What is it with Texas and singer-songwriters? Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Guy Clark. To paraphrase Robert Earl Keen, also a Texan: "The road goes on forever, and the troubadours never end."
Austin's Hayes Carll isn't sure why Texas is such a fertile musical breeding ground, but he thinks "having wide-open spaces and larger-than-life characters" might explain why "it's a bigger scene than the Connecticut folk scene."
Carll, who was raised outside of Houston, says music was always present growing up. "I would dream of being the high singer in the Beach Boys or the bass singer in the Oak Ridge Boys," he says. "But I never really considered that a reality." His notions of becoming a writer shifted to being a musician when he discovered Bob Dylan and realized that writing a three-minute song was easier than a 300-page book. Plus, "there were more girls at concerts than book signings," he says.
After graduating from college, Carll cut his musical teeth playing bars on Texas' Gulf Coast. "I got a good education and a lot of stories to write about," he says. A good sense of this period can be found in "I Got a Gig" (from his 2008 album Trouble in Mind), which offers a vivid portrait of "an old lion-tamer parked behind the bar/Hundred pounds of weed in a stolen car."
Trouble in Mind, his third record, brought Carll a bit of trouble with "She Left Me for Jesus," a hilarious lament about a man who loses his girlfriend to the Messiah. Some listeners took it the wrong way. But Carll offers no apologies. The song isn't about bashing Jesus, he says; it's "aimed more at people who profess to be religious and are anything but in their day-to-day interactions."
Carll, who snagged the Americana Music Awards' New/Emerging Artist of the Year in 2010, released his new album, KMAG YOYO, in February. "A good chunk of the record is about stuff outside of me, which is different for me," he admits. "I generally write about my own inadequacies and trials and tribulations." Like one of his influences, John Prine, Carll has a natural gift for spinning stories where humor and heart intermingle. "My goal is make someone laugh and cry [in the] same song," he says.
The standout title track (a military term that stands for "Kiss My Ass Guys You're On Your Own") is one of those non-autobiographical tunes. Carll typically composes on the acoustic guitar, but "KMAG" began as a riff played by his guitarist.
"It was kind of musical adrenaline, and I wanted to capture that lyrically, so I started thinking about the most intense scenarios," he recalls. "The first one that came to mind was being in a war zone. I envisioned being on the back of a Humvee manning a machine gun, and the other one was being shot into outer space after being dosed with LSD. I realized that I can't write a whole song about being on LSD going through space, so I combined the two." The result is a funny-scary stream-of-consciousness military satire squeezed into a twangy four-and-a-half-minute rave-up.
"Another Like You" delivers a different type of political humor. Carll wrote the Red State-Blue State barroom romance by imagining "what it was like to seduce Ann Coulter." He turned it into a duet because he didn't want to write just from one perspective, "which was a fun exercise to insult yourself lyrically," he laughs. (For his sparring partner, he chose South Carolina singer Cary Ann Hearst.)
This year marks a decade since Carll recorded his first album, Flower and Liquor. Looking back on the past 10 years, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter sees himself still striving for the same things. "I just wanted to make good music that could stand up to the guys that I had been influenced by," he says before pausing then adding, "And not embarrass myself."