I started doing it," he explains. "I took piano lessons when I was a kid and played saxophone when I was in the high school band, but I never did stick with it. I always liked music a lot. My granddad was a jazz musician in the '50s. He played with Gene Krupa for a while. He played alto sax. One time he was on a bill in Tyler with Hank Williams. I got [exposed to] Charlie Parker with him one time; he turned me onto that. It's kinda neat to hear his take on stuff. He never did like the kind of music I play."

In his late teens, Carroll taught himself to play guitar. "I wanted to be like Joe Walsh or something, but I only knew two chords," he says. "Then I went to junior college and started taking classical guitar and started teaching myself, listening to Bob Dylan and John Prine, people like that. I first started playing gigs at coffee shops. I tried to play like Dylan and Robert Earl Keen and Guy Clark. And finally I started writing my own songs and mixing those in."

At the same time, Carroll also was playing shows as a classical guitarist. "I started really liking the classical, but I was never very good at reading music. I took a lot of lessons, but I wasn't any good at musical theory because the math part of my brain sucks."

After winning a songwriter contest at Poor David's Pub in Dallas, Carroll was invited to open shows there. Then at Larry Joe Taylor's annual spring songwriter gathering, he met producer and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, who was impressed enough with Carroll's talents (Maines now refers to him as "a genius") to offer to make an album with the aspiring composer. Although the resulting South of Town was a limited pressing -- Carroll plans to rerelease it soon with a wider distribution -- it did contribute to his burgeoning buzz.

What captured the ears of astute listeners was Carroll's ability to evoke meaning in his character's lives. These could be real people like the Louisiana rice farmer in "Errol's Song" or his favorite comic strip characters, "Blondie and Dagwood," all of whom populate Screen Door. "That's the only songs I ever write: story songs," he notes. "There's a couple songs I really know about, but the rest of them come from older people or friends, and that I've shaped my own way."

One way Carroll has found to get his music across is by hosting Adam Carroll's Down Home Song Swaps at various venues across the state. "It's cool that you can make friends with people you don't know," he says. "I think it's cool when you are doing one of the songwriter deals. You don't ever know how to react to other people, and whether you like what they do or not, or whether they like your songs. It's important to stay in it with everyone else and to pay attention to the other two guys…You really have to listen to the other guys even if they're not playing with you."

Given his frequent gigging and impressive self-released records, you might finger Carroll as a canny do-it-yourself kind of guy with a slick marketing plan. Truth be told, he's really just doin' what comes naturally. He admits that he's paying the rent with his career. As for the future, he says, "I'd like to keep playing. But mainly, I'd just like to be making new fans. I'm not sure where I'd like to take it. I've always thought that my music could be kind of conversational. If people come and it makes them laugh or makes them feel like they're hearing a good story, I guess that'd be good. But I don't know if I'll be big or anything. But I do enjoy being in the scene and being around cool people. So I hope I can just figure out a way to keep doing that."

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Rob Patterson