When Hayes Carll appeared on the roots music scene in the early 2000s, he was shaggy, slouchy, and blazingly smart and funny. He won over crowds with his droll drawl and his comic timing. He’d released his debut album on Compadre Records, out of his own hometown of Houston.
Before long, he took his Steve Goodman-meets-Townes VanZandt troubadour style to Nashville’s prestigious Lost Highway Records and was named Americana Emerging Artist of the Year in 2010. He’s never let up his tempo of touring and writing fine, probing songs. And in 2017 he absolutely cleaned up at the Austin Music Awards, winning seven trophies, including Musician of the Year.
He’s still funny. His hair still looks as if it might have been involved in a recent nap when we sit down prior to a WMOT Wired In show at 3rd & Lindsley. But asked what’s changed or evolved in the 15 years or so we’ve known Carll as a premiere artist, he says it’s been subtle and self-investigatory.
“I still love clever wordplay and I still tell long meandering stories with no point on stage,” he tells WMOT in the interview posted here. “But for a long time I wasn’t examining my own life as an artist, and then putting it out there. If I did put any of my own stuff out there, I was using a character to present it. And it was more observational of other people. And I feel like the last record and this one there’s been some growth in that I’ve been able to find some important territory to mine as an artist and get okay with that.”
So it’s a more vulnerable, more confessional Hayes Carll you’ll hear on What It Is, his newest set for a February 15 release on Dualtone Records. He alludes to major changes in his life, including falling in love with songwriting veteran Allison Moorer and moving in with her in New York City. They're finalizing plans to move to Nashville and get married. She shows up as a co-writer on several selections, including the love song “Beautiful Thing.”
“It’s nice,” he says of the creative partnership. “I’ll get stumped on something or have an idea. I have my way of approaching things which is not flawless and to be able to take it to somebody that I respect and trust and who has this wealth of musical knowledge and ability I feel very lucky to have that.”
When the album lands fans will hear his signature wit and jaundiced eye taking in modern America. “Fragile Men” was inspired by right wingers and proud boys. “Wild Pointy Finger” takes on internet trolls and thoughtless rhetoric. But he says over 15 years since, he’s grown ever more personal and vulnerable as a writer. And that’s here too.
“There’s so many (songs) on there I can stand behind and say that’s my voice and my sentiment, and that’s a really good feeling to be able to line up your life and your art with your point of view. And maybe it’s not the thing I need to do at all times, but right now it feels good because it’s something I haven’t done a lot of in the past.”