Q&A With Hayes Carll

Hayes Carll’s always been known as an animated performer – but these days, the description can be taken literally. In “Crystal Beach Memories,” a clip accessible at Will Ferrell’s site, he looks like the image above as he talks about his life and times – topics that dominate a June 5 Westword profile and the entertaining Q&A below.

Appropriately enough, Carll begins at the beginning – the planned community of his youth, which helped give him something to rebel against. From there, he describes discovering his calling while watching a folk trio play Bob Dylan songs at a Unitarian church service; his taste for juxtaposing humorous material with serious stuff; the radio station at a small college in Arkansas where he co-hosted a show dedicated to Bob Marley and Lynyrd Skynyrd and paid tribute to the Foxey Lady of the Week; the series of terrible jobs he worked to make ends meet; his performance baptism in the fire of Texas joints like the one immortalized in the aforementioned video; the transition from indie-imprint recording artist to do-it-yourselfer and finally to a signee with Lost Highway, a major-label affiliate for which he cut his fine new disc, Trouble in Mind; and the heavy touring schedule that makes the time he spends with his four-year-old son, Eli, who could be heard babbling in the background throughout the following conversation, that much more precious.

No wonder Carll’s so into cartoons.

Westword (Michael Roberts): I understand that you grew up in Woodlands, Texas, which is usually described as a pretty posh suburb of Houston. Is that right?

Hayes Carll: Yeah, that’s probably pretty accurate.

WW: What did most of the Woodlands parents do for a living?

HC: It’s changed a lot. When I moved there, there were 1,200 people, and now there’s over 70,000. So I couldn’t really tell you anymore what folks do now.

WW: How about back in your day?

HC: Well, there were a fair number of doctors and lawyers, but there were all kinds of other people, too. When I was growing up, they said it was a new community, and you sort of had that sense of community – people were building a town together. But at its heart, it was built out of a forest as a suburb of Houston, and it was going to be filled with golf courses and things like that. It got a personality of its own at a certain point. But when I was growing up, I had friends whose parents were schoolteachers or CEOs of companies. It was all types.

WW: How about your folks?

HC: My folks were both attorneys at one point in time. My father still is. My mom went to law school when I was growing up and became an attorney, and I think she practiced for about eight years. She did divorce and custody, and I think that lost its joy pretty quickly.

WW: Hard to imagine why.

HC: No, there aren’t a whole lot of happy cases, with families breaking up. So she gave that up. But my dad still loves his job.

WW: Did the Woodlands of your youth seem like a pretty sterile place?

HC: At a certain point. It was a great place to grow up, and now that I have a kid, I can see the upside of it. When I was there, it felt incredibly sterile. And really, I think it’s probably like most suburbs. I started reading beat poets or writers and listening to songwriters, and they were all living these experiences and met characters I wasn’t seeing in the suburbs. I just became somewhat obsessed by them, and that’s why disillusionment and a desire to get out of there started creeping in. I wanted to go and see all these things I’d been reading about, and it was obvious they weren’t in my hometown.

WW: I understand that one of your first big moments of musical discovery was when a folk group played three Bob Dylan songs at a church service…

HC: Yeah, that was definitely an influential moment for me. I was a big music fan already, and I was heavy into writing and stuff. But we went to the Unitarian church, which is sort of a flip-flops and ponytails congregation – they embraced all kinds and all types. It was more about having a spiritual moment rather than obeying any rules or scriptures. So we would go there occasionally, and they’re not known for their choir, so they’d bring in these music groups occasionally. And they brought in this little folk trio, and they sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and it just kind of changed my whole perspective on music and writing and opened up a whole new world to me.

WW: After hearing those songs, did you start looking deeper into Dylan’s discography and discover how much more there was to explore?

HC: Yeah. The first thing I did when I got home was to immediately ask my parents for a guitar, which I’m sure has been the case for millions of teenage kids.

