As he begins an early May phone interview, Hayes Carll is in a good place – watching his soon-to-be stepson John Henry Earle play baseball at a game that pairs special needs kids with other players. John Henry, who is autistic, gets a base hit, and cheering interrupts the conversation.
Two days later, Carll married longtime partner Allison Moorer – John Henry’s mother; also the producer and cowriter of over half the songs on his critically lauded new album. After a week-long UK tour, the new family moved from New York City to Nashville.
Combining music and romance is new for Carll. “I’ve never been in a relationship like that with another writer and artist,” he said. “It turns out that a lot of time is spent talking about your art and your craft… she was the person [with] the best understanding of what I was trying to do and articulate. She also happens to be a badass artist.”
Carll’s 2016 LP Lovers and Leavers reflected the pain of recent divorce. What It Is, released early this year, is upbeat and smiling, from the playful opener “None Ya” to “I Will Stay,” a tender love song closing things out. “The result’s a more joyful record… there are a lot of positives happening for me right now. I’m glad it can be reflected in the music.”
A songwriter known for hard luck stories laced with humor like “She Left Me For Jesus,” Carll’s most recent work comes from a more personal place. “Trying to get to where I was writing from the inside out instead of outside in,” he explained. “In the past it always started with some detail… hoping that it sounded cool and sunk up with my life in some way. More recently, I’ve been trying to get to the heart of it, and say what it is that I’m feeling.”
He hits the current political climate from a few different angles. The rocking “Times Like These” snarks about whining billionaires, while offering a unifying message. “That song is just born out of frustration,” Carll said. “We have more in common than what separates us, and I just think it’s our elected officials’ responsibility to highlight that.”
“Fragile Men” sparked rancor for its blunt chorus – “the whole world is exploding/and I know it feels so strange/it must make you so damn angry/they’re expecting you to change” – among other things. A co-write with pop singer LOLO, it originally took on patriarchy, then was rewritten after events unfolded in Charlottesville and released in April 2017, along with a Klan-mocking video.
“It got a surprising amount of blowback,” Carll said. “From people saying I was overinflating the issue, that racism and the like is not actually a real thing, it’s just the media’s blown it into something and I’m just furthering that narrative. It was a lot of talking points from a certain sect basically telling me to shut up [and] it was disappointing to realize that’s a fairly prevalent belief for a lot of people, including some of my fans.”
On What It Is, Carll offers his own version of “Jesus and Elvis,” first recorded by Kenny Chesney. It’s a song about a real place with a perhaps apocryphal story.
“I’ve done some research after the fact and I’m not sure,” he said. “But there’s a bar in Austin called Lola’s that I used to hang out in when I lived there, with Christmas lights up year round and a jukebox in the corner with nothing on it past 1968. The story I heard was Lola had a son that had gone to fight in Vietnam at Christmas time, and she promised she would not take the lights down until he made it back home… they’re still up there.”
At an upcoming New Hampshire show, Carll will perform with his trio – drummer Mike Meadows and Travis Linville, a singer/songwriter and guitarist who also plays an opening set. The next day, he’ll headline the Roots on the River Festival in Bellows Falls, Vermont.
The latter event jump started Carll’s career when he first played it in 2008. “I was mostly in Texas then,” he said. “I’d done an out of state tour, but it had been more like a long trip with an occasional stop that nobody showed up at. A friend talked me into going up there; I wasn’t even booked [and] it opened up a whole touring world for me.”