Hayes Carll is sitting poolside in Port Aransas, Texas, a mellow beach town on a peninsula across the Corpus Christi Bay. Carll is no stranger to the Gulf of Mexico — it's where he got his start as a young songwriter, strumming tunes at the Old Quarter Café in Galveston, about four hours or so up the coast. This is supposed to be a vacation — minus the annoyance of a few phone interviews, made more palatable when taken in swim trunks with a beverage in hand — after a rigorous South by Southwest schedule in his home base of Austin and before another round of touring in support of Lovers and Leavers, his fifth studio album that's been five years in the making. The album hits stores on April 8th, but is streaming exclusively on Rolling Stone Country below. In music business terms, half a decade without new material is equivalent to near-retirement, unless you're Adele or an artist like Fiona Apple who claims reclusive gaps as part of his or her persona.
"It's not necessarily a good career move to take that long," Carll tells Rolling Stone Country. His last album, the rollicking KMAG YOYO, was released in 2011 on Lost Highway Records, but if it gives any context to how long it's been since then, that label is now defunct. "I joke that I was just trying to build up suspense. But there is a fine line between building up suspense and people forgetting about you."
Carll doesn't seem too worried — nor did he entirely disappear in the past five years. He's toured relentlessly, sometimes as a solo acoustic act, and had his song "Chances Are" covered by Lee Ann Womack and subsequently nominated for a Grammy. He was writing, but, most importantly, he was also weathering a divorce and figuring out how to spend more time with his son Eli — a hopelessly cute 12-year-old with his daddy's eyes and a love for magic tricks.
With earlier songs like "One Bed, Two Girls, Three Bottles of Wine" (you do the math) and "Another Like You," a duet with Shovels & Rope's Cary Ann Hearst about how opposing political views make healthy fodder for a one-night stand, Carll has become known as the cynical poet laureate of men who have more luck at the bottle than in the sack. Starting with his 2002 debut Flowers & Liquor, fans have come to count on Carll for self-effacing storytelling that's also loaded with detail as funny as it is uncomfortable. Often set to rambunctious melodies and delivered in his sticky annunciation, there's a lot to chuckle at without straddling the line of the absurd. Like John Prine and Guy Clark, who can lace in references to runny eggs or homegrown tomatoes without sacrificing lyrical gravitas, a lot of humor comes from just how prescient those quirky observations are.
The songs that started coming for Lovers and Leavers, however, weren't funny — some of them are even painful to listen to. He tried to write those "hoots and hollers," but it didn't feel authentic and the work became more personal, emotional and confessional. He had other things on his mind than "than drinking and rambling and loneliness and playing dive bars and women." Namely, love: the loss of it; the gain of it; the immense, burning love you feel for your child, so innately different from romantic love in that it's guaranteed to be everlasting.
"I was writing songs and I had a lot of stuff, but it wasn't necessarily reflective of where I was in my life," he says. "My life changed, I was changing. And I didn't want to have to go out every night and sing something I didn't feel connected to."
Instead, Carll started writing something called "The Magic Kid," a song that brought him to tears when he listened back to it on his iPhone. Inspired by Eli and his love for those card tricks, it became the centerpiece of Lovers and Leavers. So while, yes, much of the album's material is written in the wake of a divorce, it's actually born of eternal, parental love. Written with Darrell Scott, "The Magic Kid" is beautifully, heartbreakingly pure: his son is so free of fears that he's able to do what he loves without shame, while his father receives his own kind of magic from it all.
"At this point, my son is a very, very big part of my life, and trying to figure out how to be a parent is a very big part of it, too," Carll says. "I don't know how to separate these things. I guess I could, but I don't want to. It's the most interesting thing that's happened to me, and it's something that most people go through on some level. I don't want to hide that. If anything, that's more relatable than singing about booze."
"I just didn't want to be an artist who was singing about some reality that wasn't mine"
"The Magic Kid" became the litmus test for the rest of the record — every song that came after had to match it in emotional heft. Produced by Joe Henry, Lovers and Leavers is a roadmap to love: from the uncomfortable last gasps of a marriage in "The Love That We Need," to "Sake of the Song," an ode to the muse of songwriting, to "Good While it Lasted," a nearly matter-of-fact resignation that romance is sometimes as ephemeral as it is exhilarating. There's still that stunning attention to detail, but no song is a barnburner (like KMAG YOYO's title track) or a drinking anthem. Nor are there any references to intoxicated threesomes — just a stark look at the sober reality of two people, twisting the same Rubik's Cube but never getting it quite back to where it started.
"Maybe I had visions of people scratching their heads when they put the record on," Carll admits of its low-key nature. "'When's he going to ramp it up?' I just didn't necessarily want to be an artist who was singing about some escapism, and some reality that wasn't mine. It didn't feel believable or honest. There is always the fear that someone will look at you and say, 'Oh, he just writes songs about his kid.' Or people who have been rocking out with you, are they going to stop and say, 'Huh?' They may not be with you the whole ride. Helpfully I'll pick up the people who are."
In an early mailing of the record to press, Carll included a letter: "No, it’s not my Blood on the Tracks," he wrote, referring to Bob Dylan's 1975 masterpiece written as his relationship with then-wife Sara Dylan began to dissolve. Though Dylan claimed songs like "Idiot Wind" and "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" were nothing but made-up stories, many view the LP as a benchmark of how to make art out of the end of things. And how someone who spends a life blending truth and creative narrative (not unlike Carll himself) can sometimes let a few cracks of personal light shine through.
In the end, Lovers and Leavers is actually cautiously optimistic. "There’s lovers and leavers and moments forgotten/and dreams that don’t ever come true," he sings on "Love Don't Let Me Down," a ballad that beats with a slow, careful heart, much different than the fast pitter-patter of a man who hasn't yet learned the hurt or healing that comes with surrendering to the arms of another. "And even though I'm afraid/I'm gonna stand my ground. And if it’s not askin’ too much/love don’t let me down." Lovers and Leavers doesn't have a bitter taste or shun a future of companionship, but it does bid adieu to those whiskey-kissed nights in dirty bars and girls who only leave their mark in lipstick on a napkin. That stuff's fun fodder for a cheeky song, but these days Carll would just rather cast a rod with Eli or take him out for ice cream.
Or spend some time with his new love, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer. Divorced herself from Steve Earle, she too documented the end of her marriage on her 2015 album Down to Believing — particularly on the title track, about those crucial moments where you either suck up a life of misery or pull the plug on a partnership that's more than run its course. The new couple now posts sweet pictures on Instagram — holding hands, making faces on the plane, hanging out in their pajamas with kids in tow. For a while, Carll's songs left behind an honest version of everyday life, served with a little humor. Now, he's doing the same, but it's lessons he's leaving behind, not wry laughter.
"I'm not jaded. Life is hard, relationships are hard, and just because you have to work at it doesn't mean its hopeless," Carll says. "As hard as it all can be at times, it's worth it. I'm excited about the future; I'm excited about being a parent. I'm excited about love."