American Stories: Interview with Hayes Carll
Hayes Carll is a Texan by birth as well as by occupation. The Houston native plays hardscrabble country songs shot through with wry humor and quiet sadness, evoking such Lone Star forebears as Townes Van Zandt, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Vince Bell. He paid his dues playing small bars in south Texas, hanging out with refugees and fugitives before gaining some national prominence with his 2008 Lost Highway debut, Trouble in Mind.
Recently, he got an unlikely boost from the movie Country Strong, which might not have been a huge hit for Gwyneth Paltrow but introduced Carll’s music to a wider audience. Loosely the basis for Gerret Hedlund’s character, he had a few of his own numbers in the film and another on the soundtrack. “It was fun watching someone else do one of my songs,” Carll says. “You’re writing and testing stuff all the time, but sometimes it’s hard to get outside of it and really determine if it’s connecting the way you want to.”
As Carll was getting ready to embark on a new tour for his excellent new album, KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories), we spoke to him by phone about writing in the studio, channeling pure adrenaline into your songs, and killing off your family.
Was it daunting to follow up an album like Trouble in Mind?
I didn’t feel as much pressure on this one as I did on Trouble in Mind. I’ve been doing this for a while, but my national recognition is still fairly low. Having signed with Lost Highway and having that be my first record with them, I felt like all eyes were on me. So there was more heat from that one than from this one. For this record, I just felt free to do whatever I wanted. It seemed like more a relaxed process for me.
This album really highlights your band, more so than Trouble in Mind did.
I started out as a solo act and didn’t really have a band for a long time. Through the making of my first two records, I hadn’t even played with bands, so I was always relying on producers to bring people together. On the third record, I went that route again. We assembled a great array of talent—Will Kimbrough, Darrell Scott, Al Perkins, Dan Baird, and a lot of great players. But they were guys that I hadn’t played with before. It’s just a different dynamic when you’re playing with people for the first time. For this record, I’d been out with my band nonstop since Trouble in Mind had come out. Doing 400 or 500 dates on the road creates a vibe that’s hard to find any other way without putting in the time. I really liked how we were sounding and what we were doing, and I just wanted to take that into the studio and see if it translated—to capture that while I was out there. I’m a mess in the studio. Musically, I’m completely vague in my descriptions of what I want, and it’s a very uncomfortable process for me. I felt like the guys knew what I was trying to get at, and we saved a bunch of time by going in and doing it like this.
You seem to straddle so many different musical communities—not quite country, not quite rock. Are you thinking about genre while you’re writing or recording?
I don’t know what I am. When I started out, I thought of myself as a folk singer-songwriter, but I sing with a twang and have a country background. It’s country, but my biggest influence is Dylan. I didn’t want to be in a business of playing traditional country, and I wanted to be more exciting than folk music. So it’s a little bit of a hybrid. I wanted to push myself musically on this one. It’s just kind of a grab bag of whatever influences I have and what the band brought to it.
You went into the studio without having written or worked out very many songs. Was that intimidating for you?
A little bit. On one hand, you’re incredibly confident in your abilities, and on the other hand, you’re incredibly insecure about it as well. I’m partially scared that I’m not going to get it done or it’s not going to say what I want it to say, but then there’s a part of me that gets off on that excitement of going in and just creating something fresh and being in that moment. I did a little of that on the last record, where I had three or four songs that were just kernels of ideas when we went into the studio. We’d lay down some music and I’d start singing to it, and I got a couple of really good songs out of it. So I tried to take that approach a little bit more on this album because writing-wise, I wanted to get out of my box. I’m more of a three chords and finger picking musician, and I wanted to do something more interesting than sit down with pen and paper, write everything out, and put some chords to it. I wanted to write from the music we were doing. I wanted to trust my gut and see what was lying in my subconscious and let it come out. It was freeing and something I try to do all the time. But it’s not an easy thing for me to accomplish, to get rid of that critical self-editor.
