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Deep in the art of Texas

Hayes Carll holds forth on Jesus, mini-relationships and degenerate love songs



Earlier this year, when Texas tourmates Hayes Carll and Bob Schneider billed themselves as "the greatest living songwriters of all time," their claim was, of course, tongue-in-cheek.

Even so, there's no question that both are gifted. The lesser-known Carll, for instance, has made year-end lists in publications like Rolling Stone, Spin and the New York Times. Critical recognition for what he calls his "degenerate love songs" dates back to 2008, when the droll "She Left Me for Jesus" was named Song of the Year by the Americana Music Association and placed No. 36 in the Village Voice's ranking of the year's best singles.

As with many signature songs, that's proven to be a mixed blessing, since it doesn't reflect the full spectrum of its songwriter.

With lines like "I got myself a new plan, stealin' from the Taliban, make a little money turning poppies into heroin," Carll's lyrics often suggest the gallows humor and acerbic wordplay of fellow Texans Terry Allen and James McMurtry.

But then there are songs like "Wish I Hadn't Stayed So Long," where the irony begins to slip away: "Shooting stars and whiskey bottles, all scattered across the yard / I'd have stayed back home in Houston, if I'd known it'd be this hard."

While the world's other greatest living songwriter won't be sharing the bill this Thursday at the Loft, you can still expect Carll to be as engaging onstage as he is in the following interview.

One of the funniest songs I've ever heard was "Bible on the Dash," your co-write with Corb Lund. How did that song come about, and how do you approach collaboration in general?

Co-writing is an interesting thing. I've probably done it with 30 or 40 different people over the years, and they're all different. Every artist brings something different to the table, and you've got a little mini-relationship for the length of that song. I like writing with friends so there's not that sort of awkward state of getting in a room and saying, "Well, how do you feel?" And with Corb, he had this idea kicking around for "Bible on the Dash," so he did most of the heavy lifting, and I contributed where I could.

Going back as far as Terry Allen's "Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy," there's kind of a tradition among you Texas heathens of ironic songs about Jesus. When you play a song like "She Left Me for Jesus," do audiences always pick up on that irony?

Well, with "She Left Me for Jesus," that song's not aimed at Jesus. But that point gets missed a lot, and my fans are not always as enlightened as I assume.

They'll be glad to hear that.

Yeah, but you know what I mean. For the most part they get it. But I should say the problem with irony is not everybody gets it. The idea is similar to what a Terry Allen or Randy Newman would do. It's aimed at the hypocrisy of a character who would probably call themselves Christian, but beat up Jesus if they saw him in a bar. I guess anytime you put Jesus and ass-kicking in the same sentence, you're setting yourself up to be misinterpreted.

In what ways has your songwriting changed through the years since?

Since I wrote that song? Well, yeah, it changes. But that was a co-write with a guy named Brian Keane, and I never thought that song was representative of what I do. I mean, it is, in some ways. But I was apprehensive about putting it on the record, because I understood the possibility of it being what garnered all the attention. And I didn't want to have a career where it became my "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" or "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road."

Like an albatross around your neck.

Yeah, and I've talked to Ray Wylie [Hubbard] and Todd Snider and guys who had minor hits with these songs that didn't really represent all they were capable of, by any means. So we ended up just putting it 14th on the record. My naïve idea was that people would listen to the 13 other songs before it, and then they would go, "Oh, there's more to this guy than just this song."

But here it is five years later, and there's still some guy asking about it.

Yeah, my plan didn't work. [Laughs.] But, you know, I wrote a song about my son the other day, which is something that I never thought I'd be doing. I thought I'd just spend my life writing about bars and sex and depression.

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