Hayes Carll rises from Bolivar honky-tonks to international stage
Hayes Carll’s native language is Texan.
While in Denmark playing the Tonder Music Festival early last month, the lanky, bearded songwriter didn’t really think about the language barrier.
After the show, the promoter asked Carll why he hadn’t played “She Left Me For Jesus,” the Americana hit from his 2008 album “Trouble in Mind.”
“I didn’t know they wanted me to play it,” he said.
Carll put on an accent, much more Russian than Danish, as he retold the promoter’s response: “This is a very Texas thing you do, where you fail to meet expectations.”
Much to the contrary — at 38, the one-time resident of Crystal Beach has surpassed the bar set by his anonymous upbringing in the Houston suburbs and a music career that began in rural honky-tonks such as Bob’s Sports Bar on Bolivar Peninsula.
“In retrospect, it was maybe not the best place to launch a career,” Carll said. “The one thing I had going was I was the one guy who could sing and play guitar on the whole peninsula as far as I could tell.”
Carll became a fixture in the eccentric community, befriending locals like Crystal Beach zoo owner, Michael Kujawa.
“He had a lion and he used to bring it to my gigs at Bob’s in one of those circus cages on a trailer,” Carll said. “There was a window behind the stage and he would back it up there. So, if you turned around, there would sometimes be a lion.”
When Hurricane Ike flattened the landmarks of his adopted hometown in 2008, Carll was working in London.
“I couldn’t get any information about what had happened to my town,” he said. “I remember before I went on stage one night, I saw a newspaper and on the front page was this lion that Mike would bring to my gigs.”
Later he found out that Kujawa had “done the Christian thing” and released his animals before the storm hit. The lion instinctively made its way to higher ground, riding out the flood with a ragtag group of locals in a church.
“It was, of course, like three days before the National Guard could come and rescue everybody. So, for 72 hours, it was this redneck ‘Life of Pi’ situation,” Carll said.
Geography might have wrecked Carll’s career were it not for Rex Bell, owner of the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, 413 20th St., in downtown Galveston.
“I was waiting tables at the now-defunct Landry’s Oyster Bar,” Carll said. “I went out one night with some fellow waiters and stumbled into the Old Quarter, which changed my life.”
He started hanging out there, tending bar and playing open mic nights. Bell eventually set him up to open for legendary songsmith Ray Wylie Hubbard.
“At some point before the show actually happened, another songwriter met Ray at a funeral and asked if he could open for him and Ray said yes. So, I got demoted to opener to the opener,” Carll said. “But, afterward Rex introduced us.”
Hubbard gave Carll the boost he needed with a simple endorsement: “He gets it.”
“It meant a lot to me, since I admired him and that was really the only nice thing anyone had said to me so far in my career,” Carll said.
It wasn’t long before the bright lights of the live music capital drew Carll down state Highway 71 to Austin.
He went to work selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door and took night shifts at a Red Lobster to make ends meet. When there was time for shut-eye, the wandering Texan slept on a friend’s couch.
“I was getting no shows and no dates,” he said. “I remember I looked around and I thought, what I need is a press kit to get shows. All these songwriters, on their websites, have all these nice things that other people have said about them. The thing is, nobody had said anything nice about me except for Ray and it was only three words.”
Carll returned to Crystal Beach and the comfort of the Old Quarter, still hungry to make a name for himself in the music scene.
“I still would go online and look at other songwriters’ sites to see what they were doing and I came across Slaid Cleaves,” Carll said. “He had a quote from Ray Wylie and I thought that was cool and I looked at it and it said, ‘He gets it.’”
The move back would pay off as Carll honed his storytelling chops, releasing a self-financed album in 2005.
Lost Highway Records signed on to release his third album in 2008, putting him in the company of Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, Van Morrison and the Drive-By Truckers.
The head count at his shows steadily increased. With four albums and a host of worthy collaborations under his belt — with Todd Snider, Guy Clark and Hubbard — Carll is still making his way. There’s a fifth album on the horizon.
He settled in Austin to raise his 11-year-old son, Elijah.
“His thing is magic,” Carll said of his son. “He’s really good now. At first he was not.”
Elijah is now booking paid gigs and has even opened for his dad a couple of times.
“He knew that he loved it and that it was his joy; he stuck with it and followed his heart,” Carll said. “I admire that strength … and I pray he never loses that.”
Back in town
Trading his guitar for an Olympus Trip 35, Hayes Carll is participating in The Twelve, a Galveston project that shows diverse points of view through photography.
Created by Galvestonians Will Wright and Shannon Guillot-Wright, the project, now in its fourth year, asked 12 musicians to capture life behind the mic on one roll of film. The photographs will go home with the highest bidder Oct. 11 after an auction in Edna’s Room at The Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice St. in the island’s downtown. Visit www.twelvepeople.org for more information.
The auction and the associated concert series, which runs until mid-December, will support music and arts education in Galveston.
Carll opened the series with Carrie Rodriguez on Sept. 6 at The Grand, which was his first time to take center stage at the storied venue.