Hayes Carll: Hitting the Road for the Sake of the Song

Music Features Hayes Carll
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Hayes Carll: Hitting the Road for the Sake of the Song

On his previous album, 2010’s KMAG YOYO, Hayes sang with self-mocking humor about the travails of the road. The song “Hard Out Here” poked fun at crowds that don’t listen, deals that aren’t straight and beer coolers that run out. “They say, ‘Boy, you ain’t a poet, just a drunk with a band,’” he sang with comic exaggeration over a bouncy Texas two step. “It gets hard out here, I know it don’t look it. I used to have heart but the highway took it.” It was a wonderfully funny and catchy song.

He’s not laughing now.

KMAG YOYO was Carll’s breakthrough album, landing in the top 20 of Billboard’s country and rock charts. Everyone expected a follow-up album of similarly witty, bouncy numbers within a year or a two. Instead no recordings emerged for five and a half years, as he wrestled with a painful divorce, a 40th birthday and fundamental questions about what kind of artist he wanted to be. He now says that both the divorce and the creative hiatus were caused—not entirely but in crucial ways—by the debilitating effects of life on the road. Moving forward, that’s one of the key aspects of his life that he wants to change.

“Getting divorced and turning 40 made me take a look at how I lived my life for the past 16 or 17 years,” he says. “I wasn’t happy with the way things were going. Part of that was the way I made my living. I was burned out and had lost the joy of performing music. A lot of times I had to drink a bottle of whiskey just to get through the show.

“You look up and say, ‘Gee, I’m in a different city every night; my relationship is a wreck; I’m not seeing my kid, and I’m waking up every day with a hangover.’ Don’t get me wrong; there are positive things too. I get to do what I’ve dreamed of doing since I was 14. I get to write songs and have an audience that wants to hear them. But there had to be a way to hang on to those positives without getting killed by the negatives.”

Carll is sitting in a corner booth in the back room at Threadgill’s Restaurant in South Austin, trying to keep his head down during the madness that is the South by Southwest Music Conference. His girlfriend Allison Moorer (Shelby Lynne’s sister, Steve Earle’s ex-wife and an accomplished singer/songwriter in her own right) has just squeezed Carll’s hand goodbye to go get ready for her guest appearance at his show that night. Wearing a blue-denim jacket over a gray shirt and sporting a modest light-brown beard, Carll speaks in a subdued voice, as if not relishing this rehash of his recent crises but determined not to duck any questions either.

He has reason to have confidence that things are going to get better, because his new album, Lovers and Leavers, coming out April 8, is the finest work of his career, even if it’s very different from what came before. It’s a quieter record, recorded mostly with a stripped-down trio—with occasional splashes of keys and steel added here and there. It’s a more thoughtful collection—with the choruses more likely to contain epiphanies than punchlines. Into the spaces where the stomping and joking once were comes a sobering awareness of the losses that shadow every life. That consciousness was always lurking in the background of his songs, but now it comes into the foreground.

“We recorded this record live in five days,” he writes in the liner notes, “using just an acoustic guitar, a mix of bass, percussion, pianos and organs, and a touch of pedal steel. I didn’t have one song that I knew would be a sing along or would make people dance. I felt vulnerable in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. But I got what I wanted—a record with space, nuance and room to breathe. It felt right for my art. It felt right for my life.”

It’s fitting that Lovers and Leavers opens with a road song: “Drive,” co-written with Jim Lauderdale. “Drive and drive, don’t you ever sleep?” Carll sings to himself over a two step so relaxed it lulls one into a reverie. In that dream, the singer sees himself forever on the road, clinging to the hope that as “long as you keep moving, you won’t ever die.” But it proves a false hope. In the final verse, the exhausted singer decides to “lay down by the railroad tracks.”

“It’s not just musicians who experience this,” Carll says at Threadgill’s. “Truckers, salesmen, a lot of people have jobs that keep them on the road a lot. After a while you begin to feel homeless and adrift. You look around, and all your friends have lives and families. I longed for a garden and a dog, but I couldn’t because I was never home enough to take care of them. I was gone 250 nights a year for 10 years.”

But here’s the conundrum: In 2016, the only way to make a living in music as a full-time front person is to travel. The days when Steely Dan could stay home and just make records, confident they would sell enough to provide a good income, belong to another century. Unless you’re in the pop-music one-percent, records rarely yield a substantial profit these days, so you have to hit the road. And music-making is such a powerful experience that singers will put up with a lot just for the chance to keep doing it—a fact that the music industry knows how to exploit.

Carll confronts this dilemma on the album’s second song, “Sake of the Song.” “Hitchhiking, bus riding, rental cars,” he sings over an organ-fueled Memphis blues, “living rooms, coffee houses, run-down bars, 10,000 people or alone under the stars, it’s all for the sake of the song.”

