Hayes Carll has a story that elicits a slight wince but nevertheless encapsulates why the 34-year-old Texas troubadour has clawed his way to the top of the ranks of up-and-coming singer-songwriters.
Reclining comfortably in the cozy Northwest Austin home he shares with his wife and 7-year-old son, Carll sets the scene: It's the early '90s, and the teenage Hayes is goofing off during a trip to Key West, Fla., when he spies a homeless man on the street picking at a beat-up guitar. Carll wanders over to strike up a conversation.
"To me, this was the coolest thing anybody could be doing. I mean, he was playing guitar and people were giving him money," says Carll. "I didn't factor in that that was all he had, and I was sitting there trying to riff with him about what a cool life he was living."
The busker stared at this eager, naïve and solidly middle-class boy as though he were gazing upon a space alien.
"In retrospect, I was an obnoxious teenager from the suburbs that had no idea what life really was," says Carll with a sigh.
But he was determined to find out.
"Back then my heroes were Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac, guys who I dug not only artistically but for their ethos of getting out on the road, hanging with the homeless and the heroin addict," says Carll. "Those characters were not in my universe, but I was trying to get at and discover that life."
That drive helped propel Carll from a mere country-loving suburbanite to a self-deprecating storyteller who doles out equal parts heartbreak and humor, a snarky Steve Earle for Generation X with a perfectly laconic drawl. When Carll plays Wednesday nigh t at Antone's, he'll cap off a 2010 heavy on career milestones - an Americana Music Award for best new or emerging artist and an "Austin City Limits" taping chief among them. Carll's steady ascent is set to continue in 2011, with several of his songs taking center stage in the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring film "Country Strong" and the release of his fifth album, the storming, loosely topical "KMAG YOYO" on Feb. 15.
As a kid from the Woodlands, Carll's in good company. The master-planned community north of Houston was also home to Will and Win Butler of the Arcade Fire, whose childhoods informed this year's acclaimed album "The Suburbs," and renowned country crooner Jack Ingram.
The young Carll developed an early fondness for country music and a Kerouac-informed passion for writing short stories, poems and essays.
Those two loves collided when Carll was 15, when his parents brought him to a Unitarian church where a folk duo performed a greatest hits of Bob Dylan tunes - "The Times They Are A-Changin'" "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." A Dylan novice, Carll instantly fell in love, and his life's mission of being a singer-songwriter snapped into focus.
"I was like `Wow, this guy says more in six minutes than most people will in 300 pages,'" says Carll. "It just combined everything I wanted from life: travel, writing about political injustice, a sense of rebellion and rock 'n' roll and literature and lyricism and poetry. It was everything encapsulated into one trade."
Carll asked for and received a guitar for Christmas, a honking Alvarez with strings like telephone wires. Though an essentially happy teenager - particularly with a job at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, where he'd often shirk his car-parking duties to catch sets by Bob Dylan or Tom Petty - he soon got the itch. The Woodlands' lack of ethnic or economic diversity began to eat away at Carll, a budding idealist who'd thrown a racial unity rally after the Rodney King riots and started a neighborhood recycling program.
He enrolled at Hendrix College, a small liberal arts university in Conway, Ark. He studied history and co-hosted a radio show with his roommate, a white, dreadlocked Bob Marley enthusiast from Fayetteville. In four years and change he was out, and he was no closer to his singer-songwriter dream.
"I graduated last in my class with a history degree, so I was totally unemployable. But the real problem was that I still didn't have anything to write about," Carll says. "I was a suburbanite kid before and now I was a white kid in a liberal arts school in Arkansas. And time was burning. Dylan had a publishing deal by 19, and `The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' had come out when he was 21, so I was behind the curve."
Desperate to throw himself into some hard living, Carll set his sights on Crystal Beach, a small community on the Bolivar Peninsula near Galveston, where dive bars meant he could find steady gigs. He played several nights a week for ornery crowds where fights were common. He saw patrons pull guns on each other. With no TV, no Internet, no record stores, no movie theaters and few age-equivalent peers - his friends, Carll says, were criminals and elderly alcoholics - he spent his time writing, reading and performing.
