You can tell Hayes Carll means it when he sings about some of the “wild people” he’s encountered, in an otherwise tender song called “The Letter” from his new album KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories). “You meet a lot of people on the road and you catch ’em at their most extreme,” Carll tells the Straight from his home in Austin, Texas. “Sometimes it’s violent, sometimes it’s creepy, sometimes it’s just a little weird.”
And sometimes it’s a polymorphously perverse couple trying to pull your drummer into a dirty three-way after a gig at the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver a few years back. “I had to run and rescue him ’cause I don’t think he realized what he was getting himself into,” the singer-songwriter chuckles, adding that the band received an “erotic portfolio” from the female half of the duo a week later.
And, hey, sometimes the people are so wild they aren’t even people. When Carll and his band, the Poor Choices, recently took part in a virtual concert series at the California home of former Monkee and all-round genius Mike Nesmith, he plunked them in front of a green screen so they could see their online audience—of avatars.
“They’re flamingos and pigs and donkeys, and that’s your crowd,” Carll explains. “So you’re playing in a room to Mike Nesmith and one engineer, and then to a bunch of farm animals on a screen. It’s the weirdest gig I’ve ever done.”
That strangeness aside, Carll adds that at least one dude went to the trouble of logging on just to heckle him. Which takes some dedication, no? “Nah, he’s an idiot,” Carll says, adding that he’s been dogged by this guy for some time. “I’m not gonna give him credit for persistence.”
Fair enough, but it’s not inconceivable that the Texas-born country singer might write about him at some point. A lot of the songs on KMAG YOYO—a contender for year’s best album, seriously—are populated by idiots, drunks, and other fringe-dwellers. But Carll’s eye is sympathetic, and his wit slays. The zinger-filled, drunk-in-love two-hander with Cary Ann Hearst, “Another Like You”, could hold its own against any of the duets on John Prine’s In Spite of Ourselves. When he turns his gaze back on himself, Carll comes up with a rollicking shit-kicker like the road song “Hard Out Here”. And in the title track, he couches his criticism of certain U.S. military adventures in the unhinged tale of a soldier bounced into a CIA drug-testing program after he tries to horn in on the Taliban’s heroin operation.
In other words, Hayes Carll ain’t exactly Toby fucking Keith. And when he ditches the gonzo humour for a song as heartfelt as “Chances Are”, the results are gutting. Carll says he was aiming for the “palpable sincerity” he hears in the love songs of vets like Conway Twitty or Merle Haggard. “To me, those were as country as you could get,” he says,” and I don’t really see straight-ahead country ballads anymore.”
He also adds that “I don’t know if I got there with that song,” which is just laughable. Hayes Carll is like a one-man assault on the plastic injection-moulded nightmare that is modern country music. To anyone who cares about that, rest assured, he absolutely got there with that song. He tends to just get there, period.
Hayes Carll plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Saturday (May 21).