Living to tell 

Hayes Carll

The world is full of singer-songwriters who are cosmically put in place to make sense of life with their keen observations, glib humor, and unwavering honesty. Their work serves as our narrative. It can be revealing, humorous, beautiful, painful, and painfully honest. Texas troubadour Hayes Carll is one of these beacons. He shines with honesty dressed in irony, and steeped in a simple beauty.

And those that dig Carll aren't alone; his song "Another Like You" was voted No. 1 song of 2011 by American Songwriter magazine, and his album "KMAG YOYO" was the American Music Association's top album. Carll's name also found its way onto best-of lists for Rolling Stone, Spin, and The New York Times.

Whether it's fronting his rollicking, twang-tastic band, the Gulf Coast Orchestra, or waxing honky-tonk a la carte, Carll is truly a remarkable songwriter. He took few minutes out of some family time in Houston to chat about the irony in irony, his favorite songs, and if he's ever had a girl leave him for Jesus. An edited transcript of the discussion follows.

CITY: Are your songs more observations or comments?

Hayes Carll: I guess it depends upon the song. Generally they're more observations than comments or critiques.

You certainly observe a lot of irony.

There's a lot of irony in life in general. It tends to show itself when you're looking at stuff a lot, whether it's everyday life, politics, or religion. One of my favorites, Ray Wylie Hubbard, said the problem with irony is not everyone gets it. You run that risk sometimes.

How do you go about writing a song?

It's changed over the years. When I first started it was if I could find a rhyme. That was pretty much the criteria. It's changed from record to record. Whatever catches my interest, I just run with it, looking for that spark, something that gets me excited. Some days it's current issues and on other days it's more traditional things, like love and relationships, life and death.

What are some of your early influences?

Initially it was a wide mix of country singer-songwriters, folk guys... Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Buffett, Jim Croce, Kris Kristofferson.

What was it about these artists that struck you?

They were storytellers. And guys like John Prine or Dylan or Kristofferson — who are probably my top three — they were writers, but they weren't classically trained good singers. They just sounded like guys who had really lived life, and lived to tell about it in a real, believable way. That really gave me hope when I started singing. I was like, "If my voice sounds authentic or unique in some way, I don't have to hit all these amazing notes."

Those guys turned me on a lot early on. A lot of it was just the storytelling aspect, the having been places and seen things that I hadn't seen at that point in my life. I was very desperate to go out and have adventures of my own to write about.

What's your favorite song of yours and why?

I don't know, man. I've got my favorite songs. I don't know what the best one is. I guess it just depends on my mood or how long I've been playing it. I've got this song "Arkansas Blues" off of my first record that I like a lot. And then there's a couple off the second record, "Long Way Home" and "Wish I Hadn't Stayed So Long."

Any you don't like?

As far as anything I'm ashamed of, if you went through my office there's a lot of stuff I'd never want to see the light of day. But I'm pretty proud of everything I've released.

Has a women ever left you for Jesus?

No. We didn't know what kind of life ["She Left Me for Jesus"] would have, or what a common phenomenon it was. I've literally met 200 people who have come up, "Oh by the way, my girlfriend/boyfriend, wife/husband left me for Jesus." There's actually a little undercurrent of people who've gone through that.

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