Hayes Carll is often considered the logical heir to songwriting greats Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, and Townes Van Zandt, but if it hadn’t been for a chance encounter during his adolescence he could just as easily have been the next Jack Kerouac.
“When I was a teenager, I thought I wanted to be an author or a short-story writer. I always wanted to write: I was just very turned on by literature and stories and the creative process involved in that,” Carll explains in a phone call from Los Angeles, noting that he was especially keen on the beats. “And then when I was 15 I saw a folk trio at a Unitarian church that we used to go to. Unitarians were not known for their choirs. So rather than have a lot of out-of-tune singing, they would bring in performers. And one Sunday they brought in this trio that did Bob Dylan songs. They did ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and ‘With God on Our Side’, and that really changed my life.”
Twenty-five years later, Dylan’s influence can still be heard in Carll’s political bent, pointed wordplay, and sense of the absurd. But the Woodlands, Texas, native remains a country boy at heart, and he’s found even more inspiration in the collected works of the singer and actor responsible for “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, and dozens of other pop and country hits.
“Kristofferson felt attainable, you know,” Carll explains. “He’s an absolute genius and I wouldn’t say I’ve ever done anything approaching what he’s done, but it was country and it was simple, and it was also articulate and it was literate. What I liked—and with John Prine as well—was that they were guys who could take universal themes and put them in a way that felt simple, but they also made you feel the whole range of human emotions and experiences. That’s what I was drawn to, and maybe what I’m best suited for.
“You know, I love all kinds of music,” he adds. “I love to listen to rock and have a good time, and catchy stuff, and humorous music, and political folk, but after Dylan, Kristofferson was the one who really shook my life up.”
Carll hasn’t done too badly in his own right. His 2011 effort KMAG YOYO and Other American Stories, its title taken from the military expression “Kiss my ass, guys, you’re on your own,” established him as one of the most socially observant writers in country music. Meanwhile, the just-released Lovers and Leavers shows that he’s equally adept at introspective, confessional songs—and he has a confession of his own to make.
“I went through a divorce,” he reveals. “I’ve been doing this—travelling on the road and making music—for 17, 18 years, and so this new album was much more of a taking-stock of my life, looking at where I’d been and where I was going. It was a much more reflective record, and not much about the world outside of my own life.”
Lest you fear that Carll will be in a melancholy mood for his Vancouver Folk Music Festival shows, consider this: he’s in L.A. on vacation, but he’s also there to offer input into the album that his new love Allison Moorer is making with her equally talented older sister, Shelby Lynne. Considering that his early ambitions were to write songs, make people dance, and meet girls, no tears need be shed for this troubadour.
Hayes Carll plays the Vancouver Folk Music Festival’s Stage 3 on Sunday (July 17).