If there’s a person in music who most accurately fits the description of a road warrior, it’s Hayes Carll. Since 2002, Carll has made his living touring the honky tonks and listening rooms of Texas and beyond, releasing four studio albums along the way. With the exception of a few major press blips, though, Carll has largely flown under the radar as a “songwriter’s songwriter,” the kind of artist musicians love, even if he doesn't get his due in the mainstream.
But 2015 was a banner year for Hayes Carll. He earned his first Grammy nomination as a songwriter for “Chances Are,” a track released by Lee Ann Womack in 2014. Carll originally released the track on his 2011 effort KMAG YOYO (military shorthand for “Kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own"), but it found its genesis in a much more unlikely place — the Gwyneth Paltrow film Country Strong.
“I wrote 'Chances Are' at the request of a music supervisor that was working on Country Strong and put it out to songwriters in Nashville that he was looking for a song with this title,” Carll says. “I got a hotel room, stayed up all night, and turned it in before the deadline, but they ended up using a different song called 'Chances Are,' so I decided to put it on my own record.”
After hearing the song, Lost Highway Records’ Luke Lewis fell in love with it and promised Carll that he’d get someone — “Willie Nelson, George Strait, or whoever" — to cut the track. That “whoever” ended up being Lee Ann Womack, who requested the track for her seventh studio album, The Way I’m Livin’. The day the Grammy nominations were released, Carll got a text message from his manager at 7 a.m.
“I got a text with a photo of the nominations and I didn’t know what it was for,” Carll says. “My manager had to tell me it was my first Grammy nomination. It completely caught me off guard. I didn’t even know the nominations were coming out, so I definitely didn’t have any expectation of getting one.”
After all these years in the business, Carll has sort of gotten used to not getting recognition. “I don’t care about awards, and I don’t say that in a self-effacing or ‘brutally honest’ kind of way, I just have to minimize these things in my own mind because there was a time when they meant something to me and I would get really disappointed when I didn’t get them,” Carll says. “That’s not how you should validate your work.”
In fact, he’d all but written off the idea of the Grammys until KMAG YOYO was released, which also happened right around the time the Grammys began recognizing excellence in Americana music. With the birth of that category, Carll thought he might have a chance, especially considering that in 2011, his album was the most played Americana record of the year. He didn’t get a Grammy nomination, but a woman named Linda Chorney, who he’d never heard of before, did.
“That year, there was this legendary cast of names — Levon Helm, Emmylou Harris — and I saw this name Linda Chorney and thought, ‘Who the hell is that?,'” he says. “I’ve been playing for a long time and know pretty much everybody who would classify themselves as Americana. It’s not a big world.” As it turned out, Chorney had “gamed the system,” according to Carll, mounting a massive PR campaign to appeal to Grammy voters. “The voters are choosing the best jazz album and the best Latin album and the best Americana album, so a lot of them have no idea,” he says. “That’s when I realized that this woman saw the genre as her best opportunity to get a Grammy nomination, and it worked.”
Carll came to realize that awards don’t always recognize the best work, but he still appreciates their value. “I realized that you can’t put too much stock in it because it’s not, at the end of the day, what determines what type of artist you are,” he says. “It gives you external validation. That’s what the public looks at as success, and Grammy nominee Hayes Carll sounds a hell of a lot better than ‘guy we’ve never heard of’ Hayes Carll. By the end of the day the nominations came out, I remember thinking that this was kind of a big deal. Maybe it’s OK for me to get kind of excited about [it].”
Despite this success, though, Carll has largely been out of the recording studio since 2011. He acknowledges that he always takes a relatively long time between records because he’s never been able to find a good balance between touring and writing and recording. That became significantly more complicated when Carll and his wife split, which left him with a desire to spend more time at home in Texas. “Before, I would play Austin twice a year, and last year I think I played there 15 or 20 times,” he says. “I made a real conscious effort to work less and be closer to home.”
By the time his next album, scheduled for an April 2016 release, comes out, Carll won’t have released a record in five years. Still, he’s managed an impressive national and international touring schedule, picking up new fans along the way. “It’s been a miracle for me that my crowds have stayed consistent and even grown some four years after the record without any new material,” he says. “Life caught up with me a little bit, and I needed to figure out what I wanted my career to look like and who I wanted to be as an artist. Do I want to play honky tonks and listening rooms? What did I want to be as an artist and entertainer?”
This year, he finally made his way back into the game and produced a record unlike anything he’s ever recorded before. When he first started as an artist, it was just Hayes Carll and a guitar, but his band has since evolved and grown. With this album, Carll wanted to strip it all down and get back to his singer-songwriter roots. “I tried to do a lot of different things, whether it was a swing jazz band or my honky tonk band or a rock 'n’ roll band,” he says. “Some worked better than others, but I always felt my most natural place was as a songwriter and a storyteller. Sometmes all the extra stuff got in the way of the essence of what I was best at.”
Carll describes the new album, recorded with producer Joe Henry, as “a pretty quiet affair.” “There’s almost no electric guitar, just pedal steel on two songs, lots of piano and organ and acoustic guitar,” he says, which probably reflects the place he was in emotionally when he wrote the album. “It’s maybe the first record where I wasn’t really relying on a whole lot of humor. These songs were about my kid, about my divorce, about my life. I wanted to get away from the gimmicks and all the bells and whistles and just make a songwriter record, and I feel like I did that.”
For Carll and so many other artists, divorce had a particular ability to draw a great deal of self-reflection and deeply personal writing. "There are a couple of ways to handle divorce. You get drunk and black out or try and not think about it, or you sit down and do some real self-examination about who you are and what went wrong,” he says. “I chose the latter.”
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“There’s nothing like your entire life changing to make you figure out whether you’re on the path you want to be on,” he says. “I felt like I was just going with whatever life brought me and accepting it, but not really touching on myself as a person or an artist.” Ultimately, Carll’s divorce helped him realize that he didn’t just want to “do whatever,” and that epiphany is a heavy theme on his forthcoming album.
In the meantime, Carll plans to lie low. He’ll do a little bit of touring, like Tuesday night’s stop in Dallas at The Kessler, but once the record is released, he's headed back on the road in earnest. He’ll play in Texas before heading out to the United Kingdom, then back for a U.S. tour. He’ll spend the summer in the western U.S. and Canada before heading off to Australia, back to the U.K., then to the rest of Europe.
Some of these plans are still in the works, but the now Grammy-nominated artist knows he’ll be back on the road for the foreseeable future. “I’m just going to go out and tour,” he says. “That’s what I do.”
Hayes Carll plays The Kessler Theater on Tuesday, December 29.