[9 April 2008]
Hayes Carll is a rockin’ country performer in the Billy Joe Shaver/Guy Clark mode—a Texan with a croaking voice and literate story telling skills who writes about the common man. What makes Carll different is his strange sense of humor about being at the bottom of the social and economic ladder and always being at the wrong end of any relationship. Like that other Lone Star star Billy Joe Shaver, Carll’s a lovable loser and no account boozer, but he hasn’t reformed yet.
While Shaver sings about finding salvation in Jesus Christ, Carll boldly announces that if he ever finds Jesus, he will kick his ass. You see, Carll’s girlfriend left him for Jesus, and that just ain’t fair cuz Jesus is perfect. Besides, Carll’s seen Jesus’ picture and can tell he’s a dirty hippie and probably a Communist, or even worse yet, a Jew! And if that ain’t shameful enough, the last time Carll and his honey made love, she shouted out Jesus’ name in the thralls of passion. Now if you’re the kind of person who finds stuff like this funny (and I do), then Carll’s tales will appeal to you. He delivers his lines better than I do, and displays a keen sense of timing as well as clever wordplay.
Given, it must be hard being a Texas singer songwriter. There is a long tradition of excellence, not to mention to ghost of Townes Van Zandt, and dozens of noteworthy contemporaries putting out excellent records. But Carll more than holds his own on his third release and first one a major label (Lost Highway). He spiritedly sings his 13 self-penned songs with a devil-may-care panache whether he’s crooning about his girl who likes to lie around naked and be stared at or a love struck suitor doomed to fail in his courting. Carll’s voice sounds like he’s halfway laughing and halfway crying, but he’s always a sucker for a good joke. He knows there’s more depth in humor than pathos—and it’s a lot more fun.
Moreover, he has a good eye for sensory detail, noting the pencils in a waitress’s pocket and the ketchup on her clothes in one song, and burnt fried chicken and Lone Star beer being served in another. He also has a good ear for how people talk. He expresses himself conversationally. He tells you what’s on his character’s mind in the voice of the protagonist. And sometimes you can tell that person is headed for trouble just by the way he speaks rather than by what he says.
Carll does offer one cover, of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”. While Waits growls the words, Carll sounds more like a kid crying against the adult world who wants to be heard. You can understand all the words, and the country style accompaniment makes the simple nature of his complaint (“Makes me wish I that I could be a daw-aw-ag”) clearer. The song fits in well with Carll’s own compositions about the ills of being an adult in a cold, cold world. He titles his album Trouble in Mind for a reason. There’s no song by that name on the disc. It just represents his state of mind. Carll doesn’t let this bring him down. He sings his troubles away.