As the number sprawls across a dozen verses, Carll tallies up all the pluses and minuses of the music life—the “record deals and trained seals” and the chance to “tell your truth however you choose”—but refuses to conclude that one outweighs the other. Instead he presents the listener—as he does on all the album’s songs—the unsatisfying reality that life is a package deal, a series of tradeoffs, and leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions. It’s that approach that has made these songs the most substantial of his career.

The title for “Sake of the Song” inevitably brings to mind the classic Townes Van Zandt composition “For the Sake of the Song.” Another of Carll’s new songs, “Good While It Lasted,” contains a line that echoes both the wording and melody of the title line from Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” Neither of these were deliberate tributes, Carll insists; they both bubbled up from his unconscious. But once they did, he kept them in the songs, because he does feel a part of the long chain of Texas singer/songwriters.

“My earliest inspirations,” he concedes, “came from those guys: Townes, Guy, Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson and Ray Wylie Hubbard. I was always drawn to literate writers. Kristofferson was revolutionary in bringing intelligence and humor to country songwriting—John Prine too, though he’s not from Texas. That Texas songwriting is all around you if you grow up here. Just look at the walls in this room.”

He nods toward the walls in Threadgill’s, which is a kind of shrine to Texas songwriting. Located on the former site of the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters, the restaurant’s walls are covered with posters, photos and drawings of Texas artists—all the above plus Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, Waylon Jennings, Bob Wills, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and many more.

“Clint Black grew up two minutes from where I grew up,” Carll adds. “Lyle Lovett was 15 minutes away. Taking songwriting seriously is in the atmosphere here. It seems like a real trade that real people do.”

The day before our conversation at Threadgill’s, Carll performed for “The Grammy Block Party” during South by Southwest. Standing alone with his acoustic guitar on the grassy bank between the Four Seasons Hotel and the Colorado River, the singer told a funny story about the journey from his childhood in the Houston suburbs to his first Grammy nomination.

“When I was a teenager,” he told the minority of nacho-nibbling guests who were paying attention, “I told my mom, ‘I’m going to grow up to become a country singer.’ My mom said,
‘You can’t do that.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Two reasons,’’ she said. ‘First, you grew up in the Woodlands. What are you going to write about? There aren’t enough towels at the country club?’ I said, ‘OK, that’s a valid point. What’s the other reason?’ ‘You don’t have a butt. To be a country singer, you have to have a butt. You need to sit down and be a folk singer.’ And yet I persevered against the odds and here I am with a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song of the Year.”

“That story about my mom is totally true,” Carll confirms at Threadgill’s. “The Woodlands was an affluent town. The golf courses were the main thing. For a teenaged kid into Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac, it didn’t have the things my heroes were writing about.”

He was nominated for writing “Chances Are,” which first appeared on KMAG YOYO, but was later covered by the great East Texas country singer Lee Ann Womack. Carll was writing songs for the 2010 Gwyneth Paltrow movie, Country Strong, when the music supervisor suggested that he write a song with the title “Chances Are.”

“It was a fun exercise for me,” he says. “I played with all the ways you can use that phrase. Because you can go in a million different directions with a song, there’s something to be said for having boundaries to work within. Having a title like that gives you an anchor; it gives you a structure earlier than you usually have in writing a song. When Lee Ann sang it, she changed the emphasis, and it came to life in a different way. I thought, ‘Hey, that’s a pretty good song.’ It’s interesting how that works. It’s hard to have a perspective on your own song if you’re too close to it.”

But after years of leading a semi-successful country band playing for rowdy crowds all over North America, Carll began to believe that maybe his mom was right. Maybe he should sit down and be a folk singer, a singer/songwriter like his earliest heroes. Maybe he should write and record an album of quieter, more thoughtful tracks. Maybe there should be less “Stomp and Holler” (the emblematic title track of KMAG YOYO) and more “sit and tell a story.” Maybe he should alter his methodology “for the sake of the song.”

“I started out as a solo singer/songwriter,” he points out. “I wanted to be Townes, John Prine. I’m not equating my talent with theirs, but that’s what I wanted to be: a songwriter telling a story to the audience. But as things evolved, I started playing with bands and I started writing songs that had a different energy to them, more of a rock ‘n’ roll, honky-tonk feel. And I enjoyed that. All the other bells and whistles are fun, but with this album I wanted to get back to that intimate feel, that connection with the audience, rather than being a traveling party.”

