Americana artist Hayes Carll still betting on himself

Serendipity. Maybe that’s how it might seem to some when they gaze upon the life singer-songwriter Hayes Carll has made for himself. After all, although he was raised in the toney Houston neighbourhood of The Woodlands, Carll sings about women as wild as Rome, losing streaks, country-song bound romances, and lovers leaving him for Jesus, as if he were raised in a boxcar parked on a closed-down railway halfway from nowhere away from the geographic centre of America.

It’s a talent honed with hard dreams, hard miles, hard work, and a precise ear and eye for a song, partly learned from a songwriting session with no less a mortal than Guy Clarke. Serendipity? Perhaps, but so much more. After all, a younger Carll actually turned down a deal with Sugar Hill (Robert Earl Keen, Dolly Parton, Doc Watson) because freedom meant more than money. And this year, because love meant more than freedom, he also married another established singer-songwriter, Allison Moorer, who co-produced his most recent album, this year’s What It Is, which upholds Carll’s now-signature style and features songs that lay the truth out with knock-out lyrical precision then buffer it with humour about things such as black velvet painting of Jesus and Elvis together.

Speaking from Rosemary Beach, Florida, where his parents are celebrating their 50th anniversary, Carll is charming and focused as he talks about his music and his life. One of the first topics of conversation is a single released by Albertan Corb Lund on which Carll duets — an updated version of the 1972 Dr. Hook gem, Cover of the Rolling Stone. Both Carll and Lund completed history degrees before they embarked on their music careers; the two previously recorded together on 2012’s Bible on the Dash. 

“Yeah we just sit around and talk 18th century revolution,” jokes Carll. “Um, I mean, we have a whole lot in common but that’s one thing. The history degree doesn’t come up in my music a lot but it comes up in his. 

“I’m kind of blown away by his ability to turn those stories into songs,” he says of Lund, whom he met in a poker game in Dauphin, Manitoba.

As to the impact of the single, Carll is clear. “The day it came out I saw some good feedback, but I’ve kinda had my head down. It was just fun to do that, but I haven’t been paying a whole lot of attention to whether it’s setting us up for retirement or whether it’s gotten any traction but we had fun doing it. These days it’s hard to decide whether to just stay in the space of thinking about the creative process, enjoying what you do, or spending time worrying about the business side of it. You have to do both, I guess, but this week I’m more on the side of the creative space.”

Because he’s been touring his new album all year, Carll is well aware of the cost of taking a band on the road, paying for accommodations, promotion, making T-shirts, the whole bit. “It has to be sustainable. I’ve got a family to support and a crew to support. When you start off in this business as a songwriter, my desire was to write songs and to connect and create. What I didn’t realize was that I didn’t think about the fact that I would be a small business owner and what a large part of everything that would play.”

If finding a balance between being creative and being paid has been a challenge, so has balancing his career and his family, especially as his wife is also on the road at times and needing to meet the same needs in her career.

“Balance, well, that is the question and it’s something we still work on.” 

Carll keeps his tours shorter and tries to spend as much time as possible with Moorer and their two kids, his 16-year-old son from his first marriage and her nine-year-old son from her marriage to Steve Earle.

“My son definitely enjoys it. I take him out on tour once or twice a year with me and then her son, John Henry, has done a lot of traveling, but he has non-verbal autism and so it’s not quite the same experience for him. But we still try and get as much time together as we can. Sometimes the road’s not super conducive to children, but we take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves.”

Of his recording career, Carll is pragmatic. “Because I started out and I still consider myself a singer-songwriter and that’s somewhat different than a recording artist. You know, writing and creating a song is one thing but recording it is something different altogether.

“I remember my first record I cut in Willie Nelson’s studio and the engineer there — it’s my first time on a microphone in a studio and I was commenting on how it sounds different being recorded and you’ve got to use different tools and sing differently and you’re trying to capture something that’s different than when you’re doing it live — and he sort of quipped, ‘Yeah, that’s why they call them recording artists.’