WW: About how old were you then?

HC: I was fifteen – and once I got that taken care of, I started digging into that world of music. To that point, I’d grown up on a pretty healthy diet of country music and some contemporary stuff and classic rock and stuff like that. And when I discovered Dylan, I started off with a greatest hits package or something, and then I started working my way through his collection, which I did for years. It wasn’t something you could do in a month. I just started buying record after record, and that led me to a whole different genre. Bob Dylan led me to Neil Young and Paul Simon and Kris Krisofferson, who in turn led me to John Prine, which led me to Lyle Lovett. I worked my way through this whole world of music, which sort of became my main inspiration and motivation for doing what I do.

WW: When I was going through the Dylan discovery process, one of the things I really appreciated was how funny a lot of his early songs are. Everyone always talks about his serious, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” epics, but for me, what made them even better is that they were on an album with songs like “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” Was that something else you discovered? That it was possible to put serious material and funny material right next to each other?

HC: Yeah. A lot of the guys I’ve enjoyed come with a dose of humor, whether it’s Jimmy Buffett or early Dylan or Todd Snider or Jerry Jeff Walker or Arlo Guthrie. There’s a lot of guys who knew that it didn’t always have to be a political statement or something incredibly heavy to be effective. And a lot of times, adding some humor makes the other stuff more effective. That’s something I think gets overlooked with Bob a lot – that he did those songs and he had a sense of humor and it was on display. It just got overlooked a lot. When the next song’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” then “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” or whatever it is might not make as lasting of a memory. But I enjoyed having that on there. It makes it a more enjoyable record. It’s not everybody who can handle an hour at a time of heavy seriousness. It’s good to mix it up, I think.

WW: Do you apply that lesson to your own music? Do you feel that you don’t need to make an album just one thing? You can make it lots of different things? And those different things will enhance each other rather than detract from each other?

HC: Yeah. That’s how I try and approach it. My early writing tended to be a case of two extremes. It was either incredibly morose and overly heavy or it was very silly, slapstick songs. And as I started recording, I tried to not be overly extreme in either case but try and bring in elements of everything. Even when you’re doing a serious song, you can throw in a line that can show some levity. Whether it’s the rhyming schemes or the content you’re talking about, I think you can do both at the same time, and not just on a record, but in the same song sometimes. I try to be open to all styles, because I’m fairly limited as an artist as it is, and if I start telling myself I can only do one kind of song, then I’m pretty much done for [laughs].

WW: What are those limitations? Because I don’t hear limitations; I hear possibilities.

HC: Well, 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 and write [laughs]. I don’t mean that quite the way it sounds. I think I’m fairly good at what I do, and I set out wanting to do it. But I was always surprised, because I never considered myself a singer. I never really considered myself to be a great guitar player. I figured I’d be a writer, and I thought somebody might want to cover one of my songs someday. And when I realized no one was going to do that, at the age of sixteen or whatever, I started singing for myself, and I found out how much fun that was. But always, the first impressions were always people being in a room when I started singing a song, and it took a while to get used to the idea that there were people who liked my voice and that I could use it as an instrument and it could translate effectively what I wanted to say.

WW: You went to Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and I understand you got involved with the campus radio stations there. Is that right?

HC: Briefly, yeah. That was part of the reason I ended up going to Conway. I was looking for some small school in the south. I heard they had a campus-run radio station that sounded like a lot of fun. So when we got there, this friend of mine and I were interns at this station, and the people who ran it stopped coming in, so we sort of accidentally inherited our own radio station. We went in once a week and had a lot of fun with it. My friend’s name was Joe Hardgrave, and we had two titles for the show. One was “The Hayes and Hardgrave Hootenanny Hour” and the other was “The Rasta and the Redneck,” because all he played were Bob Marley songs exclusively, and a lot of what I was playing, along with my Bob Dylan and my songwriters stuff, were fairly heavy doses of Lynyrd Skynyrd and David Allen Coe. So that was our radio show.

