It’s been more than five years since Hayes Carll, one of the current torchbearers of Texas troubadoury, released his 2011 album, KMAG YOYO, a razor-sharp-witted alt-country throw-down.
Five years is not a long stretch in the Stephen Hawking understanding of time, but it is when you’re trying to stay relevant in Texas and abroad (America, to Texans).
Hayes, however, wasn’t just wasting his days away at the record store—he was living life. He got divorced, turned 40, stopped smoking, started smoking again, met a new woman (singer/songwriter Allison Moorer), wrote songs, toured, drank whiskey, spent time with his son (Eli, 12) and—finally—recorded a new album, Lovers and Leavers, which was released on April 8. He was also nominated for a Grammy this year for penning Lee Ann Womack’s “Chances Are,” a tune that appeared on KMAG YOYO.
That’s just the handful of things Hayes touches on during lunch at the 1808 Grille in Nashville’s upscale Hutton Hotel, while the overcast clouds outside spritz a chilly mist that is just wet enough to be aggravating. Hayes perks up in his chair after a few minutes of pleasantries and a cup of coffee, still a little groggy from his overnight flight from New York where he was visiting Allison. Hayes may not be onstage at the moment, but he’s still plenty entertaining, something he’s been since he was a grade-schooler.
“When I was in first or second grade, my teacher always let me get up in front of the class and cut up for a few minutes,” says Hayes between sips of coffee. “She knew if she didn’t, I’d be distracting the class all day.”
Honing those showmanship skills at an early age have paid off for Hayes. His live shows are full of wry anecdotes and plenty of humor (self-deprecating, deadpan, satire, topical). If he wanted to, Hayes could probably be a comedian. Instead, he picked up a pen and guitar as a teen and began charting his course as a singer/songwriter. Here he is now at age 40 with a new album, one that he calls “a reflection of a specific time and place.” In other words, this ain’t no dance record.
Lovers and Leavers Track List With Songwriters
- “Drive” (Hayes Carll, Jim Lauderdale)
- “Sake” of the Song (Hayes Carll, Darrell Scott)
- “Good While It Lasted” (Hayes Carll, Will Hoge)
- “You Leave Alone” (Hayes Carll, Scott Nolan)
- “My Friends” (Hayes Carll, David Beck, Paul Cauthen)
- “The Love That We Need” (Hayes Carll, Jack Ingram, Allison Moorer)
- “Love Don’t Let Me Down” (Hayes Carll, Darrell Scott)
- “The Magic Kid” (Hayes Carll, Darrell Scott)
- “Love Is So Easy” (Hayes Carll, Ruston Kelly)
- “Jealous Moon” (Hayes Carll, J.D. Souther)
“The fact that it took five years, that’s not something—that’s not such a big deal to a person like me,” says Hayes. And by “person like me,” he’s talking about someone who doesn’t rely on mainstream radio airplay to get his tunes into the ether. “Both creatively and personally, I’ve grown over the last five years, and making a record is a process. You don’t just throw songs on an album, at least I don’t. I felt vulnerable in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. This record had to have room to breathe, and it had to feel right to me. Yes, it’s quiet, but that was what I was feeling.”
Indeed, the 10-song offering is quiet, but Hayes knows how to bring the songs to life during his live shows. When he sampled a few tunes from the album at the 30-A Songwriters Festival in South Walton, Fla., “The Magic Kid,” a song Hayes co-wrote about his then-9-year-old son, Eli, had the audience spellbound. The tune is as much about a father’s love for his fearless son being who he wants to be as it is about a 9-year-old who just loves doing card tricks.
“We got [Eli] a magic kit when we was a little kid, like 5 years old, and he just took to it,” says Hayes, sliding his salad plate to the side so there are no distractions in what he says next. “Magic became his passion and he got very good at it, but all along I was worried that it may be something that would cause him grief as he got older and into junior high. But he was so courageous about it. Then it hit me, he told me once that he loved it because of the look of amazement on people’s faces when he did a trick they couldn’t figure out. And I knew what he meant.”
It was the same look of amazement Hayes got from his grade-school classmates all those years ago when he was cutting up before the teacher began her lesson . . . and it’s the same look he gets from his spellbound audiences when he performs today. The rest of the album, much like “Magic Kid,” is stripped down, accentuated only by minimal accompaniment, including piano on “Good While It Lasted,” steel on “My Friends” and organ on “Love Is So Easy.” The star of this album is Hayes’ pen, and he shines on tunes such as “Sake of the Song,” “Jealous Moon” and “The Love We Need.”
“Lovers and Leavers isn’t funny or raucous,” writes Hayes in the album notes. “There are very few hoots and almost no hollers. But it is joyous, and it makes me smile.”
The album will make his fans smile, too. If Hayes needed five years to breathe before making Lovers and Leavers, imagine what he could do in Let’s hope it never comes to that. Music needs Hayes Carll. Uncork a bottle of wine, let it breathe, then sit back and consume this album.
Hayes Carll portrait by Jacob Blickenstaff