“And I’ve never been quite as confident in that world as I’ve been live onstage in front of my audience where I can see what’s going on, I can feel out the room, I can sort of intuitively know where I’m going and what I’m trying to do a little better and know how to do it.”

But to even get into the studio, Carll has come off tour, book time in between family commitments, keep up on the business, and, of course, write the songs, which can be a challenge in a time-squeezed world. “It’s changed a little bit. I used to stay up a lot later and drink a little bit more, and I didn’t have as many responsibilities. That would sort of lead itself to one sort of process. I need to be a little more disciplined about my time and I have more of a routine than I did back in the early days. So I get up earlier and I do my work and I try to keep myself in decent shape so that I when those ideas come or when I am ready to sit down and do the work I can do it.”

Something as simple as where to live has an impact. “We moved to Nashville recently and that’s been good for me. Having a stable home life and also living in a town filled with songwriters gives me a lot of opportunities to get together with other people that pushes me to work with a little more discipline than I do on my own. I can procrastinate with the best of them but if I schedule a co-write or if I I’m going to sit down with somebody in a room it’s not as easy to turn on the TV and just kind of check out.”

And as for having the balls to turn down Sugar Hill, Carll is straightforward. “It was nothing against them but I had done a one-record deal – I had made my first record (2002’s Flowers & Liquor) and I was gonna put it out with this label called Compadre Records. And I’d done a licensing deal so I got the record back after seven years. And I had read a lot at that point in my life and there was no school for how to do this or how to navigate the business world of it. But, I’d seen a lot of VH1 episodes and I just sort of paid attention to what was going on with people, and what I realized is that there’s a lot of benefit to a record label, but in exchange for those benefits you’re giving up a lot of your rights and ownership.

“I had already made my second record, my Little Rock (2005) record, and Sugar Hill people had offered me a deal for it, but I felt very protective of my career and I really wanted ownership of my career.  And at the time I don’t know if it was naiveté or pride or what but I just felt like betting on myself and I thought if I can do this on my own – and I had just got a manager at that time, my first manager – we just talked about it and said if we can do this on our own there’s some real benefit there to that.”

Nonetheless, he was “flattered” to be offered a deal with “such a cool label.” 

“But ultimately I decided to bet on myself and that worked out for me in that the record did well, I still own it to this day, I still make some money on it, and I was free, and a couple of years later I had another opportunity of Lost Highway (Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello) and I sort of had the same consideration. 

“I really enjoy owning my own records. There’s a freedom in that and there’s a chance of a financial windfall that you don’t really have with a record label, but there’s also a chance you just lose your ass and put in a lot of work and nothing gets anywhere. But when Lost Highway came along, it felt like the right time to take a chance with a label so I did at that time, I did my next two records with Lost Highway — 2008’s Trouble in Mind and 2011’s KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories).”

Carll met one of the artists he would have shared the Sugar Hill label with at a party after a small festival they had both appeared at. Clark was hanging out with his producer and sometimes co-writer Verlon Thompson and playing songs all night. A few weeks later Carll got Clark’s number. “I just gave him a call and said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me but I’m the guy that you were bummin’ cigarettes off at the party the other night and I’m going to be in town and wonder if you’re up for a song.’ ”

While Carll was surprised Clark said yes, he was soon at his house, and what he learned impacted him to this day.

“My takeaway from that other than being intimidated and nervous about it all was just the intentionality of what he did, the seriousness with which he approached his work and how important the song was to him. Not to say our song but just the process of writing a song. He was trying to find something real and some kind of connection there and he chose his words very carefully and he was a craftsman about it.

“I’d always kind of come from the school of you just drink or do drugs or open yourself up to the heavens and hope for some stroke of genius to hit you and hopefully the pretty good stuff, and what I learned from him is there was a real discipline and a real craft to it and you sit down every day and you do the work and you know, stream of consciousness is one thing but being really intentional about the words you choose and putting them together is important.”

And if you’ve listened to What It Is, or Carll’s music before that, you can hear the impact of that one night with Clark so many years ago.

(Photo courtesy David McClister.)

Hayes Carll plays at Festival Hall Sept. 5 and 6. For information go to

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.