A couple of years ago Hayes Carll was a promising protege of Ray Wylie Hubbard. With his new CD, Trouble In Mind, he continues to emerge from the Texas nebula as one of Americana's brightest stars.
In a dirt-road voice Carll sings songs that mix middlebrow humor and dusty smarts. They're mostly his own tunes, with a few covers. His offbeat singing style owes a little more to Tom Waits and Hank Williams than to Ray Wylie, and he calibrates his voice perfectly to his down-home melodies and his wink-wink lyrics with their flashes of poetry.
The CD opens with "Drunken Poet's Dream," a co-write with Hubbard. The very first couplet smacks of the Ray Wylie influence: "I've got a woman she's wild as Rome / She likes to lay naked and be gazed upon." Naked women and unexpected similes; you can't ask for better ingredients for a song.
"Girl Downtown" is a goofy, old-fashioned plinkety-plink country tune that leads perfectly into Scott Nolan's rocking "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart," which features the unmistakable electric guitar and harmony vocals of the Georgia Satellites' Dan Baird. This irresistible track is one of my favorites. So is the gently rolling "Beaumont," a top-notch song about missed chances for love: "All the way from Beaumont / With a white rose in my hand / I could not wait forever babe, I hope you understand."
"Good Lord, I hope I get paid tonight," he muses in the jaunty "I Got a Gig," motored along by Will Kimbrough's banjo. "Pills in the tip jar, blood on the strings / Oh Lord, I never thought I'd see these things." The bluesy "Faulkner Street" leads into the old-time country of "Wild as a Turkey," which has a touch of Western Swing to it. The stark waltz "Don't Let Me Fall" is the most poignant track: "I ask forgiveness from those I've forsaken / Forgiveness don't come and it tears me apart." And Carll's laser-focused interpretation of Tom Waits's "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" makes we want to hear him sing more Waits.
The next-to-last track, co-written by the brilliant Darrell Scott, is a simple ballad on the theme John Hiatt hits so often: how did a woman like you end up with a man like me – as Carll and Scott put it, "a shell that had no pearl"? The plaintive, childlike melody echoes Townes Van Zandt's "No Lonesome Tune."
The final track is a decisive answer to those horrid, faux-devotional slick country songs like "Jesus Take the Wheel." Carll and co-writer Brian Keane spin those smug holier-than-thou fakers right off the road with their tongue-in-cheek "She Left Me For Jesus." I won't give away the lyrics here. Just take a listen.
Hayes Carll has stepped right into a great, living, American musical tradition. He's got his own voice within that spirit, but he doesn't seem to feel the need to make a big effort to sound sharply original. There's no reason to, when you can do this good a job of making these particular kinds of sounds. They are the kinds of sounds a lot of people like an awful lot.