Willie Nelson. Shelby Lynne. Van Morrison. Hayes Carll.
In order, new international releases by those four artists were rolled out by Lost Highway Records in March and early April.
Country and pop music fans spanning several generations identify with songs by Nelson and Morrison, a venerable pair of music industry icons. Lynne already has a Grammy Award on her bookshelf.
Carll’s quirky tales of love gone bad or irreverent honky-tonk humor are delivered with more than a hint of irony. So how does he find himself ready to ramble onto the national stage alongside such a star-studded roster?
To begin to answer that question, Carll thinks back about nine year ago, to his proving ground: a ramshackle collection of beer and set-up joints along Highway 87 on the Bolivar Peninsula, just north of Galveston. The experience provided the inspiration for his 2002 debut, Flowers and Liquor.
That was four years ago after his first break at Galveston’s Old Quarter Acoustic Café, a place run by Rex Bell, former bass player in Townes Van Zandt’s band. Here, Carll got his first change to perform for an audience, even though on some nights, Carll, Bell and the bartender outnumbered the crowd. At the end of Old Quarter, Carll met and opened for another mentor, Lisa Morales of Tex-Mex band Sisters of Morales. She produced his first CD.
Since then, Carll has meandered down enough lost highways of his own, along which the lanky, bearded Texas singer paid his dues in preparation for his latest CD release, Trouble In Mind.
Carll’s ultimate move to a big-name label came through Lost Highway A&R executive Kim Buie, who was more than aware of the singer’s established regional popularity after the release of his sophomore CD, Little Rock, in 2005. She signed Carll after seeing one of his live shows in 2006.
Then Carll had to get his butt in gear. The previous few years had been a whirlwind, with his marriage right before the Little Rock release, followed by relentless touring and the birth of his son, Eli.
“I had some sketches but really didn’t have any songs ready after I signed. So I had to lighten up the tour schedule and work in three months to write,” Carll says. “Then again, I had lots of time to work on this CD. I did the first in five days, and the second in 10.”
The resulting 14 tracks on the CD (and 15th for those who purchase the vinyl LP version) are an amalgam of where Carll is going and where he’s been, to paraphrase one of his songs.
Carll has expanded his already formidable songwriting talent. He revisits the themes he considered on his first CD, inspired by countless late nights in unsavory places. While Trouble In Mind makes its way to broader international markets, his new fans can experience the grit that pushed his career forward.
The lead track, “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” is co-written with Ray Wylie Hubbard, the grandfather of Texas alt-country music and one of Carll’s biggest supporters. The song is about a woman that Carll describes as a hell-raising muse.
“We had that opening live, ‘I’ve got a woman she’s wild as Rome,’ and it just took off from there,” Carll says.
Three songs were written at the last minute in the studio when Carll realized that he had an overabundance of melancholy tunes: “Wild As A Turkey,” “A Lover Like You,” and “I Got A Gig,” Carll added one previously released up-tempo song, “It’s A Shame,” with a stripped-down arrangement, he figures his new audience will like.
Then there’s the final cut, “She Left Me For Jesus,” a staple at Carll’s live shows during the past year. It tells the tale of a hapless soul who figures his girlfriend has found somebody new: “She left me for Jesus, and that just ain’t fair. She says that he’s perfect, how can I compare?”
It’s the kind of song that might have found its way onto one of Kinky Friedman’s early recordings.
“I hope people get the joke, because I know that people take their religion seriously,” Carll says. “Most people seem to know I’m mocking this redneck’s lack of understanding. Ray Wylie (Hubbard) once told me, though, that the trouble with irony is that some people don’t get it.”
While Carll’s live show features a deadpan sense of humor that leaves audiences bent over laughing, he can follow a joke with a song that transports the listener to a darker place.
Two of the CD’s best moments are a pair of songs that summon Van Zandt’s flair for the morose: “Don’t Let Me Fall,” and “Willing To Love Again.” The latter is a soul-bearing apology to Carll’s wife, Jenna: “I broke your heart a thousand times with wasted nights and rambling rhymes,” he sings, barely whispering the words.
“I just wanted to get that out, for what I put her through just being me, I smoked and drank too much, and that she stood by me,” he says. “Now that you mention it, looking over the whole record, I’ve mentioned a lot about booze and drugs and being in bad places. The seedier things are somehow easier to relate to.”