Singer-songwriter Hayes Carll performs at the Hamilton Theatre in Washington, D.C.
At 22, Hayes Carll was at a turning point. The Houston native had just graduated from college last in his class.
“I had a history degree and a 2.0 grade point average,” Carll said while on a recent tour stop in Washington, D.C. “And I had pretty much sabotaged any employment opportunities.”
Carll moved to an isolated area on the Bolivar Peninsula near Galveston, Texas, and began waiting tables and digging ditches for money. At night, he began playing open mics at local watering holes.
“I was the only guy who could play guitar and sing at the same time on the whole peninsula, so I got a lot of work,” Carll said. “And it was Carnegie Hall for me. If there were just two shrimpers fighting in the corner I didn’t care. There were people and I got to have a microphone.”
Carll, now 40, has come a long way since his days of playing for brawling fishermen.
In person, Carll is self-deprecating and personable. He uses humor to deflect questions that hint at his success in songwriting, which has drawn comparisons to fellow Texans Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
“I wanted to be a storyteller before I even got a guitar and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll be a writer,’” Carll said. “Then I thought ‘Well, maybe I’ll be a short-story writer, because my attention is not that great.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, a song’s only three minutes.”
His latest album, “Lovers and Leavers,” came out earlier this year. Carll used the loss of love (a recent divorce) and love for his son Eli as motivation for lyrics that are both plainspoken and painfully honest.
On “Love That You Need,” Carll paints a grim portrait of a soured relationship. “You say, ‘I love you, I say, ‘me too,” he sings. “We don’t think much about it. It’s just a thing that we do.”
And on the song “Magic Kid,” he offers, “That’s my kid with the cards, he’s nine years old. With a head full of wonder and a heart of gold.”
Yet it’s on “Sake of the Song” that Carll seems to get closest to his own life as a constantly traveling musician whose career continues to evolve.
“If you’re nobody’s business or you’re front-page news, rock, country, or delta blues,” Carll sings, “Tell your truth however you choose and do it all for the sake of the song.”
Hayes Carll is on tour in the U.S. through September.