Trouble in Mind

Hayes Carll's got a brand-new gig

Trouble in Mind
Photo by John Carrico

"I remember there was this one time in Crystal Beach when I had my four-hour gig," begins Hayes Carll with a drag of his cigarette. "It would be 6 to 10pm, and this one night, there was maybe one person in the bar, and this guy walks in talking to himself and sits down right in front of me, four feet away. He's got a bird with him that he'd found on the highway – he'd just got out of prison that day, and they dropped him off on the ferry, and he walked the 12 miles or whatever to the bar. That was his first stop.

"So he found this bird along the way, and he's sitting there while I'm singin' just talking to his bird and shouting stuff at me and drinking beers. He's talking and shoutin', and finally more people start coming in, and he's getting drunker and drunker. By about three hours in, he's hammered and startin' to kinda talk shit to other people in the bar, which is not a good place to really mouth off. And finally he gets into it with some guy, and he reaches in and pulls out a gun. I don't know how he got a gun, but before he can even get it up, some guy hits him in the back of the head and knocks him out. Cops show up; he goes straight back to prison for violating his parole and having a gun in the bar. He'd been out for all of about 12 hours."

"Wait, wait," I stop him. "What are you doing during all this?"

"I'm just singing," he says with a wry grin. "That's what I learned real quick is crowd management. One, don't get involved, and two, if they're raging, play a slow song."

Sipping morning coffee at Jo's on South Congress, a brief reprieve back home in Austin before continuing his North American tour, Carll's clear-blue eyes are sunk softly behind a rough mat of blond beard and shaggy hair. He's a natural storyteller, and, at 32 years old, has already collected more than his fair share of tales.

Trouble in Mind, Carll's third album and debut for Nashville's Lost Highway Records, culls an assortment of characters from his past, hard-luck ramblers and brokenhearted romantics, many drawn from his experiences living in Crystal Beach. After graduating college in 1998, the Houston native moved to the remote strip of shoreline along the Bolivar Peninsula horseshoeing Galveston Bay, cutting his songwriting teeth gigging at shrimper bars and dive restaurants.

"It's a different world, especially from growing up in the suburbs, which I guess is what drew me to it," relates Carll. "When I moved out there, the first question people asked me was who I was running from. That's the standard line, just because a lot of people down there, that was the case. You never really knew anybody's story. They all just kinda lurked around these trailers, didn't have addresses, worked cash jobs, and were basically living way under the radar. That's not the whole town but definitely the part of town I was hanging out in.

"But there was an ocean and a gig, and that's what I was looking for at the time – just some life experience to write about and a good place to do it and go practice every night."

After two years of playing the same 3-mile stretch of highway, Carll first moved to Austin in 2000 only to discover the harsh reality of the River City music scene and his own inexperience. Six months living on a friend's couch blurred into jobs selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door and no contacts or shows, and Carll eventually packed his bags and headed back to the beach, where he at least had steady work playing music.

His career finally began to gain traction when he landed a job tending bar at the famed Old Quarter in Galveston, his popularity at open-mic nights leading to opening slots for Texas songwriting stalwarts Guy Clark, Willis Alan Ramsey, Sisters Morales, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Carll reached out to the Old Quarter headliners, who were impressed by his talent and drive. When Hubbard paid him an offhand compliment, Carll called the Hill Country sage to use the comment in his press kit and possibly open more shows for him.

"Not only did he say yeah, he asked if I needed a place to stay, which blew me away," marvels Carll. "I don't know if he remembered me or not, and I was fairly certain that he didn't, but he realized that I was struggling and that I was a guy desperate for help. I'm sure he's probably glad I didn't come crash on his couch, but the fact that he offered it taught me a lot about him as a person and about this scene, because I found that to be a fairly common attitude – people were very generous and willing to help somebody out if they needed it.

"I try to respond in kind."

He released his first album, Flowers in Liquor, in 2002 on Houston's newly formed Compadre Records. By 2005's Little Rock, which featured songs co-written with Clark and Hubbard, Carll was gaining national attention. He moved back to Austin with his wife and a growing reputation, as his sophomore effort became the first self-released album to top the Americana Music Chart.

"I learned real quickly about how to put out a record," he relates. "I realized I could hire a publicist and get someone to manufacture and work out some kind of distribution system for the album, which was what the labels were offering me. In the long term it seemed like a much better investment to maintain control of my career and be free to do whatever I wanted.

"We didn't get rich, but we sold enough to pay off the record and were free to take the opportunity when Lost Highway came around."

Trouble in Mind proves Carll's most polished effort yet, kicking comfortably on the edges of Texas country while maintaining the poignancy and humor that have always marked his work. Songs like "Beaumont" and "Don't Let Me Fall" cut to the bone, while "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart;" "Drunken Poet's Dream," co-written with Hubbard; and the irreverently satirical "She Left Me for Jesus" level a levity against Carll's natural narrative instinct. Once more surmounting the Americana charts, Carll has become the newest voice of Texas songwriters.

"I really didn't realize there was a whole kind of Texas country movement going on until later, and in a way I think that was a good thing, in that I didn't feel the need to cater to it," offers Carll. "I think it would have been very tempting if I'd seen that these guys were making money and that there was a big market for that. I may have ended up in some way doing that anyway just because my writing style is that way, but I wasn't consciously going for it. What I didn't ever want was for it to not translate across the border.

"One thing that Ray always told me is it's about the song," he continues. "People are going to get popular and then not popular, and if you're in this for the long haul, it's going to go up and down, but the only things that are going to last are the songs, and if you don't have them, then it doesn't matter how many T-shirts you sell this week."

Last year Carll returned to Crystal Beach but this time with a cadre of artists to launch his Stingaree Music Festival, a veritable spring break of Texas troubadours. Stingaree represents the merging of worlds for Carll: the inspirational wellspring of his struggling past and his emerging success alongside songwriters like Hubbard, Gurf Morlix, and Terry Allen.

Headlining KGSR's annual T-Party two weeks ago at Stubb's, Carll joked about working the Crystal Beach joints. As the stage lights cut across his backing band and the more than 500-strong crowd, he launched into bluesy Bolivar ode "I Got a Gig," and those days seemed but distant stories.

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Hayes Carll, Lost Highway, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Trouble in Mind

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