Only label Hayes Carll wants is 'songwriter'
Singer will perform folk, alt.country & rock at Club Congress
When Hayes Carll plays downtown's Club Congress next week, it will be a more formal affair than his last appearance, even by the t-shirt and jeans standard of both his brand of music and that historic music venue.
"A couple of years ago I played the lobby," said the Texas songwriter. "Just a guitar and a PA. We played for folks drinking in the lobby."
Carll's website describes him as "wildly literate, utterly slackerly, impossibly romantic." He admits that his music is "outside the box for mainstream country." Despite his trouble getting heard on country radio, he's attracted an audience in over a decade on the scene.
Incessant playing in clubs along the Gulf Coast and an independently released album, "Flowers and Liquor," attracted local attention in 2002.
Flowers and Liquor and 2005's "Little Rock" attracted the attention of Lost Highway records. 2008's "Trouble In Mind" gave Carll a taste of mainstream success with the songs "A Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" and the irreverent "She Left Me for Jesus." "Jesus" was awarded Song of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.
Not counting on mainstream radio play, Carll has had to build his audience the hard way.
"I was touring opening up for acts that already had a following," Carll said in a telephone interview. "Todd Snider, Old 97's, Steve Earl."
"Satellite radio has been a game changer," Carll said. His songs have been a fixture on XM's Outlaw Country.
"It's hard to figure how they got turned on to you," he said of his audiences. "Certain cities have radio that plays that off the beaten path stuff."
Like many artists playing his sort of music, Carll eschews labels such as alt.country and Americana.
"It's important for people to describe it on a poster," Carll said. "Folk, alt.country, rock. At the end of the day, I'm a songwriter."
Carll's list of early influences is typical for performers in his wing of country music. "Willie, Waylon, Johnny, Merle," he said.
"Two things that woke me up were Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan," he said of what sent him into songwriting. "Also John Prine and Lyle Lovett."
Carll's latest release is 2011's "KMAG YOYO & Other American Stories." The album's title track is named for an old military term, "Kiss My Ass Guys, You're On Your Own."
The song is written from the perspective of a teenaged soldier in Afghanistan.
"I started with the riff and imagined guys blasting through the desert on Humvees," he said of writing the song.
He took care to get the lingo right, and according to feedback from veterans he got it all right except the title.
"Most of them had never heard the term," he said. "I'm focused on bringing it back. That will be my claim to fame."
Even with the outdated slang in the title, he's gotten good reactions from veterans.
"They say, 'We appreciate that you are thinking about us and representing our experience in whatever way you can,'" he said.
The album also includes the song "Another Like You," a duet with Cary Ann Hearst about an unlikely one night stand after a political argument.
"It stems a lot from traveling around the country and the political divide," he explained. "Everyone is shouting at everybody."
"I was listening to Ann Coulter," he said. "She's an attractive woman. But if we went out on a date, it would end quickly."
"My question is, can attraction and alcohol get us past our differences," he said.
The video for the song features a cameo by James Carville and Mary Matalin.
"Don Imus hooked us up. He's a big fan of mine," he said. "Those are two of the most powerful people that personify that deal."
Carll reports that Carville and Matalin play the video before speaking appearances.