Texan Hayes Carll made a splash last year with “She Left Me for Jesus,” an outrageous little portrait of an apparently religiously unaffiliated redneck who laments, “She says that He’s perfect. How could I compare?” Don Imus is said to have called it the greatest country song ever written, and it goes into territory guaranteed to irk the Religious Right and maybe the religious center-right. The song propelled Carll to national consideration, and it was in every sense a smart move.
But it’s catchy enough that it could also become the kind of song that boxes an artist in, and it would be a shame if that happened to Carll. He came up in the party bars of the Bolivar Peninsula near Galveston—“playin’ for my supper six nights a week, hurricanes, Easter, and New Year’s Eve,” he recalls in “I Got a Gig.” Of the young songwriters working in Texas right now, he may be the most successful at picking up on the rowdy strain in the tradition, rather than the quiet poetry of Townes Van Zandt that so many young country-oriented songwriters favor. His models are Robert Earl Keen, who gives him a fearless cynical edge, and his early backer Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Soon Carll began to play songwriter clubs like the Old Quarter, Galveston’s counterpart to the Ark, along with the bars. With Hubbard he cowrote “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” containing this vivid moment of dissolution:
Wine bottles scattered like last night’s clothes,
Cigarette papers and dominoes.
She laughs for a minute about the shape I’m in,
Says, “You be the sinner, honey, and I’ll be the sin.”
From Canadian songwriter Scott Nolan, who’ll be opening Carll’s show at the Ark on Tuesday, June 9 (see , he takes a song about a woman whose love is “like tornado weather.” That song is called “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”—the name of a Tom Waits song, but an entirely different composition. (He also sings an actual Waits tune, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”) Other lyrical motifs wind through his music, including the old blues phrase “trouble in mind,” which provides the title for Carll’s latest album.
Carll is quick on the draw with a rhyme, and if he hasn’t quite found his voice he nevertheless outdoes his models sometimes, which is just as good. The ambition of his lyrics carries him past much of Keen’s recent work. Hayes Carll is definitely a self-made barroom legend in the making.
[Originally published in June, 2009.]
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