Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll made a big impact with 2008’s critically acclaimed Trouble In Mind and the unforgettable single ‘She Left Me For Jesus’. His latest album bears the fruits of the last couple of years touring and writing. His voice has a limited range, but it has a character which fits well with his often quirky songwriting. Hayes wrote all the material, almost entirely solo, and he has developed impressively as a writer since his last record, good though that was.
He opens with the rockabillyish ‘Stomp And Holler’ of a potential teenage delinquent (“like James Brown but white and taller”) frustrated with a life on minimum wage when he sees others raking it in from crime. Hayes has a gift for portraying marginalized individuals, but I was disappointed with the title track (co-written with John Evans and with band member Scott Davis). Although it has an interesting (if bizarre) storyline, about a teenage soldier with a drug dealing sideline turned experimental drugs subject for the US government, the complete lack of melody (it is sung almost all on one note) makes it virtually unlistenable, and the pace it is rattled out makes it hard to understand without the lyric sheet or until you’ve heard it a few times. Fortunately, everything else here is worthwhile.
A couple of the songs draw on the life of a travelling musician. In the cleverly written ‘Hard Out Here’ he self-deprecatingly plays a washed up musician bemoaning his lot in a bar somewhere, with honky tonk pianoand a room choir of similarly gravelly voices backing him up. Even better is the folky banjo-led ‘Bottle In My Hand’, which features guest vocals from fellow singer-songwriters Corb Lund and Todd Snider on a rambler’s testimony. The lyrics reference country songs ranging from ‘Howling At The Moon’ to ‘Rainbow Stew’. ‘The Letter’ is a love song from the road; the writer is something of a lost soul, but his longing for the one at home seems genuine.
The closely observed and mostly spoken ‘Grateful For Christmas’ is the most obviously autobiographical song here. With an affectionate honesty reminiscent of Tom T Hall at his best, it shows us a family at three Christmases: with the protagonist as a child, as a disgruntled youth, and finally as head of the household. Grandpa dies between the first and second verses, and the protagonist’s father between the second and third. This is outstanding, and feels like a modern standard in the making.
My favorite track is the low-key ballad ‘Chances Are’, which sees a man looking back on a life filled with bad choices but still hopeful that he and the woman he has just met (and to whom the song is addressed) may find some healing together. This is beautifully put together and heartbreakingly interpreted, with sympathetic steel guitar underpinning the mood:
Chances are I took the wrong turn
Every time I had a turn to make
And I guess I broke my own heart
Every time I had a heart to break
And it seems I spent my whole life
Wishin’ on the same unlucky star
The hushed ‘Hide Me’ (also very effective with its quietly gospelly backing vocals making it into a kind of secular hymn) draws from a similar emotional place, with a man tired of
All those years running round
Of flying high and fallin’ down
Well, the time has come at last
To rest my heart and ease my past
The downbeat mandolin-led ‘Bye Bye Baby’ is a quietly crestfallen response to the end of a relationship, when “the drunks have turned to strangers and the stars are out of tune”; this is a another very fine song. More complicated is the relationship depicted in the mid-tempo ‘The Lovin’ Cup’ where a couple break up after “a couple bad years” and then get back together.
‘Another Like You’ is an ironic duet with Cary Ann Hearst which shows a drunken pair of opposites getting together, at least for the night, and unable to keep apart despite constant (often funny) sniping at each other about their political differences. The drawled feel-good ‘Grand Parade’, which sets falling in life against an everyday life backdrop is as engaging, but a little less memorable; co-writer John Evans sings harmony here.
This is an excellent set of songs in the Texas troubadour tradition, and while Hayes does not have the best voice in the world. he is effective at conveying his material.