The key song on the new album is “Good While It Lasted,” an acknowledgement that the things you thought would always be part of your life can easily slip through your fingers. The romance of a new marriage, the thrill of the rock ‘n’ roll life, the pleasures of drinking and smoking, the infancy of your first child—all these things can be gone before you know what’s happening. “It was good while it lasted,” goes the refrain, “but it didn’t last too long.”

This theme is echoed on songs such as “You Leave Alone” and “The Love We Need.” No matter who you grow close to—parents, lovers, children, friends—death makes sure that “When you leave this world, you leave alone.” In the meantime, “it’s a hard way; it’s an eternity. We got the life that we wanted, but not the love that we need.”

“I had just gone through a divorce,” Carll explains, “so the transience of things was present on my mind. In some ways, that’s always been a theme: life passing by, the relationships that come and go. My main relationship had just ended and so had all the things that came with that.

“The songs came out of those personal experiences, but I hope they’re universal and not just about me. The verses are one guy’s story, but the choruses I hope are a lot of people’s stories. I like that approach of creating these very specific characters and stories in the verses, but with the chorus saying something everyone can relate to.”

It’s surprising to learn that these very personal songs were all co-written. Carll co-wrote “Sake of the Song,” “Love Don’t Let Me Down” and “The Magic Kid” with Darrell Scott; “Good While It Lasted” with Will Hoge, and “The Love We Need” with Moorer and Jack Ingram. Unlike a lot of Texas songwriters, who sneer at such Nashville habits, Carll has never had a prejudice against co-writing.

“One of my first co-writing experiences was with Guy Clark,” he points out. “If that’s selling out, well, I’m sorry. I’ve been able to write with J.D. Souther and Ray Wylie Hubbard. I’ve learned from some very smart people. When I write on my own—and I still do that a lot—I can take a verse or an image and work on it for 10 years. And I have. Writing with someone else gives you boundaries, and boundaries can be very helpful, just as getting the title for ‘Chances Are’ was.

“When you’re with someone in a room, those boundaries are real. You can’t check out mentally and think about Chick-fil-A or what you’re going to do that night. You’re both there for the same reason: to get something done, so that keeps you focused. I have my strengths and weaknesses, and having someone with a different perspective helps a lot. Just being forced to articulate your ideas out loud is helpful.”

He cites an early co-writing session with Scott as an example. Before they even tried to write anything, they had a three-hour conversation. Finally Scott said, “You know, you keep talking about your kid a lot, about his magic tricks and his spirit. We should write a song about that.” So they did. Carll’s son Eli, who turns 13 this summer, had been performing magic tricks for his family since he was five and in public for money since he was nine.

“I was not enthusiastic when he told me that was his ambition,” Carll jokingly told the crowd at the Grammy Block Party, “mainly because I was his primary audience and he wasn’t very good. I had to be real with him; I said, ‘I can see everything you’re doing, and you’ve got tiny hands.’ Of course, he was five. But he was undeterred and kept working at it. He was gigging at age nine and making money—which made me rethink my own career.”

He then played “The Magic Kid,” a song that’s not joking at all when it describes Eli over a country-folk ballad melody. “There’s not a trick that he can’t figure out,” Carll sang, “and he’s never stopped the show for fear or doubt—like the rest of us did. He’s the magic kid.”

“I’ve watched him follow his heart with a bravery that I find astonishing,” he says the next day at Threadgill’s. “I saw him go into situations where he was likely to fail, and I wanted to stop him, but I realized I was projecting my own shit on him. I realized that maybe I had been that kind of kid—maybe not as brave as him. I realized that it’s easy for young kids to be original and that the world can knock that out of you pretty soon.

“It’s always tricky for a parent to balance encouragement and honesty. My first reaction was to snuff it out, and that made me very sad. Eventually we worked out this thing where we would talk over his shows like a peer review session. I could tell him where he’s losing people because I watched the audience as much as I watched him. I wanted to encourage him to not give up, because sometimes it seems like the whole world is trying to make you give up.”

Carll is proud of these new songs, and so, of course, he will head out on the road to perform them. For the spring and summer, he will tour as a trio with Mike Meadows on percussion and Geoff Queen on pedal steel and guitar; he may add bass and keys in the fall. But he is determined to handle the road differently this time—to do it not for the party but for the sake of the song.

“I spent 15-18 years of treating the road the same way,” he says, “as a party that never ended. I had fun doing that. But what worked for me in my 20s and 30s doesn’t work for me anymore. I like walking off the stage knowing what I did and how the audience reacted and feeling good about it. That’s a lot better than drinking till I don’t care anymore.

“What has changed the most is I don’t hang out after the show like I used to. That’s my time to decompress. I don’t get hammered and tear up the town. I try to take better care of myself, so I can get up in the morning and feel good enough to read a book or write a little bit.”