WW: We were talking about mixing different kinds of music together. You definitely put that theory to the test. Were there some interesting segues?

HC: We basically just went back and forth. Our claim to fame for that radio show was that we had an award each week… We were freshmen, and we found that the best way to meet older girls on campus who we found attractive was to give out an award called the Foxey Lady of the Week award. So we would find whatever lady we wanted to meet and we’d name her the Foxey Lady of the Week and then play the Hendrix song. It started out as a joke, but after two or three weeks, we found out that the whole campus was sort of listening to our show to find out who was going to be that week’s Foxey Lady. And it served its purpose. We got to meet almost if not all of the winners.

WW: I understand that you met your wife there. Was she the Foxey Lady of the Week at one point?

HC: She certainly would have been, but she was two years younger than I was, and my co-host had moved on and my show was over by the time she got to school.

WW: Damn. That would have been a good story.

HC: Yeah. But I just went back to the campus this last year, and I think I told that story to the kids. I’m always trying to see if there are any elements of the fun that was there when I was there with the new kids. So I told them that story, and apparently some of the kids brought it back to life on the radio station. They started doing the Foxey Lady of the Week, but the first winner was a faculty member, and I think the dean shut them down.

WW: See – it turned into a good story after all.

HC: Yeah, it did [laughs].

WW: You’ve talked about some of the odd jobs you did before being able to support yourself as a musician. Did you start those during college or after you’d graduated?

HC: Mostly after. I was a dishwasher at a local restaurant and I painted houses during the summer and worked at a concert pavilion during the summers as well. But nothing too odd until I got out of school.

WW: One of those jobs was as a door-to-door vacuum salesman, and I thought those jobs had disappeared twenty or thirty years ago. Did you actually have to lug vacuum cleaners with you when you made your calls?

HC: Yeah. They’re still alive and kicking. I didn’t realize what I was getting into. I’d moved to Austin at a certain point and I needed a job. I was going everywhere, filling out applications and doing a job hunt. And I got home one day and I got a call that said, “We’ve got your application – will you come in and talk with us tomorrow?” And I said, “Yeah.” But after I hung up, I realized I hadn’t asked what job it was for. I went in the next day, and there are, like, eight guys standing in the lobby, and we’ve all got these cheap, hand-me-down suits on. So when it was my turn to go in, I do this intense, twenty or thirty minute interview with this fellow, and I still don’t know what it is I’m applying for. And finally, when the interview was over, he said, “How do you feel about vacuum cleaners?” And that’s when I realized that somehow they’d gotten my name and brought me in. But I didn’t really have any other options at that point. So I said, “I love vacuum cleaners.” I got the job, but it wasn’t for very long. Walking around Austin going door to door in the summer carrying a vacuum cleaner and doing cold calls just wasn’t up my alley.

WW: I would guess for that kind of job, most of your stops would be either five seconds long or five hours long, with not very many that fell in-between. Did it work that way? Or were a lot of people willing to sit down with you for five or ten minutes?

HC: Well, it’s an odd deal they had. Basically, you’d spend half your day walking around, going door to door, telling them that they’d one a free cleaning of one room of their house. You’d get their name and you’d do that for the first half of the day, and then you’d go back to the office and hand in your list of the people who’d won free cleanings, and then there’s a person who’ll call them and say, “You’ve won your free cleaning. When would you like it?” And then they’d call me out again to go do the cleaning. But the trick is, if I’m going to have me clean one of your rooms for free, you have to watch one of my demonstrations, which take about thirty minutes. It was all a bit of a marketing scam, and in the end, it was a $3,000 vacuum cleaner, which you wouldn’t think anyone in their right mind would buy. But by the end of the presentation, it was amazing how many people were going to the bank to get this vacuum cleaner.

WW: Was that the worst job you ever had? Or was there something worse than that?

