Hayes Carll: Back to the Country

Hayes Carll’s new album You Get It All is his most country-leaning project since 2008’s Trouble in Mind. There are country flavors, of course, in everything released by this Houston singer, who now lives in Nashville with his second wife, Allison Moorer. But on this record, those flavors are in the foreground, even if they represent a strange blend of Kenny Rogers and Guy Clark.

“Kenny Rogers was my first cassette tape,” Carll remembers. “As a six-year-old, I would hide under the stairway with my little tape recorder and listen to those story songs like ‘Coward of the County,’ ‘Lucille’ and ‘The Gambler.’ They were mini-movies of love and tragedy with these amazing choruses you could sing along to. They opened up the world to me.”

Carll is sitting in the Blackbird Bakery in Bristol, Virginia (just a few blocks from the Tennessee line), in mid-September. He hunches over a cardboard cup of coffee and a box of doughnuts, two hours before performing at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, just the second stop on his fall tour, his first shows since March. Wearing a black denim jacket over a black T-shirt and wearing a sparse beard, this is his first attempt to talk about the new album, and he stops and starts as he searches for the words.

“Country has always been in my head,” he continues, “but I never embraced it so wholeheartedly as on this album. I remember dancing with my mom to Johnny and June. I remember cutting out pictures of Willie, Waylon and The Outlaws, because they were so different from my life in a planned community outside of Houston. I loved that it was storytelling you could dance to.”

On the new album’s title track, “You Get It All,” Carll sings of all the things that a woman gets when she casts her lot with a man like him: “All my tame and all my wild, all my man and all my child […] All my joys and my regrets / All my old Guy Clark cassettes.” It’s unclear what a woman in 2021 will play those cassettes on, but it’s a signal that the Texas honky-tonk poetry school of Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Ray Wylie Hubbard is as important to Carll as the earlier influence of Rogers, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

“Those singer/songwriters were not part of my upbringing,” Carll points out in a more recent phone call, “so I had to discover them on my own. I was lucky to connect with Guy early in my career. In 2003, I wrote a song with him called ‘Rivertown’ on my Little Rock record. Back then I was all about inspiration and catching lightning in a bottle, and if inspiration didn’t come, the song didn’t get finished. At the time, I thought Guy’s process was really laborious, that this isn’t the way I do that. The arrogance of that is obvious. I’m more interested in the craft these days; now I get the joy of going over and over line until it says just what I want it to say.”

You can hear that attention to craft in the new song, “To Keep from Being Found,” which Carll wrote with Pat McLaughlin. The song’s narrator is on the run from unspecified troubles in Texas, but he describes his New Mexico border motel—the rollaway TV, the rotary phone and the metal key—so vividly that we feel like we’re sharing the room with him.

“When we wrote it,” Carll remembers, “it was very much a folkie John Prine song. But just before we split up that day, Pat said, ‘What if we do it as a shuffle?’ That became the North Star for this song—how do we Delbertize it? Everything I write starts out as a folk song; that’s why I need co-writers and producers.”

Another song, “In the Mean Time,” Carll co-wrote with Brandy Clark and sang with her as a duet. The chorus, describing the rocky passage through which any marriage must pass, teems with the sort of internal rhymes Guy Clark would have loved: “In the meantime, the holler-and-scream time, the crush-all-your-dreams time, the can’t-hardly-breathe time.”

“I loved the double entendre of that title, ‘In the Mean Time,” like Randy Travis’ ‘On the Other Hand,’” Carll says. “You can think your marriage is great, and then all of a sudden you’re in the ditch. I tried and tried to develop that, but I couldn’t land it. I knew I wanted to save it for someone special, and I thought of Brandy. When she sang ‘Hold My Hand’ on the Grammies with Dwight, it just blew me away. I played her that idea, and she was really into it. We hammered out a chorus, then came back for another session and did the verses. There’s nothing I love more than a country duet, so I asked her if she’d sing it with me.”

All 11 of the new album’s song were co-writes, a result of his move to Nashville after a brief sojourn in New York. “I realized I needed a yard,” he explains, “without someone below or above me. Nashville felt like coming home. I like that writing a song with somebody else is a job that people here respect. In most parts of Texas, when I said, ‘I’m a singer/songwriter,’ they’d always say, ‘What else do you do?’ In Nashville, like in Austin, there’s no follow-up question.”

The lead-off track on the new record is “Nice Things,” which Carll wrote with the Brothers Osborne. It’s a biblical parable of sorts, a story about God visiting Earth in 2021, the Gospel According to Hayes. God is appalled to find that her planet has been poisoned by pollution and that one of her best creations, the marijuana plant, can land a visiting deity in jail. It’s one of the best examples of how Carll often combines serious topics with a sly sense of humor and a singalong chorus.

