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In "Crystal Beach Memories," an animated video accessible at www.FunnyOrDie.com, 32-year-old singer-songwriter Hayes Carll remembers his early gigs at Bob's Sports Bar and World Famous Grille, a Texas eatery that promoted his appearances with a sign that read "All U Can Eat Fried Chicken & Hayes Carll, $4.99." Carll saw the offer as a good deal, even if he only got a small percentage of the purchase price. "I never broke it down, but I think most of it was for the chicken," he says.
In the decade since, Carll's career has improved considerably. After releasing 2002's Flowers and Liquor on the independent Compadre imprint and putting out 2005's Little Rock all by his lonesome, he signed to Lost Highway, a label featuring artists such as Willie Nelson. Moreover, Trouble in Mind, his initial Lost Highway effort, has earned stellar reviews thanks to raw, twangy material that's amusing (the blearily blasphemous "She Left Me for Jesus"), melancholy ("Don't Let Me Fall") or a combination thereof ("Drunken Poet's Dream"). But despite the acclaim, Carll still finds self-promotion difficult. "After three records and who knows how many thousands of shows, it's still interesting to me that there are people who enjoy hearing me sing and play guitar," he concedes.
Carll earned his self-deprecation the old-fashioned way: by maintaining his sense of humor even as the world kicked his ass. He fell under the sway of country music and Bob Dylan as a teenager and subsequently dedicated himself to a troubadour's life. Supporting his habit proved to be a chore – many of them, in fact. His resumé includes stints detasseling corn in Iowa and selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in Austin, and he and his wife were reduced for a time to serving as mock patients for student doctors working at a teaching hospital in Galveston. "They'd give you a sheet, and it'd say, 'You're a schizophrenic with herpes,'" he recalls, adding, "It's just an incredibly awkward, tiring thing pretending to be a schizophrenic with herpes."
Trying to get slicked-up country radio stations to play his wonderfully authentic tunes isn't any easier – and as a result, he spends much of his time on the road, sharing his stories and songs directly with listeners in any venue that'll have him. "If I'd done nothing but folk rooms for five years and had to go out and start playing honky-tonks, it'd probably have scared the shit out of me," he says. "But I started out in these shrimper dives, some of which were fairly hairy. Having done that by the time I was 22, I feel like I can go out and play just about anywhere."
Call him the blue-plate special.
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with Hayes Carll.