Hayes Carll on Hecklers, Hate Mail and Spending "A Lot of Years Playing Shows For Ten People"
With or without the controversy surrounding his song "She Left Me for Jesus," Hayes Carll would still be considered one of our state's greatest songwriters. Over the course of a decade, Carll has released four superb country/rock albums, each one better and more successful than the last.
Speaking while driving through the woods of Ohio, and in anticipation of his appearance at this weekend's Homegrown Music and Arts Festival, Carll talked about the hate mail he received over the aforementioned song and how he deals with hecklers.
The last time you played Dallas, it was a solo acoustic show at the Kessler. There was one guy up front who kept shouting at you and commenting on everything you said. How do you deal with people like that?
How do I deal with them or how do I feel about them? The whole idea of me doing a show at the Kessler is to be able to come in and tell some stories and have an acoustic thing where I get to do songs I don't normally play. I was looking forward to that. And then I had to compete with someone in the crowd. There are various ways to handle it. Sometimes, the crowd will police themselves and take care of it for you. And sometimes, you have to do it yourself. I've never figured out a surefire way of dealing with that situation. Sometimes, I've just told people to fuck off.
Nothing seemed to work that night. Did you expect someone from the venue to step in and take care of the situation?
Every club is different. I don't know if anyone from the club is out there even watching what is going on. I met the guy after the show and he told me he is a big fan and comes to all my shows. For some reason, he thought his behavior was a sign of endearment. He thought that he was really helping me out. It's kind of hard to rationalize it. He didn't get it and he didn't understand what everyone else in the room was trying to tell him. Sometimes, there really isn't much anyone can do.
You come to our area quite a bit. Do you have a favorite place and would you think of living here?
I have a lot of favorite places to play in Dallas. You guys have a lot of great choices of all sizes. We did a show at the Double Wide and had a great time. Of course, The Kessler is a nice place, minus the one loudmouth. The Granada is one of my favorite places to play in the country. The House of Blues has been a great place for us. It depends on what kind of show I am playing. In Dallas, you have all four levels, from a couple of hundred people to a couple of thousand. Everyplace has its own vibe. Lola's has that fun rock and roll vibe. I've never really thought about moving there. I am pretty happy in Austin. I've been there for six years. There are lots of great places to play there as well. I like it a lot. The place has everything I need.
You are 36. Do you think you are just now hitting your stride as a singer/songwriter?
I'm very excited about the things I learn every day. I always think I have a lot of great songs left in me. I'm optimistic.
Your sophomore album, Little Rock, was the first self-released album to hit number one on the Americana charts. Did that surprise you?
Yes, I was surprised. I hadn't had any kind of success with radio before that. When you write something, you hope people are going to dig it, but the actual response is a totally different thing. I was surprised.
The first time I saw you was at the Granada about five years ago and it was a good sized crowd, but shortly after that, you were selling out venues. Did the success seem quick to you?
After Little Rock came out, my songs were on the radio and Dallas really got behind that record. I went from 10 or 20 people at my shows to two or three hundred. It was pretty quick. Each record has had a similar effect. I was going from three hundred to seven hundred. Each time has provided a good jump. I don't know if it really seemed that quick to me. I spent a lot of years playing shows for 10 people.
What do you think when your music is described as maverick country folk?
I don't know what that is. I have a hard time describing myself. I just think of myself as a singer/songwriter. That can entail many things. I have a love of country music and that comes out even when I am not trying to write a country song. I consider myself a storyteller.
Your songs can be humorous, but they can also be heartbreaking. Do you have to be in a certain mood to write a certain type of song?
It's not that I put myself in any particular mindset. I just write. I don't think about whether I need a serious of a funny song. I just sit there and start writing and wait for things to come out.
When you wrote "She Left Me For Jesus," you must have known there was going to be some backlash from fundamental Christians.
I wrote it with Brian Keane. We did it in an hour. We didn't think it would see the light of day. To be honest, I thought we were just having fun coming up with the funniest thing we could. We wrote a lot of other verses as well. It was a fun exercise more than anything. When I decided to put the song on a record, I knew it would rub people the wrong way. I also knew a lot of people were going to love it. It was going to get a strong reaction both ways. I wasn't worried about whether or not it was going to be a success or whether or not it was going to offend people. I didn't want that song being my claim to fame. That was what I was uncomfortable with. I didn't want that to be the hit that labeled me. We were pretty clear about what we were saying in the song and if people gave it the time to listen, they would get what we were after. If they didn't, I didn't really care.
Did you get a lot of negative responses from people?
Oh yes, when it first came out. I would get the occasional email. When it first came out, we gave it away on iTunes. That was a big deal for me and then it ended up being the lowest rated song in the history of iTunes. There were hundreds of comments talking about how horrible it was. AOL put it on the front page of their website with a headline that said, "Country Singer Slams Jesus." I found out pretty quick that there were a lot of people who didn't like it.
Hayes Carll performs on the Shiner Stage, Saturday, May 26, at 8:35 p.m.