Hayes Carll on the Americana road, small stage storytelling and life after LostHighway
Hayes Carll’s trajectory has followed a rough and tumble country road. If you ran across the troubadour half a decade ago, chances are it was in the form of one of his poetic anthems on one of Austin's signature stages. In recent years, Carll’s towering figure has left the small listening rooms behind to grace bigger stages, including Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits.
The Woodlands native began his career by producing and releasing albums on his own label (Highway 87) and was eventually picked up by Lost Highway Records (home to Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams) in 2008. Along the way, he’s crafted humorous and poignant tunes with Lone Star wildcard Ray Wylie Hubbard and has been granted the title of Americana Music Association Artist of the Year.
"That was always the fun part for me, trying to hit your stride as a storyteller. Some of the stories were true, some had kernels of truth and some were made up completely."
Currently headlining a cross-country tour before an intercontinental trek later this summer, Carll is making a hometown pit stop on June 30 for a show at the Paramount Theatre. Before his upcoming Austin gig, Carll took a few minutes to catch up with CultureMap about his Americana experience, from his small stage storytelling days to life after Lost Highway Records.
CultureMap: I first heard you back in 2005 on a little sampler that featured "Down The Road Tonight"... Quite a transition from that to playing ACL Fest, being featured on Austin City Limits, etc. Do you miss anything about those "small stage" days?
Hayes Carll: I sometimes miss the intimacy of those shows. There is something special about the early days of any career or endeavor. Expectations are different and you have more leeway to work your way through the shows and find your style.
About those days... your live show banter and stories are unparalleled, and always something I cite when people ask about you. Especially that "Naked Checkers" story… Can you do a quick retell?
I wish I could. It must have been about that long since I told it I guess because I don't remember the story. I used to riff a lot more in between songs trying to fill space and find material. That was always the fun part for me, trying to hit your stride as a storyteller. Some of the stories were true, some had kernels of truth and some were made up completely.
Back then you had recently done your first co-write with Ray Wylie Hubbard... "Chickens." Then later, you collaborated on "Drunken Poet's Dream." I kind of see "Drunken Poet's Dream" as a more polished, full-bodied approach to songwriting. Is that something you see reflected in your individual writing, too?
I think you're always changing as a writer. Sometimes that's seen as growth and sometimes as a step back. I probably am a better writer now than I was then. But in the two songs you pointed out I think the difference in quality had more to do with the subject matter than our mastery of craft. One was a song about chickens. How great could it really be?
"As an artist all you can do is try and make good music, surround yourself with solid people, make the best career choices you can and work your ass off. Then it's up to the audience how far that takes you."
Do you see a lot of Hubbard these days?
We do an occasional show together and are always talking about writing again. I try and stay pretty close to Ray and Judy. It's good to have friends who know what they're doing and who have no qualms sharing advice or telling you when you're screwing up.
Who do you typically draw on for songwriting inspiration?
Anything that fires that spark. The all-time songwriters and the guy I just met in the bar. Movies, books, life. Inspiration is everywhere, it's just a matter of tapping in.
Do you have any go-to co-writing friends?
John Evans and Corb Lund are two friends that I like to bounce ideas off of.
From your pre-Lost Highway days to becoming AMA Artist of the Year, have you noticed or experienced any major changes in the scene?
Not really. I still see a lot of the same faces, clubs, etc. I guess you could say there is a little more infrastructure in the scene than there used to be, but it really doesn't feel all that different. It's not like AT&T is sponsoring the Americana awards. Most of these acts were already around and are still slugging it out in the trenches like before.
One thing I have noticed that has done a lot of good has been Satellite Radio. That ability to reach all the markets that don't have Americana stations, which is pretty much most of the country, has been huge for spreading this type of music.
When you get to go out in Austin, who do you catch?
It depends on the night. About half the time I'll go out knowing I'm seeing a particular artist, and the other half I just go to the clubs and see whoever is playing. There is so much great music in Austin that you can't go wrong.
Do you think there are folks flying under the radar that should be nationally successful?
Of course, the list is endless. In my version of a just world the music charts would look a lot different. I have friends or people I run across who I think "how is this person not a huge star?" But there is no rhyme or reason to it. You can't control what people want. I promote the people I dig and try and support them however I can, but at the end of the day it's the public who decides who's going to be big. As an artist all you can do is try and make good music, surround yourself with solid people, make the best career choices you can and work your ass off. Then it's up to the audience how far that takes you.
Your upcoming Paramount gig is acting as a bit of a sendoff before a tour-heavy summer, including travels to Australia. What else is on the horizon?
Not a lot really. After Australia I'm shutting it down a bit to write and record. I've been fooling around with some movie projects. I'll be re-releasing my first record Flowers and Liquor in July and probably sending out a few singles to radio over the fall. I'm off of Lost Highway so I'm just trying to figure out where I fit in the record business these days. There are a lot of exciting options out there these days for artists to do things on their own.
Speaking of doing things on your own, if you had to pick one song as a reflection of your music road, what would it be?
I don't know, but it would have to be a medley. How about “American Trilogy.”
Hayes Carll plays the Paramount Theatre this Saturday, June 30 with Rodney Crowell. Tickets are available through the Paramount's website.