Hayes Carll is, by his own admission, a bit of a gambler. And judging from the 28 year-old singer-songwriter's stage presence, he must have one hell of a good poker face. Whether he's facing an intimate listening room audience or a packed dance hall of noisy, potentially hostile patrons hungry for the headliner, it's always the same Hayes: shambling more than walking on stage like a guy who's just woken from a restless sleep with a horrible hangover, reaching for an acoustic guitar when a pot of black coffee seems more in order. "This guy," you invariably think, "is a mess." That's when he shows his hand, and you find you've been hustled. "I like to watch him," offers Hayes' friend Ray Wylie Hubbard, a rumpled hustler of a troubadour in his own right, "because it's kind of like watching two trains heading full speed toward each other on the same track: it's just a matter of time. But he's always very in control, even though sometimes he doesn't give that appearance. He walks on that stage, and he just owns it — like it's his time, his stage, and he has total control and keeps your attention his whole set. And I admire that."
That's no mere blurb or nod of approval from one Texas songwriter to another; it's a dead-on portrait of the artist as a young man: off the tracks with a clear sense of purpose. As Hayes declares in "Wish I Hadn't Stayed So Long," from his second album, Little Rock, "I'm gonna burn down all my bridges, grab a car and drive away." That's not reckless; that's a man with a plan.
"I've kind of been searching this out for a long time," muses Hayes, reflecting on the oft curious and at times downright puzzling path he's followed in his life and career thus far. "I'd live wherever I could or do whatever job I could to find the material and find the point of view for the songs, and to be successful at it. And all in all, it's working out pretty good. I'm a pretty content human being … with not a whole lot more demons than your average, twisted folk singer."
At the moment, said twisted folk singer is sitting on his porch in Conroe, Texas, a little town a mere five minutes north of The Woodlands, the affluent Houston suburb where Hayes grew up. Considering that it wasn't that long ago that Hayes couldn't escape The Woodlands fast enough, his current proximity to home suggests a prodigal son settling down — complete with a 14-month-old son and a fiancé — after a few good years of devil-may-care rambling. Truth is, both the man and his career have never been more on the move.
"This has actually been my busiest year," says Hayes, who recorded the bulk of Little Rock in January 2004 and spent the rest of the year playing just shy of 200 gigs across not only his native Texas but the rest of the U.S. and up into Canada. All of those shows found him still faithfully working his 2002 debut, the acclaimed Flowers and Liquor. Now that Little Rock is finally ready for its public, he's chomping at the bit to really hit the road.
"That first record came out two-and-a-half years ago, and that's a long time to wait," says Hayes. "It drove me nuts for a while, because I want people to see my new songs and what I've done or where I've gone, and it's just hard to keep handing out the same product. It's still me, but it's from a different part of my life and I'm ready for them to see a new part."
To wit, while the bulk of Flowers and Liquor offered a whisky-soaked snapshot of Hayes' life right out of college, living amongst the "rednecks and outlaws" that populated Crystal Beach, Texas on the Bolivar Peninsula, Little Rock is all about where he is now.
"When you're young, it's hard to think of original ideas other than loneliness, alcohol and sex," Hayes says of his debut, with a hint of the deadpan self-deprecation that makes his stage banter as entertaining as his songs. "I can't say that I've really evolved all that much since then — I still sing about alcohol — but I don't want 'Flowers and Liquor' to be my anthem or something that I have to be singing for years down the road. I'd like to evolve a little as a writer, and this time around, there were just some other interesting things to sing about."
