The Woodlands, the affluent suburb just north of Houston, seems like an unlikely place to spawn a gritty Texas country singer-songwriter but that’s where Hayes Carll was apparently raised in a two-attorney household. He left there to attend college in Arkansas, then spent six months picking corn as a farm laborer in Iowa – which is something else you wouldn’t expect a child of the Woodlands to be doing.
Those experiences and his years living in secluded Crystal Beach, across the bay from Galveston, playing local bars before launching out on the road, however, lend a lot of credibility to an impressive music resume.
He says he was the “perennial opening act” for the likes of Ray Wylie Hubbard, Sisters Morales, Willis Alan Ramsey, and a host of other legendary Texas artists when they played Galveston’s Old Quarter, where he learned his chops.
His second album, “Little Rock,” released on his own record label, Highway 87 Music, displays a lot of hard-rocking twang you just wouldn’t normally associate with a rich kid from North Houston. The record leans more to hardcore honky-tonk but has its fair share of laid-back country folk music as well.
In a voice reminiscent of Ray Wylie Hubbard, and maybe a little Slaid Cleaves thrown in the mix, he sings his own compositions with the kind of confident intensity that’s lacking from a lot of new “Americana” artists.
“Little Rock” was produced by R. S. Field, whose previous work includes records by Billy Joe Shaver, John Prine, and Todd Snider among others. Carll also co-wrote the song “Rivertown” with Guy Clark.
If all of the above sounds like an awful lot of name-dropping, this guy somehow manages to hold his own amidst the roster.
While all the songs are good, his lyrics aren’t necessarily groundbreaking in any way. That’s not to say they aren’t competent either. They are. Authentic, yet literate without being pretentious. He manages to hold the line with surprisingly good, rootsy arrangements.
The record kicks off with the slower tempo “Wish I Hadn’t Stayed So Long.” Sung in a lazy drawl; it’s a nice little nod to his time in Galveston and later Austin, where he did a short stint before moving on to avoid being swallowed up in the crowd of struggling musicians there.
It’s a great opener but the record really starts to take off with my favorite track, “Down the Road Tonight,” a country rock stomper in the tradition of Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.” Shouting out a litany of diverse imagery ( . . .high-school heroes, back row preachers’ pool hall hustlers, tantric teachers, teenage cuties politickin’, Harry Krishna feed me chicken) before ending with gibberish when: “I run out of words – that’s all I got!”
The title cut is a honky-tonk rocker and the thumping, bluesy closer, “Chickens” co-written with Hubbard, is a slightly twisted ode to poultry:
“I got chickens in the front yard,
What they do is scratch and peck.
Come suppertime I go out there,
Find me one and ring its neck.”
There’s an awful lot of guitar slinging country songwriters trying their damnedest to make a name in Texas and somehow get noticed. Sometimes they all start to become a blur, but every so often one manages to sound all the right notes of authenticity and set hisself apart at the same time. If you like your music a little grittier and rough edged than what you hear on mainstream country radio, and let’s face it – if you didn’t you probably wouldn’t be here – then it’s a pretty safe bet that Hayes Carll is someone you’ll want to check out. And keep an eye on.