Hayes Carll is nothing if not affable, with his ever-present half-smirk and "aw, shucks" persona. But don't be fooled by nonchalant swagger. The 35-year-old Carll, born and raised in The Woodlands, is also quite self-aware. Almost ridiculously so.
See, Carll knows what's on the immediate horizon of his career. He knows that, with the release of his new album, KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories), his whole career could change. In some ways, it already has. Last month, in the build-up to that disc's release earlier this week, Carll performed for the first time on late-night television, stopping by The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to perform the title track of his new disc, a song that derives its title from the military abbreviation for "kiss my ass, guys, you're on your own." And, just before that honor, he scored another coup: A different KMAG YOYO track, "Hard Out Here," was appropriated for use in the soundtrack for Country Strong, the Gwyneth Paltrow-driven flick about the Nashville country scene.
It's a lot to process for a guy who, as recently as a few years ago, was mostly unknown, struggling to make a name for himself in the Houston market and in Texas—especially considering that when he wrote "Hard Out Here," he really meant the words he was putting to paper, both as a performer on the road and as someone faced with the difficult task of asking cash-strapped strangers to support his endeavors.
Hayes Carll performs Tuesday, February 22, at the Double Wide; Wednesday, February 23, at the Aardvark in Fort Worth; Thursday, February 24, at Dan's Silverleaf in Denton; Friday, February 25, at Lola's Saloon in Fort Worth; and Saturday, February 26, at Poor David's Pub.
"I've been through years of touring," the performer says over drinks during a recent stop through Dallas, his slumped shoulders telling as much of the story as the words coming out of his mouth. "You go out every night—150, 200 nights a year—and talk to folks every night across the country. I couldn't escape the fact that everyone, everywhere was telling me, 'It's rough out here. I'm losing my job, can't afford to buy your shit. We're having a rough time, y'know?'"
Looking back on the song these days, though, he sees another meaning.
"I was kind of lamenting whenever I bitch about the road," he says. "It was, in relation to myself, more than tongue-in-cheek."
And rightfully so. After all, even with more widespread appreciation coming around the bend, Carll has it pretty good these days. His audience has caught up to the critical acclaim his songs have been receiving for years; it wasn't even two months ago now that Carll found himself performing before 1,000 or so people at a packed Granada Theater in Dallas, his fans dancing in the aisles and singing along to every song. It was a significantly different environment than those Carll had become accustomed to playing in years past.
"I made my living and my fans, for a long time, in small clubs," he says. "I'm still getting used to playing in the bigger rooms, and I think my fans are as well. Ideally, y'know, you get to were I can kill in those rooms, but there's something I miss about the intimacy of playing those smaller venues. People come up to me and complain to me all the time, 'Oh, I don't wanna go to anything with 1,000 people at a show," which I miss too, but not financially."
Lucky for his finances that, for the foreseeable future, scenes like those at the Granada appear to be Carll's new reality. His earnest, often self-deprecating songwriting style clearly resonates with people these days.
Carll, clearly, is appreciative. So, before nights like the Granada become too permanent, he's pulling back on the reins a bit. Before touring the rest of the country and performing in theaters and the like, he's returning to his small-club roots, embarking on three separate five-date stops in Texas, starting with a swing through North Texas, a market that holds a special place in his heart.
"Dallas was the first place I ever came to tour," Carll reminisces with a smile, sharing how he was drawn to perform in the region thanks to the early radio play his songs received on KHYI-95.3 FM The Range. "It's the first place I ever got airplay. And, in turn, led to being the first place where I had crowds."
And, surely, he'll have plenty of packed houses this week. None of clubs he's playing—the Double Wide and Poor David's Pub in Dallas, Lola's Saloon and The Aardvark in Fort Worth, and Dan's Silverleaf in Denton—even approaches half the capacity of the Granada.
The mini-tour is a means of saying thanks, certainly. More than that, it's a way to further distinguish himself from the cluttered Texas country world. He's trying to distance himself from that scene, though his music boasts some similarities.
"Everything I do, I do with a kind of a twang," he says with a shrug. "So even if it's not technically a country song, it gets labeled as that. I always try to keep one foot in and one foot out. I have no qualms about being labeled a Texas singer-songwriter. I think I have a certain sense of pride in it, actually. But the market's pretty cluttered right now, so that could mean a number of things, when you label somebody that."
In Carll's case, it's something of a disservice. No one will confuse him for Bob Dylan, but there's a definite charm at play in his simple lyricism, and even more so in his half-hearted delivery. That much is his trademark—and, truly, it does set him apart from his Texas country contemporaries, who are all too willing to placate audiences simply looking for background music to score their beer-drinking scenes.
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Carll doesn't want to do that, and early on in his touring career he intentionally booked gigs outside of Texas to further distinguish himself from the cluttered scene. Even so, he's been embraced by the Red Dirt crowds. For now, he's more than happy to have them on board—even if, as his career continues to grow, he expects the Red Dirt scene to turn its back on him.
"Not to be a pessimist about it, but I accept that that's probably going to happen," he says. "If I don't, and then it does happen, it would be, y'know, a gut punch. But I tell myself that, if people are going to hate me just because it's going well, then you can't worry too much about it."
He shrugs once more.
"You've just got to do your best work," he says, "and hope that it can actually reach enough people to keep you out there."