Recorded in Nashville with producer R.S. Field (Billy Joe Shaver, Buddy Guy), Little Rock kicks off with the aforementioned "Wish I Hadn't Stayed So Long," a wry and gritty rocker of a Dear John letter to Crystal Beach, Nashville, Austin and other stops along the way that the young songwriter should have no qualms about singing for the rest of his life. Not every artist is good or lucky enough to turn out their very own "Guitar Town" quality anthem this early in their career (if ever), but Hayes pulls it off with the same casual, broken-in comfort of his live performances. The rest of Little Rock similarly rises to the occasion, from the good time roll of the title track (an affectionate nod to Hayes' home away from home, Arkansas) to the greasy blues of "Chickens" (co-written with Hubbard). "Long Way Home," a bittersweet tribute to a talented musician friend of cut down in his prime by a heroin overdose, would do Hayes proud in a guitar pull with Steve Earle and Guy Clark, as would the outlaw's lament, "Rivertown," co-written with Clark himself.
"I was certainly nervous about it," admits Hayes of sitting down to write with the dean of Texas songwriters, "but he was extremely gracious and totally a craftsman and disciplined about it. I tend to write more stream of conscious style, and just give lines a certain feel but not put much emphasis on each word, but with him it was like every single syllable had to have a meaning and a point. It was really eye opening."
It was a hunger for eye-opening experiences that led Hayes to where he is today, and continues to fuel his muse and wanderlust. The son of an attorney father and an attorney/school teacher mother, Hayes could have very easily ended up taking a briefcase to work every day instead of a guitar. Fortunately, a discovery of songwriters like Bob Dylan and fellow Houston-area native Lyle Lovett led Hayes to pick up guitar in his teens. By the time he graduated, he was itching to get as far away from The Woodlands as possible. "Far away" ended up being tiny Hendrix College in Arkansas, just a state away. But it was far enough.
"I grew up in the suburbs, a pretty one-color, right-wing affluent town, and I always knew there was something else out there," says Hayes. "I had to go out and find it, and for some reason Conway, Arkansas seemed like a good place to start. So I ended up there, and I've just kind of followed that path since I got out of there. The idea that there are other things than suburbs in the world, and other people than the ones who drive Mercedes."
After graduation (he majored in history and minored in theater), Hayes spent a summer picking corn in Iowa, spent another six months in Croatia visiting his best friend from college and tried, unsuccessfully, to survive in the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World," Austin. But his home for the better part of three years was a remote cabin in Crystal Beach, 40 miles from the nearest town. "It was a lonely time and a weird time of my life, but it was good creatively," he says. The denizens of Crystal Beach offered rich pickings for song inspiration (as Flowers and Liquor attests), but the low-paying bar gigs he was able to pick up in town left a lot to be desired. Luckily, a ferry ride across the bay to Galveston led to his discovery of the Old Quarter Acoustic Café.
"The Old Quarter was where I kind of got into the legitimate music scene," says Hayes. "That's where I met Sisters Morales [whose Lisa Morales would produce Flowers and Liquor], Ray Wylie, Willis Alan Ramsey … all those guys came through there on the circuit, and I was kind of the perennial opening act for everybody."
After the release of Flowers and Liquor on Compadre Records, Hayes became the opening act of choice for any number of Lone Star legends not just at the Old Quarter but at venues across Texas. That exposure has since made Hayes a rising marquee name in his own right in Texas and beyond — a status certain to continue to rise with the release of Little Rock. But rest assured that when fame really catches up to Hayes' talent, the rendezvous will be on his own terms. After his one-album deal with Compadre, Hayes was set to sign a five-record contract with a nationally established "major" independent label (one home to many of his heroes), but he ultimately decided to release the record on his own.
"I'm up to my ass in debt," he admits, "and it would have been a huge financial relief not to worry about that for the next 10 years, but at the same time, I just couldn't see spending the next 10 years of my life not controlling what I have."
Some might call that a gamble. But don't count on Hayes folding his cards and leaving the table anytime soon. As Ray Wylie Hubbard says, this is his time, he owns it, and he's just getting warmed up.
"It's up and down, and it's not always an easy life," he admits of the singer-songwriter game, "but in the big picture, I can't complain. I know that most of the people I meet would rather have my job than theirs — and I'd rather have my job than theirs, too. I'm doing what I never thought I'd be able to do, but always wanted to do, you know? I'm living that dream."