By Michelle Nikolai
Hayes Carll was touring Europe in September when he got word that he’d won the Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year award for his hilarious tongue-in-cheek rant, “She Left Me for Jesus.” Written with Brian Keane, the iconoclastic song laments losing a girlfriend to Jesus, the “other man” who’s a ‘freak in sandals with long purty hair.’ Sounding like it could have come from the pen of the irreverent Kinky Friedman, the song catches the casual listener off-guard. Some may find the words sacrilegious, but he says they were meant in good fun.
“We thought it would be funny if we wrote from the perspective of a guy who wasn’t aware of Jesus and maybe just thought his girlfriend had found another man,” Hayes explains. “People have taken it a number of ways. Like Ray Wylie Hubbard says, ‘the problem with irony is not everybody gets it.’
“Some people are offended and some people love it. But at the end of the day it’s supposed to be satire. I have nothing against Jesus.”
Carll, a 32-year old singer-songwriter, has musical roots that run deep in the Texas soil - Houston soil, to be exact, though he currently lives in Austin. After earning a degree in history from Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., Carll lived the life of a troubadour, drifting to the seaside town of Crystal Beach, Texas - not exactly a mecca of songwriters. He listened to the music of Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson for inspiration, and started crafting his own songs and playing them for anyone who would listen.
Carll released his first album, Flowers and Liquor, on Compadre Records in 2002 and followed it up in 2005 with the self-released Little Rock on his own Highway 87 Records. He topped the Americana charts with the album and sold 15,000 copies, the only self-released artist to do so at the time. For his third album, he took a leap of faith and signing with Lost
Highway Records, the home of Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and Lyle Lovett, among others.
Though many of the songs are self-penned, Carll enlisted the talents of a few visionary songwriters like the aforementioned Hubbard and Darrell Scott, who cowrote “Willing to Love Again.” Though he enjoys writing with others, he approaches it with a bit of trepidation. “Writing a song with someone can be the best or worst experience ever. You have to
find people you trust and who can add something creatively,” he says. “I was really lucky with the people on this record. They came through in spades.”
These days Carll tours relentlessly and finds the European audiences to be a little reserved for his barroom sensibilities. “They are very, very polite. The last few shows we have been working on their honky tonk etiquette. Making them grab each other’s girlfriends and pour beer on their heads and request ‘Freebird.’ They are really nice and way into it.
It’s just hard to tell that they are into it until after the show. “I think to be seen enjoying yourself is a sign of weakness or something. They will vote you off the island if you dance.”