With his rich baritone, Hayes Carll is perfectly suited to deliver the barroom and bedroom tales of a troubadour who’s a hard-luck, heartbroken case. But to balance his more serious moments, he possesses a wry wit and ample self-awareness that soothes his doubts and disappointment. On Wednesday night, he was a master of all emotions as he took the stage Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre to cap off the finest year of his career so far. An enthusiastic, but well-behaved, crowd hung on every word in Carll’s drowsy drawl.
On this year’s Trouble in Mind, Carll’s roots-country, sharpened with a rock edge delivered him on the precipice of Americana stardom. A pair of triumphs at the Americana Music Awards in September confirmed his status as a prime spokesman for an entire alt-country generation. Those with a nose for pretense have eschewed the contemporary country market, but in Carll, they’ve uncovered an artist on the fringe, a clever raconteur who’s poised to carry the torch for Texas singer-songwriters well into the next decade.
Carll revels in the gritty rhythms of Americana, while displaying the songcraft that echoes his heroes, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson. And, befitting a writer who cites Jack Kerouac as inspiration, Carll blends wide-eyed nostalgia with wisened observations. His hour-and-a-half set was a mixture of tear-in-your-beer tunes and tales of romantic adventures. Kicking off with “Faulkner Street,” Carll and his band were chugging along with boundless energy right from the beginning. He followed with “I Got a Gig,” an autobiographical account of his tenure in Crystal Beach, Texas, refining his craft and dining on fried chicken and cold beer. Scott Davis, lead guitar player, added a twisty banjo lick (Carll cracked, “We’ve been using it (the banjo) for about six months now. Not a bad instrument.”).
Earlier this year, Hurricane Ike destroyed the seaside town, and Carll dedicated “Highway 87″ to the ravaged region. Throughout the show, Carll also showed flashes of his sentimental self. On “It’s a Shame,” he illustrated a couple’s crippling inability to commit to each other by lingering a little extra long on the titular line (It’s a sha–aaaame…). And the crack in his voice imbued “Beaumont” with a sense of regret, yet appreciation for time well spent. Band member Ray Jackson rooted the song in traditional country with a whimpering steel guitar.
Carll’s dry humor is a cornerstone of his act. (His tour is co-sponsored by satirical news source, The Onion.) After “Wild as a Turkey,” Carll noted that he tended to write long-winded songs, joking, “That one was only two and a half minutes!” Later, he relayed a story about his blooming career, buoyed by his top billing (“I used to be way down the list!”) at the recent Lighting of the Doves holiday event in The Woodlands, Texas (“5,000 people there, and only a 1,000 of ’em weren’t kids. Santa looked real scared when he came down through the crowd,” Carll noted.) His stream-of-consciousness style, both in person and on record, lend Carll an air of authenticity that connects with those who listen carefully for hidden meaning, in his songs and in his detailed stories.
Carll even unwrapped a recently-written Christmas song, albeit one with a few funny twists of family imperfection (Carll hopes for “a good-lookin’ cousin” at family gatherings). The untitled holiday tune was followed by his claim to fame. “She Left Me For Jesus,” the side-splitting story of domestic bliss undone by religious fervor, was introduced as “another song about Christmas, in a way.” As a smile snuck across his lips, he uttered the line “We’ve been datin’ since high school,” and members of the audience howled their approval.
He closed the show with “Down the Road Tonight,” spitting out a laundry list of weary travelers who all take to the highway searching for comfort, closure, or even just a hell-raisin’ good time, the very folks that gravitate towards his music. The encore, featured “The Long Way Home” and “I Wish I Hadn’t Stayed So Long,” where Carll moaned about his misfortunes, admitting, “I might not make December if I keep carrying on this way.”
But Carll made it to December, and he didn’t stay too long. Judging from last night’s set, he’s just getting started causing trouble.