HC: Well, I did corn detasseling in Iowa for a summer.

WW: Corn detasseling?

HC: Yeah, you basically just walk around in a cornfield for a month and take off a stalk on the corn. You walk these half-mile rows in the corn every day and just yank off a piece of corn. It was basically migrant labor, but I had a friend who went with me. But I think the worst one was, my wife and I signed up for a job at hospital in Galveston. They’ve got a medical school, and we signed on to be paid patients where these kids are trying to graduate from medical school, and one of their last tests is they’ve got to work on their bedside manner. So they’d give you a sheet, and it’d say, “You’re a schizophrenic with herpes.” And we’d have to go in, and they’d be filming it, and these soon-to-be doctors would have to guess what’s wrong with us and be polite at the same time. But it’s just an incredibly awkward, tiring thing pretending to be a schizophrenic with herpes – and meanwhile, you know they know you’re not a real patient, and they have horrible people skills for the most part. And so it’s just a very laborious, uncomfortable hour at a time. That was pretty low down on the list.

WW: On your new video, you talk about your gig at Bob’s Sports Bar and World Famous Grille. Is that in Crystal Beach?

HC: It was, yeah.

WW: Did you play multiple shows every week there for years?

HC: Yeah, it was the first gig I got in Crystal Beach. I’d played a couple of gigs in Arkansas, but I was in a dry county, so there were no bars to play there to speak of. So when I moved back to Texas, I moved down to the beach and walked into that bar and asked the guy there if he minded if I came in and sang, and he said, “Okay,” and I started playing a couple of nights a week. And that led to gigs up and down the peninsula, all within a five-mile radius. There’s like twelve or fifteen bars there.

WW: The video is hilarious – especially the sign that says all-you-can-eat fried chicken and you for $4.99. How much of that $4.99 was for you, and how much was for the chicken?

HC: I never broke it down, but I think most of it was for the chicken. That was a sign he put up. At a certain point, you’d drive down the highway, and there’d be four or five signs with my name and some kind of food special tied in to the deal. It was just me and a karaoke guy battling it out. I guess they figured that tying in food specials was a good way to promote me.

WW: Also in the video is a sequence in which a husband pays you to play “Margaritaville” over and over until his wife leaves in disgust. You earlier mentioned that you like Jimmy Buffett – so I guess it wasn’t that bad a thing for you to have to sing “Margaritaville.”

HC: Well, I grew up on Jimmy Buffett. I was a huge Jimmy Buffett fan, but at a certain point, it lost a little bit of its relevance for me when I realized it was a corporation. It’s cool for what it is – having a vacation from your town, basically, and pretending you’re at the beach. But it’s not quite as influential on me as it was when I was sixteen and the idea of traveling the world was a remote possibility. Still, I loved Jimmy Buffett. It’s just that what you’d find was the same thing as when certain people would come in asking for “Free Bird.” The first time, it’s great, and the hundredth time, you’re sick of it. And “Margaritaville” was one of those on the beach that somebody wanted to hear every day. So at a certain point, I kind of checked out and wrote a sign that said if I was going to play it, I was going to get paid well to do it.

WW: You describe the audiences in those kinds of places as being very tough. Since you’ve become a professional musician, has that experience served you well? Now if a critic bashes you and says your album is a piece of shit, does it roll right off you, because you’ve heard a thousand times worse?

HC: Yeah. I wouldn’t say it rolls off entirely, but yeah, as far as playing live, I’ve yet to play any tougher places than those bars. So getting it out of the way early was good. If it’s a honky tonk or a listening room or a dance hall or whatever, I’ve seen just about every kind of crowd. And I know 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. 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 and play just about anywhere.

WW: You recorded your first album for the Compadre label, but you released your second one yourself. Was that due to any dissatisfaction with Compadre?