I don’t know. Most of my favorite records have nothing at all to do with current events at that time, so I can’t say it’s an essential element of songwriting. And I’ve managed to avoid it pretty successfully for most of my career, which wasn’t really my intention. My initial foray into music was early Dylan protest songs, and the power that those held just blew my mind. So I always thought that was the direction I was going to be headed in, but when I got to where I was writing and performing my own songs, it became much more a personal thing—telling my stories or trying to evoke the moods I was feeling or relating the stuff I was seeing at that time, which was all written under an alcoholic haze on the beach. I didn’t have a TV or Internet or any of those things. I was living in a place where nobody reported their taxes or probably even had valid mailing addresses, so no one was too concerned with anything outside that bubble. That was what I was writing about. But on this one, I don’t know that it was a conscious decision, but I’m not in that bubble anymore and there is a lot happening in our country. You’ve got two wars and you’re in the middle of a recession. And it was hard to not think about those things. That came out consciously on some of these songs, and some of it came out on its own. Partly it’s a matter of being out on the road all year. People come out to the shows and you talk to them every night and you hear the stories. The general consensus is, it’s rough out here. Someone’s looking for work, his brother’s in Afghanistan. It was very much present every night when we played all over the country. So I think when I was writing for this album, it was unavoidable for me to comment on it here and there.
Can you tell me about the title track? Is there any basis in reality for that song?
Well, there is and there isn’t. More than anything, it was a stream-of-conscious idea. When we were laying down the music, I thought it was as close as I’d ever get to a musical equivalent of adrenaline. I wanted something lyrically that matched it. What captures that? I kept seeing a war zone and guys in Humvees and a machine gun turret blasting through the desert. That was option 1. Option 2 was, I think the most intense thing you could do was to take a space trip on acid. So I combined the two. It covers some weird ground, but in some ways there’s a healthy distrust of the government in there and there’s the fear that I imagine a 19-year-old would have being stuck in Afghanistan. In a broad way it’s trying to encompass that emotion and intensity while throwing in a little government paranoia in the mix.
Where did you hear that phrase, KMAG YOYO?
I had written about two-thirds of the song, and we were trying to figure out how to finish it up. I sat down with Scott [Davis], my guitar player, and my good buddy John Evans, who’s a great honkytonk country singer-songwriter. We were working on the rest of it, and John pulled out a military dictionary and shouted out that term, “KMAG YOYO.” Kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own. I had this other rhyme scheme—“Hey ho, here we go”—and I had something else there at the time, but “KMAG YOYO” fit better. It just was a lyric initially, but as I was trying to name the song, I thought, well that’s as good a title as any. I kicked around a couple different album titles, but none of them seemed particularly interesting or engaging, and if nothing else this one will leave a lot of people scratching their heads and make people say what the hell does KMAG YOYO mean? I would rather have people confused and talking about it than be ambivalent.
There’s an interesting mix of the personal and the political, with songs like that one and “Grateful for Christmas” jostling against each other.
I wrote that on commission. There’s a DJ here in town named Andy Langer, who works at KGSR. They do this thing every year on top of a Fox News building, where they have musicians in Austin come out and sing Christmas songs during the holidays. They asked if I would come out and do it, and I said sure. But no one wants to hear me singing “Jingle Bells.” I was the worst Christmas caroler in my neighborhood. I thought I’d write something instead, but I only had a day and a half to do it. I started thinking about my family. We had these big family reunions, and the year before, three of the people who were at the previous one weren’t going to be at the next one because they had passed away. I started thinking about the passing of time and the changing role that you have in your family over the years, and it just hit me that my parents are getting older and at some point the responsibility is going to fall on me.
How has your family reacted to it?
They like it, except for the cousins. My cousins aren’t happy, because I lamented their lack of attractiveness, which wasn’t a jab at them. You have to take liberties sometimes in songs. And my dad’s still alive, so he was a little miffed that I killed him off. Sometimes you have enough interesting real-life stuff that you don’t have to stretch it too much, but that’s not always the case. It is about 90 percent the cities and the names and the relations, and my attitude throughout was pretty natural and real. But yeah, I had to kill off my dad for the climax.
Have you had a chance to play some of the other songs out on tour yet?
I had “Hard Out Here” and “Stomp and Holler” for a little over a year now, and they were the first two that I could take to a big, rowdy venue and road-test them. And more recently, we’ve been doing “Chances Are” and “Hide Me” and the Christmas song a little bit. And for the last couple of months we’ve been playing “KMAG YOYO,” although it took a while to remember all the words. I don’t think people get all of what I’m saying, but you can tell if a crowds connecting with it or not. That one and “Stomp and Holler” seem to have an immediate effect. You can tell they’re going to work with a crowd. Especially “Hard Out Here”—it’s a pretty easy chorus to remember and really get behind.
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