Now approaching his 20-year anniversary as a wry, hard-touring songwriter, Hayes Carll talks about the road less traveled during his appearance on Chris Shiflett’s Walking the Floor podcast. Making its premiere today on Rolling Stone Country, the interview finds the two musicians conducting their conversation from the inside of Carll’s touring van, a fitting location for an interview that focuses upon the lure — and sometimes the listlessness — of a life largely logged on the road.
“My songwriting heroes are Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson,” says Carll, whose own music mixes regular-guy sentiments with sharp insights about politics, heartbreak and the human condition. His newest release, What It Is, also finds him singing about his fiancé, Allison Moorer, with songs like “None’ya” serving as both a heartwarming and humorous salute to her grounding influence.
Below, we’ve rounded up a few of the episode’s highlights, along with full audio of the episode.
After nearly two decades on the road, Carll still struggles with the monotony of a long, boring drive.
“I’m always battling the desire to check out, and just zone [out] and not be engaged in what’s happening, because you have these long stretches of nothingness mixed in with really hard work,” he says of the touring process.
Similarly, he has a difficult time writing songs while on tour.
“Writing on the road has always been challenging for me,” he admits. “I can sometimes gather good ideas, but actually doing the work? I struggle with that. It’s just about finding the time.”
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Speaking of writing, Carll’s interview includes some fun anecdotes about his first co-write with musical mentor Guy Clark.
“He had no problem telling you, ‘You suck,'” Carll remembers of the songwriting legend, who died in 2016. The two became friends during the final stretch of Clark’s life, and Carll remember finding himself in Guy Clark’s infamous basement — the same one shown in the movie “Heartworn Highways” — for a somewhat intimidating co-writing session. “I sat down, and Guy would get stoned,” he says. “I’d get stoned back then, too. He passes that around, and that’s how we start the day. Then he goes, ‘Alright kid, what you got?’ So I was like, ‘Oh shit, ok.’ I played him a song idea. He just kinda stared at me for a second, then goes, ‘What else you got?'” Things got rolling once Carll shared a lyric for the song that would become “Rivertown.” “I said, ‘I’ve got no rings upon my fingers, no ink beneath my skin, I’ll be as clean going out as I was going in,'” Carll remembers. “And [Clark] goes, ‘We can work with that.’ And we wrote a song. It was an incredible experience.”
Hayes Carll’s previous release, Lovers and Leavers, allowed the songwriter to tap into new influences, resulting in a record that threw some longtime listeners for a loop.
“It was a somber thing, my previous record,” he admits. “I was trying to challenge myself, to see if I could create art that was channeling something different for me and was using different technique. . .There wasn’t the humor that has been a part of most of my records before then. . .It caught some people off-guard and wasn’t what they expected of me.” When it came time to write the songs that would eventually comprise What It Is, Carll felt free to return to his stronghold of inspiration, working his trademark sarcasm back into the mix. “[Lovers and Leavers] freed me up, sorta,” he says. “When it came to this record, What It Is, I didn’t need to prove anything to myself.”
Signed to his first record deal in 2002, Carll has seen it all: major-label rosters, indie budgets and the long, hard road of artistic independence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he prefers the options that allow him a bit more control.
“There are benefits to all of them,” he says. “The benefit to having a major label, or any label, is that they have the manpower. . .to do the heavy lifting for you. I want to write songs, at the end of the day. I enjoy the business. . .but that’s not where my strength is. Having a label to do that is worth a whole lot. Having said that, I remember. . .listening to John Prine talk about his label, and how he said, ‘I sell a quarter of the records I sold when I was on a label, and I make three times the money.’ You don’t have to be hugely successful to make a living.”