"Crystal Beach had a lot of interesting people," says Carll. "A lot of people who moved to Bolivar were there not to be found. They were hiding from something. It was the anti-Woodlands, the antithesis of the suburbs. It was exactly what I wanted and what I was looking for."
His career was slow going at first. An attempt to move to Austin in 2000 fizzled out after six months, when Carll couldn't find a steady gig, labored in a series of low-paying jobs and, most insultingly of all, couldn't land a date ("I was the guy sleeping on a couch and working at Red Lobster"). But his career gradually picked up steam. He opened for and befriended Ray Wylie Hubbard early on, and the fabled fellow singer-songwriter took Carll under his wing. He began to open for bigger and bigger acts across Texas, and his first LP, "Flowers and Liquor" received regional airplay and garnered Carll attention from the Houston Press. By the time he moved back to Austin in 2005 - his wife had found a steady teaching job in the area - things were happening for Carll.
Lost Highway put out his third album, "Trouble in Mind," in 2008. It soared high on the Americana Airplay Chart, thanks largely to "She Left Me for Jesus," the story of a spurned lover whose girl opted for religion over romance. It won Song of the Year in 2008 from the Americana Music Awards. Radio host Don Imus called it "the greatest country song ever."
Carll almost didn't put it on the album.
"I deliberated for awhile about putting it on the record," says Carll. "I was worried I'd be labeled as a guy who wrote a gimmick song and that'd be the biggest thing I ever did."
But for all of Carll's concerns, "She Left Me for Jesus" spotlights an essential component of his appeal: his sense of humor. Onstage, with his beard and scraggly long hair, he looks more Mitch Hedberg than Townes Van Zandt. In his "Austin City Limits" episode, introducing "Little Rock," he has much of the audience giggling before he even cracks a proper joke. Reasonably serious in person, Carll says his dry quips are his way of connecting with the audience.
"Especially early on, my songs were six-minute ballads of depression and alcohol that weren't going to get a crowd going," Carll says. "But it's important to engage them somehow. Townes played hours of heavy dark depressing stuff, but he would mix it up with jokes to keep people from slitting their wrists."
Carll's mix of humor, sadness and trenchant observation is present in full force on "KMAG YOYO" - the title is a reference to a military acronym for "Kiss My (Expletive) Guys, You're On Your Own." It's loaded with memorable lines ("I'm like James Brown, only white and taller" he sings on opener "Stomp and Holler") and songs on the woes of modern America - war, joblessness and economic struggle. The title track relates a harrowing experience in Afghanistan, while "Bottle in My Hand" posits that one sensible solution to modern problems ("There's trouble at the border and a far-off war, oil in the water and a shut-down store") might be a stiff drink. The political subtext, says Carll, is less openly partisan and more reflective.
"I've done about 200 shows a year for the last couple of years, and every night I meet people after the show," Carll says. "And everybody seemed to be having a hard time. I didn't set out to write a political opus and change a lot of minds, but I felt like writing about what I was seeing around me, and not just my fondness for bourbon and women."
Not that either of those are absent - they're even combined in the entertaining "Another Like You," a drunken come-on in the form of a duet between a scraggly liberal narcissist (Carll's conception of himself) and a conservative spitfire in the mold of Ann Coulter, two unlikely partners who find lust, if not love, in each other. And Carll's sense of humor might find its fullest expression in "Grateful for Christmas," an autobiographical take on the many holiday gatherings of the Carlls, a bittersweet rumination on family reunions that plays out like a subtler take on Robert Earl Keen's canonical holiday classic "Merry Christmas From the Family." Equal parts sincere and winking ("We got all of our friends and family here, and I'm grateful for Christmas this year … I wish I had a drink or maybe a dozen, Lord what I wouldn't give for one good-looking cousin"), it's Carll in a nutshell.
"The goal was to make a song that could make you laugh and cry at the same time," Carll says. "If you can do that, that's a good day's work."