Texas songwriter Hayes Carll came on the scene with a provocative number called “She Left Me for Jesus,” which Don Imus once called the greatest country song ever written. Hayes built on that image as a cheerfully cynical rake, albeit one with a melancholy side. Even when he turned to such serious subjects as the Iraq War (in “KMAG YOYO”), he did so with a torrent of clever rhymes. Eric Risch of Popmatters called him “the clown prince of the roadhouse,” and I can’t do better than that description.
But since Carll turned forty, his songwriting seems to have taken a more serious turn. Last year’s Lovers and Leavers, his first since the KMAG YOYO album five years earlier, began to stretch into new territory–Carll wryly observed that for the first time, he felt he could call himself a songwriter.
Carll seems to be the leading candidate at the moment to follow Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Carll’s mentor Ray Wylie Hubbard into the pantheon of Texas songwriting legends, and the new music takes strides toward that end. In “Good While It Lasted,” he exceeds the usual tale of the reformed substance abuser with a chillingly understated depiction of a relapse that follows. “The Love That We Need” (“We got the life that we wanted, not the love that we need”) is a perfect picture of a seemingly fine marriage from which the affection has seeped out. Carll seems aware of the fences for which he is swinging in “For the Sake of the Song,” which takes its title from one by Van Zandt. “I don’t think Townes would mind,” Carll said when he debuted the tune at the Ark last year. Best of all is “You Leave Alone,” which calmly inserts death into commonplace surroundings.
Carll appears at the Ark in a solo show on December 14, his first without a backdrop of heavy Americana rock guitars. This more intimate atmosphere should focus attention on where Carll is going, and he may well have some new songs since last year’s album–he’s been posting a song a week to contributors on his Patreon page. Also, his life has turned promisingly messy: he’s been the recipient of shade from Steve Earle, whom songwriter Allison Moorer left for Carll–the older man called Carll a “younger, skinnier, less talented” version of himself.
Carll rejoined with a tune containing the line “I think she left you because you wouldn’t shut your mouth.” All the ingredients are in place for a fine December evening of song.