Concerts

From Poor David’s to Southfork to Billy Bob’s, North Texas Has Been Big for Hayes Carll

Hayes Carll is about to have another big North Texas moment when he plays at Billy Bob's this Thursday.
Hayes Carll is about to have another big North Texas moment when he plays at Billy Bob's this Thursday. Mike Brooks
Over the course of his 20-year career, singer-songwriter Hayes Carll has received a great many accolades and performed on some of the most prestigious stages in the United States. The reviews for his latest LP, You Get it All, have been justifiably glowing across the board, and this week, the 45-year old Houston native will perform at the storied World’s Largest Honky-Tonk, Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth.

Of course, there was a time when Carll wasn’t the established mainstay he is today. Before the record deals, before Americana Music Awards and a Grammy nomination included his name, and before Hollywood enlisted his musical help with the soundtrack to the Gwyneth Paltrow film Country Strong, Carll was an independent artist simply looking to start a career.

Before the spring of 2005, Carll’s music was more of a closely kept insider’s secret than an insurgent, hyped-up new voice. His gift for insightfully poetic, folk-rock tinged storytelling appealed to not only fans of the rowdy, frat-boy approved Texas country of Pat Green but to those who favored the stark, open-hearted imagery of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.

Carll wasn’t that far removed from his days of waiting tables in Galveston and playing open-mic nights in empty dive bars on the Bolivar Peninsula. His 2002 debut Flowers and Liquor had won him influential fans including Jack Ingram and Ray Wylie Hubbard, but he wasn’t exactly making any cash registers bust open.

If Carll had been some sort of secret before he released his second album, Little Rock, in early March 2005, the cone of silence surrounding him was all but demolished by the end of that month. Powered by the fist-pumping, floor-stomping “Down the Road Tonight,” Carll’s name was praised in print, his songs getting serious airplay around the country, and, not so slowly but certainly surely, his concerts were filling up with new fans and frenzy.

Even all these years later, Carll can pinpoint the moment where he realized things were kicking into a higher gear. It was one of many times North Texas would serve as the setting for his star’s rise.

“One week I had played an acoustic song-swap show at [Dallas'] Poor David’s Pub with Randy Rogers,” he says. “There were maybe 20 people there, but a little after that, I got a call from Joshua Jones at KHYI [95.3 FM]. He wanted me to come play their Texas Music Revolution at Southfork Ranch. He said that I needed a band, and I had to play ‘Down the Road Tonight,’ which had become the station’s biggest hit since Robert Earl Keen’s ‘Road Goes on Forever.’ I was really surprised, and I didn’t have a band. I had only been playing solo acoustic, and I had only really played that song when I wrote it in the studio.”

On that day at Southfork Ranch, sharing a bill with Rogers, Ingram and a number of other honky-tonk-packing big names, Carll’s second stage afternoon set was a rowdy triumph. Taking the stage with his new band, one wouldn’t have guessed the tall, lanky fellow wasn’t used to overflowing crowds yelling every word to even his newest songs. Carll said the whole shindig “was pretty surreal.”

Along with a few remarks about the hundreds of people crammed into the venue’s smaller event space and a timely joke about how he would become the “king of Arkansas country, since Texas country was already taken,” Carll and crew were on fire. Near his set’s end, Carll thanked the fans for their attention and the group kicked into the highly anticipated “Down the Road Tonight.” The throng had grown larger over the previous half hour and the roars, hoots and hollers rattled the iconic halls where J.R. Ewing once ruled.

"... It’s probably hard to not be dysfunctional in some way or have some kind of wreckage when you’re traveling around and entertaining people.” –Hayes Carll

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The buzz surrounding Carll only grew from there. Over the next few months, Little Rock climbed to the top of the Americana chart that measured radio airplay around the country. It was reportedly the first-ever self-released record to achieve that status.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate just how impressive all this was, as it took place in the days before online blogs, and especially social media, helped artists magnify their names. It was a simpler time, and Carll was managing to do two things that any artist aiming for relevancy must do: record killer albums and perform the kinds of shows people wanted to tell others about.

Clearly, the word spread, and it did so without the help of videos, likes, retweets, shares or TikTok. Only two months after that hastily scheduled festival appearance in Parker County, Carll was surprised again by North Texas fans.

“Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton is the first venue of any kind or size that I sold out,” Carll says. “I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is an incredible feeling to sell this place out,’ and it just felt like things had really changed for me.”

At the Dan's show, again the audience was packed tightly, and the energy in the space was intense. It felt like an Event with a capital E, more than just another Saturday night show in a town with music blaring out of every other door. Walking into the venue through the front door, Carll had to excuse himself through the serpentine line waiting for entry. On stage, he acknowledged the size of the crowd, but did so in a more assured way then he had the last time he had this size of crowd in front of him.

More people knew more of the words to more of his songs now. Every tune was greeted with the enamored appreciation usually reserved for long-held fan favorites. During the sing-alongs for the Southern-rocking “Little Rock,” and the autobiographically anthemic “Wish I Hadn’t Stayed So Long,” it was difficult to hear Carll sing or his band play over the Hayes mania.

In 2008, Carll would win the Song of the Year prize at the Americana Music Awards for “She Left Me For Jesus”, and in 2010 he would make the first of two appearances on the legendary Austin City Limits television show. His more recent full-length albums, KMAG YOYO (2011), Lovers and Leavers (2016) and What It Is (2019) have further grown Carll’s critical accolades and fan base.

Whether it’s the comfiest, most ornate theaters in the country, or the craziest clubs, Carll is secure knowing a receptive crowd will greet him these days. Given that his first-ever paying gig many years ago left him with a whole $5, arriving to this point isn’t a small feat. Building a career the way he has comes with a price, however.

“I don’t care who you are,” Carll says. “There’s going to be a lot of tough times. Even if you’re successful, you’re still spending a life away from home, you’re on the road all the time, and it’s probably hard to not be dysfunctional in some way or have some kind of wreckage when you’re traveling around and entertaining people.”

Over the years, Carll has battled with alcohol and endured the end of his first marriage. But these days he’s sober and remarried, now to noted singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, who coincidentally lent vocals to Carll’s crucial Little Rock album.

It’s a safe bet that no matter where his music takes him or how many awards he wins, Carll will always remember those fateful, early North Texas concerts that helped him grasp just how much power his promise held.

“I owe a lot to the people in Dallas-Fort Worth area,” he says. “It’s still one of my biggest markets, and I still can’t believe I’ve gotten to do this for 20-plus years. I just consider myself really, really fortunate.”

Hayes Carll is playing at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth on Thursday, Dec. 16.
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Kelly Dearmore