“I love that mix of the serious and the comic,” Carll says. “I love it in Guy and Townes, in Dylan, in Lyle and Ray Wylie and John Prine. Life is not just the silly stuff and it’s not just the heavy stuff; it’s the serious and the funny all mixed together. As a writer, I want the full range of those things in my songs. I want to tackle things that weigh heavy on me, but I also want to laugh at the absurdity of it all, at the awkwardness of how we act. I don’t think I could write just serious songs all the time; I would burn out. To write with levity frees up space to tackle more serious things. If I can make them laugh and cry in the same song, that’s the best.”

Carll had co-written the song “Back on the Bottle” for the Brothers Osborne’s 2020 album, Skeletons. At their second writing session, Carll brought in the couplet, “This is why, this is why, this is why why, why, this is why we can’t have nice things” He had intended it to describe a relationship, but John Osborne said, “Why don’t we make it about the environment?” When they asked themselves who would have the overview to pass judgment on the situation, God seemed the best bet.

“To me, that’s one of the fun things about co-writing,” Carll says now. “I might have finished that song on my own, but it wouldn’t have been anything like the song we got. I like getting together with some of the best artists in the world and learning as much as I can from them. I think John and T.J. are incredibly talented; I’m really impressed at how they’ve succeeded at the highest level of country music with work of real integrity. Not many artists can pull that off.”

For all the country flavor of the new album, several songs (“To Keep from Being Found,” “Different Boats” and “The Way I Love You”) are more in the blues vein, albeit in the slinky, pulsing manner of J.J. Cale or Delbert McClinton.

“J.J. was relaxed and not trying too hard,” Carll says, “but he still had swagger and groove. You can come at things with high energy, crashing the pots and pans, or you can stand in the corner and be cool like J.J. A lot of Okies came down to Texas because there were more opportunities and a lot of Texans played in Oklahoma, so there was a creative cross-pollination”

The album was co-produced by Moorer (who also co-wrote two of the songs) and Kenny Greenberg. The two of them met at Carll and Moorer’s house to go over the bare bones, acoustic demos to imagine how they might translate into full-band arrangements.

“This is why I hire producers,” Carll confesses. “I write a song and I have a limited vision of what the song could be, and my ability to articulate that is even more limited. Kenny is an incredible musician who knows how to make things sound good. Allison has this uncanny ability to remember records and sounds. I have ADD and she has elephant memory, which makes arguments tough, but is really helpful in communicating with musicians in the studio. She can play this Creedence riff and say, ‘Is this what you’re thinking of?’”

The songs for this album were written before “the way I make a living disappeared” in the pandemic, he says. But before he recorded those songs, he recorded another album of even older songs. That recording, Alone Together Sessions, was released 14 months ago. It grew out of a Christmas party at Carll’s Nashville home in 2019. After midnight, he and his former producer Darrell Scott pulled out the acoustic guitars to play a few of the tunes they’d written together.

“It was so joyful that I wanted to do more of that,” Carll remembers. “I thought of doing a covers album, but then I thought of all those older songs that have evolved so much since I wrote them. At first, Darrell and I played in the same room. But when things closed down, I started recording on GarageBand. I’d hit the button and play the song, and if I liked the result, I’d send it to Darrell to add his parts.

“The songs became less ornate,” Scott observes; “they became more what they truly are, without all that production. The song should always be the leader of the pack—it has to come forward. Here’s one of the ironies in our business. We record a song, and it’s frozen in one eternal form, even though we play it with different bands and different arrangements in 200 shows a year. Why do we have to be slavish about the way it was recorded 17 years ago, as if it were never to be altered, never to be touched? I’ve always believed that songs are living things, that they can be handled more than one way in one person’s career.”

During the pandemic lockdown, Carll and Moorer co-hosted a livestream called “Alone Together Tuesdays.” It proved so successful that they were able to pay their bills and still donate $30,000 to charities. As the weekly show evolved, Carll started taking requests for tunes by Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine and the like. It reminded the singer how much he liked playing other people’s songs.

“I started out playing cover songs in bars,” he remembers, “because that’s how you learn. There’s no school for what I do. But when I became a singer/songwriter, I stopped doing covers and eventually I forgot the joy that those songs gave me. I’d been grinding away at my own stuff so long that I forgot how inspiring those songs can be. Going back to them got me out of a creative rut.”

Revisit Carll’s 2021 Paste session below.