HC: Not really. I signed a one-record deal with them. I’d already made that record, actually, and was just going to put it out on my own, and then at the last minute, I signed a deal with Compadre, and they were great with me. But it didn’t sell particularly well, and on their end, I don’t think they were willing to put a bunch of money into another project just yet. We got a few offers, but at that point, I’d learned enough about how to promote and market a record that I didn’t feel like giving it away unless there was something really valuable coming back to me. And no one else was willing to do a one-record deal. So basically I decided to give it a try on my own. I thought that owning my catalogue had some real value and most of what a label of those sizes was going to do for me was hire a radio promoter or hire a publicist, and these were things that, for the most part, I could do on my own. So we just decided to go for it. My manager and I formed our own label called Highway 87 Music, and we went from there.

WW: Did your days selling vacuum cleaners pay dividends when it came to pushing your own CD?

HC: No, I’ve never been very good at pimping myself. That’s what managers are for [laughs]. I basically just went out and played. We did 200 nights a year for a couple of years, going everywhere we could to get it heard, and do whatever radio I could. And my manager worked on distribution and assembling a team of people to help us promote it.

WW: After that, you signed with Lost Highway. When you were releasing discs yourself, you probably the majority of the purchase price. Have you figured out how many copies of Trouble in Mind you’ll have to sell to reach the threshold you did on Little Rock.

HC: I try not to think of the numbers on it. It’s going to take quite a few. But it’s a trade-off. I’m not getting seven bucks a record anymore. I’m getting fifty cents a record for the songwriting. But on the other hand, they’re putting a good chunk of money that I could never muster up on my own into it. So I’m getting a lot more press and radio, and just a lot more manpower helping me out on promoting this record. It’s a trade-off I was willing to make. I feel like Little Rock was a successful record, but it wasn’t successful enough that we made a lot of money off of it. It got my name out there and raised my exposure and made our money back. But I needed another 30,000 fans for it to be financially lucrative, and this opportunity came along with Lost Highway where I hope they can help me get to that place. And so far it’s been great – everything we could have hoped for.

WW: Your mention of radio brings up something I was going to ask you about. Everyone I’ve played Trouble in Mind for absolutely loves it. But country radio stations, or at least the country radio stations around here, would seem unlikely to play it. Has it even been marketed to country radio? Or are you looking at other formats?

HC: Our bread and butter is Americana radio with the idea that it’s fairly country but it’s going to take a fairly open-minded DJ to give it a shot. Here in Texas, we’ve got a fairly unique situation in that off-center stuff is much more embraced. So we get quite a lot of country-radio airplay here in Texas. But outside of that, getting into mainstream country stations, it can be a tough nut to crack. So we pitch it to whoever. It can be Americana or Triple A or college radio or country. I think it works on a couple different levels, and we try not to close off any of those avenues and just hope people will give it a shot and play it, and if they do, I hope fans will respond.

WW: Has that been your experience going on the road with your material? Do you feel the best way to present your songs is one on one, person to person, so you can put the songs into context with a story or an anecdote?

HC: Yeah. As far as my performance style, I tend to do that a lot. For me, as an audience member, I like it when artists do that – give me a glimpse of a little bit behind the curtain, as far as what the song’s about or how your day’s going or whatever. I try to do that as well. For me, no matter how talented you are, if you’re doing two hours of the same thing and never show a glimpse of something else, it gets boring on some level. So I try to connect with the audience that way and hope the songs will muster up some interest. Radio can help a lot; you can reach a lot more people than just by playing live. But the two of those things go together.

WW: I’ve been hearing your family in the background while we’ve been talking. How hard is it to leave them and spend that much time on the road.

HC: It’s hard. My son turned five in July and my wife… On the one hand, we’ve been together for a long time and she’s seen all sides of it and knows the deal and the drill, but that doesn’t always make it easy. It definitely takes some getting used to. I love my life. I’ve always wanted to travel around and do all that. But it becomes a lot harder when you’ve got a family at home that you want to see.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts