With an excellent new album, Hayes Carll sets the stage for country music domination
Hayes Carll’s just-released album, What It Is, may be the best record he’s ever made. A week after its release, it topped Billboard’s Rock, Country and Americana lists and made #1 on the Americana Radio chart.
It’s easy to see why. The lyrics are deeply personal, and Carll delivers them in a voice full of unrestrained emotion. He laughs and cries and sings the blues, while his backing band lays down smoking tracks that move smoothly between honky tonk rockers, second line struts, boogie woogie and introspective ballads.
“I’m from Houston and spent most of my life in Texas, growing up listening to Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and other guys from my home state,” Carll says. “It’s a great place to be a musician. You can go to a dance hall and kick up your heels, then sit down in a singer/songwriter club, where people really listen to what you have to say. I was fortunate to come up in a time and place that was supportive of all kinds of music.”
When he went into the studio to record What It is, Carll said he wanted to showcase the diverse sounds he enjoyed growing up. “These songs come from a more confident, joyful place. When I was writing my last album – Lovers or Leavers (2016) – it was a challenging time in my life. I made a stripped down singer/songwriter album for a specific time and place. This time, I didn’t go into it with any sonic limitations in mind. I wanted to have more variety, music that brought out the best in each song, regardless of style. If it needed a string section, or honky tonk piano, or the harmonics of a musical saw, we went for it. I produced with Brad Jones and Allison Moorer, who is also my partner in life. We put everything on the table, to see what served the song best. I had music to all the songs, but the arrangements were collaborations with Brad and Allison. Getting different styles on a record feels right to me. Some ideas I had in mind, some we discovered in the studio. If Brad or Allison said, ‘Here’s something that will ramp up the energy,’ I did it.”
Most of the album was recorded live. “We got the band in a room and laid down the basic tracks, then did some overdubs. We could see the people making the music in the same room with us. We didn’t have anyone sending in overdubs from California.”
The songs took shape over several years, inspired in part by current events. “I started writing ‘Fragile Men’ with an artist named Lolo. It was originally about patriarchy and the struggles she was having in the music business. A week after we started, Charlottesville happened. That hit us both profoundly, the images of men marching with tiki torches, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.’ It was horrifying, as was the death of that woman the following day. We steered the song especially toward those men. Using false sympathy, we wanted to ridicule them and point out the pathetic nature of their need to hate.”
Other songs on the album, like “American Dream” and “Times Like These,” lament the trials of working class Americas trying to get by in the current political climate. “I’m expressing frustration with all the division that’s going on in America. The people we elect to bring us together, and speak to our better nature, are dividing us and pissing me off. I don’t want to be pitted against my neighbors. We have more in common than whatever separates us. An ideological disagreement is one thing. Creating them to build up your power is doing a disservice to our country.”
Carll will tour extensively to support What It is, with his long-range plans a reflection of the sentiments he expresses in his songs. “I’d like to know I made the most out of what I have and to encourage others to do the same. I want to write directly about myself, without hiding behind characters and humor. I want to be present for this whole journey and not get so worried about the past and the future that I’m not able to be in the moment. I’ve been very blessed, but its all wasted if I’m not paying attention. I don’t know where my creative life will go, but I’d like to be here for the ride. I don’t want to be checked out and miss it.”