On a Wednesday afternoon in early July, singer-songwriter Hayes Carll has just completed taping a guest DJ spot on the University of Texas at Austin’s KUTX. The radio station playing music defining the Austin music experience invites local musicians in regularly for these guest spots—Augie Meyers, member of the Sir Douglas Quintet and the Texas Tornados, was walking in the station as Carll was walking out—and the 37-year-old Carll selected a dozen of his favorite tunes for his DJing duties, including Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.”
Kristofferson’s tale of a poet, a picker, a prophet and a pusher was a song Carll first heard midway throught his teens while growing up in the Houston suburb of The Woodlands. A girlfriend’s parents had the song on vinyl and hearing it “kind of changed my life,” Carll says. Carll had dreams of becoming a novelist at the time, but “The Pilgrim” and Carll’s later introduction to Bob Dylan’s music at a local Unitarian church led him in a different direction.
After allowing these nascent sensibilities to develop at Hendrix College in Conway, Carll retreated home to Texas and started his singer-songwriter career, channeling his Dylan, Kristofferson, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Ray Wylie Hubbard influences into his maverick, Americana-fueled country music.
Carll’s first album, Flowers and Liquor, debuted in 2002, and its follow-up was 2005’s Little Rock, an album that reached the top of the Americana Music Association charts. Signed to Lost Highway Records in 2006, Carll released Trouble in Mind in 2008, and that record earned an Americana Music Association Song of the Year award for “She Left Me For Jesus.” His 2011 album, KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories), claimed the Americana Music Association’s top album of the year award, and KMAG YOYO’s “Another Like You” earned American Songwriter’s Song of the Year.
What was it about hearing Bob Dylan at a Unitarian church at the age of 15 that changed your life?
I just didn’t know that music could carry that powerful of a message. Or that words, the language could be used in that way. I’d been listening to ’80s and early ’90s country music, which I love and still do, but the use of language was not the same in that style of music. This was before I played guitar or anything. I wanted to be a writer. When I heard Dylan’s music, part of it was the social message that it carried that was intriguing to me as a liberal teenager trying to find some way to make a difference in the world. The idea that a message could be carried through music and inspire action in people. That was sort of a powerful idea and one I hadn’t really thought of to that point. But also, I loved the sound of it. I loved the feelings it evoked. It reminded me of the writers I was reading and into at the time, but you put it to music and it took on a whole other level of depth. And it seemed more accessible than writing a novel. You could put together a three- or four-minute song with the imagery and get immediate feedback and gratification. And probably have a lot more girls around.
What was it that attracted you to Hendrix College?
I was looking to stay in Texas initially, but I wanted to go to a small school that didn’t have fraternities, that was close to home. That was my criteria. [Laughs] I looked around. Most of my family had gone to Baylor [University], but they wouldn’t let Willie Nelson play on campus and I thought, ‘That’s not going to be a good fit.’ I got into the University of Texas, but I was going to be on academic probation and deal with summer school and that didn’t seem like a good idea. I started looking around in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and came upon Hendrix. It just had a great vibe. It seemed as though they had a lot of things I was interested in.
Tell me about The Hayes and Hardgrave Hootenanny Hour radio program you had while at Hendrix.
You weren’t supposed to have a show until you were a sophomore or junior or something, but [Joe Hardgrave and I] went in as interns, I think, and whoever was running the show, if I remember, just didn’t show up very regularly, and we just sort of took it over. It was The Hayes and Hardgrave Hootenanny Hour or the Rasta and the Redneck. My buddy Joe was from Fayetteville and was born on Bob Marley’s birthday. He was a white kid but had dreadlocks. He was pretty consumed with reggae and the culture and everything. That was his deal. He played exclusively reggae music, and I played sort of a mix between Bob Dylan and Charlie Daniels. Somewhere in there.
Following graduation from Hendrix with a degree in history, you went back to the Houston area. What was the plan then?
I knew after about two years in Conway that … what I wanted to do was play music. At the time, there really wasn’t anywhere to play it. Conway was dry. I didn’t have a car, so getting into Little Rock was problematic. I played some parties and such. There was one official gig for the Miss Hendrix pageant, which is a cross-dressing beauty pageant, and I played “No Woman, No Cry.” That was my first public performance.
Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula in Texas seems an unlikely place to launch a music career. What attracted you to the place?
I knew that music was what I wanted to do, and when I got out of school I didn’t know how to do that. It wasn’t something taught at Hendrix: How to go start a music career. I went to Iowa and detasseled corn for a summer and made some money, and then moved down to the beach. Crystal Beach is a remote, isolated peninsula, but there were two benefits to it: One, it was on the beach and who doesn’t want to live on the water and write? It was super cheap with no distractions. The other upside was that there were bars everywhere. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of people in the bars, but they were there. Eventually I asked the owner of one if I could come in and set up in the corner and play and do it for free. I did that and eventually started putting the tip jar out and after a while people were coming in and enjoying it and it got to where I was getting $50 or $100 a night to play music. … I started playing all the bars on the peninsula and got to where I was gigging six or seven nights a week and working during the day to do whatever I had to do to pay the bills. It was a fun time for me.
What is the songwriting process like for you?
It varies. Every time I think I have a system, it changes. What I used to do before electronics was keep my notebook with me at all times and write down ideas and then go sit on the porch and try and find a musical home for them. These days I just keep my phone handy at all times, and whenever I feel it I hit record. I tend to just start singing and make stuff up or play guitar and hit record when I have a melody or something. Then I file all those away and then when I have time to do some real work I’ll go through my list of things I’ve recorded and see if they have any promise and then flesh them out. That’s one approach. But then I do some co-writing, too, which is more disciplined. … But it can be awkward as well. If you are not on the same page with that person, it can be uncomfortable. If you are on the same page, it can be a magical thing, working toward the same goal. … But it doesn’t always happen, and when it doesn’t it is awkward and painful and you wish you were anywhere but there. It’s like dating. When you go out and it works, it’s great and you want to do it again. When it doesn’t, you don’t want to go out again for a month.
So what are you working on next?
I’ve been writing a ton. I’ve done a little bit of recording. I put something out I did on my own, just a single at the beginning of the year. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do. I’m independent now. I left Lost Highway [Records]. It has been a while since my last record, and I got stuff I’ve been sitting on that I would like people to hear, so I’m thinking about taking the approach of just putting music out in smaller batches so people can hear it. … I like the idea of being able to release stuff when I write it, and it not being my artistic statement for the next two or three years. It’s just music that I made.