To his peers and fans, Hayes Carll fits right in Texas' rich heritage of singer-songwriters. Like his predecessors Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen, Carll is visceral yet intellectual, with well-placed wit and humor to lighten the mood between songs that tackle the trouble on his mind.
Carll’s reputation as an expert songsmith extends beyond Texas' borders. In 2008 he won the AMA Song of the Year award for his single “She Left Me for Jesus.” In 2016 he received a Grammy nomination for penning “Chances Are,” performed by Lee Ann Womack.
His latest project, What It Is, was released Feb. 15 and is garnering praise for its sonic richness and lyrics. The title track does well to summarize Carll’s mindset. It’s about living in the now but refocusing on the past through lenses of joy and appreciation.
“I’m trying to figure out how to be connected and be present in my life," Carll says. "I think for a long time I wasn’t and because of that I had this life that I was not able to enjoy. So now I’m trying to find that appreciation and gratitude. [The song] is a mantra to myself to stay in the moment and appreciate it.”
The album starts on a playful note, with the lead single “None’ya” coming off as a flirtatious love song to the woman who keeps him on his toes. Songs “Beautiful Thing” and “American Dream” pick up on the theme that he’s paying attention to the details in life.
In other places on the record, Carll’s examination of the present extends beyond himself and ever so slightly touches politics. In “Times Like These,” he calls out the cutthroat polarity of our culture with some up-tempo boogie-woogie. Carll isn't one to normally bring politics into his music.
“I didn’t want to go on a political diatribe," he says. "I just wrote it out of frustration with the way we treat each other as humans, because I think we can do better. It’s not a right or left political statement. I look around me and I have good friends, and if I was in a pinch, they are guys I can count on, who I know are good people even though we could not be more different in our political belief systems. And I hope they know they can count on me.”
The song wraps with his personal prescription, which should be an antidote for all.
“I just wanna do my labor, love my girl, and help my neighbor, while keeping all my joie de vivre," Carll sings.
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His wit continues in “Fragile Men,” with its sarcastic pseudo-empathy. Strings punctuate throughout, with Carll calling in the smallest violin in the world to play for those men who continuously play the victim card rather than examine who they are.
What It Is is a record that comes off good the first time through but really ripens with each spin. Once you’ve soaked it in, you can’t help but feel caught up with one of the best songwriters going in the Americana scene.
“It lines up with my life more than any record I’ve done, as far as the voice of the songs," he says. "It’s a direct line to my life, whereas in the past I would hide a lot of stuff using characters.”