Is Hayes Carll the Next Great Texas Songwriter?

Hayes Carll first made a name for himself as a bar singer in Crystal Beach, Texas, a few hours — and yet a world away — from his suburban Houston upbringing.

“During the summer, it’s kind of a party place because it’s one beach that you can drink on and drive on and make bonfires,” Carll says about the Bolivar Peninsula, across the bay from Galveston. “You can do whatever you want to do out there. In the winter, it’s completely desolate. There’s nothing to do if you’re not partying in the sun. It gets really, really quiet. It can test your sanity after a while.”

A good-natured, self-deprecating fellow, Carll retreated to Crystal Beach after graduating from Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., with a history degree. “Pretty unemployable,” he jokes. He bought a small amplifier and asked to play the five or six honky-tonk bars in the area. Working day and night jobs and singing when he could, Carll befriended the old guys that live on the Peninsula, a scene he describes in his album’s first track, “Highway 87.”

However, that’s the only song on his album, Flowers and Liquor (Compadre), detailing life in Texas. It’s a distinction that separates him from regional country stars like Pat Green and Cory Morrow, who college kids follow like longhorns to a slaughter.

“They’re nice guys, and I think they came along at a certain time when some college kids were looking for some kind of identity or something,” he says. “I like those guys, it’s nothing against them, they have good stuff, but it’s …” Carll pauses for a while, tries to clarify his intent and finally says, “I don’t really get into the Texas beer anthems as much, but I respect those guys for being out and working it. They’ve done a lot of good things and opened up a lot of doors for musicians coming out of Texas to some degree.”

Carll often draws comparisons to Townes Van Zandt , another Houston native who wrote understated folk songs like “If I Needed You” and “Pancho and Lefty.” The city of Houston has also produced (in one way or another) other literate songwriters like Rodney Crowell , Steve Earle , Nanci Griffith , Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams .

“I think there’s a lot of guys (in Texas) that get a lot less recognition that I tend to gravitate more towards — Ray Wylie Hubbard , Adam Carroll, Slaid Cleaves — some guys that are more my style to listen to. The only problem with the Pat and Cory stuff is the shows end up being more of events — go to party, go to get drunk, go to be seen, have a good time. That’s great. People need to get out of the house and have a good time. Nothing against that, but that’s not really what I’m looking for in my shows. … It’s just the scene that’s kind of surrounding them, and it’s partly due to their own making, but it’s not something I’m real comfortable playing in or being around. I prefer people actually coming out to listen to what I’m doing. Maybe I’m a pretentious jackass, I don’t know. I just like having people pay attention to some degree.”

People are indeed paying attention. Jack Ingram writes on Carll’s Web site, “Good music sneaks up on me, knocks me on my ass and I say ‘thank you.’ Thanks Hayes.” The Houston Press critics also named him the best folk act and best new artist for 2002.

Like Lovett, Carll has a knack for writing amusing songs (“Naked Checkers”) without coming across as an idiot. At the same time, slice-of-life love songs like “Easy Come Easy Go” and “It’s a Shame” prove he’s got the heart to connect with listeners far from the Lone Star state. In fact, he hopes to broaden his audience with an upcoming tour through the Southeast, stopping in Little Rock, Ark.; Nashville (where he hopes to write with Guy Clark , whom he met at a Texas songwriter’s night); Knoxville, Tenn.; and several dates in North Carolina. After that, it’s back to Texas for more shows.

“I just bought a new van last week,” Carll says. “Well, it’s not new. It’s a 1985 Chevy conversion, and it wasn’t quite as pristine as the guy that sold it to me made it out to be. I’m just getting all the amenities put in before I head out. Last time I went out, I just didn’t have much space and didn’t have anywhere to sleep. So I got this van that’s got a bed in the back so I can stay in it when I’m solo, and I can carry a band and the gear when I have them. Hopefully it will work out pretty well.”

Asked about his favorite part of touring, Carll says, “So far, just traveling in general has always been fun, and right now I get paid to do it. People are generally happy when I show up, which is nice. Camaraderie, I guess, being on the road with folks and running into your friends at the clubs and radio stations. It’s just magical piling in the car and heading out on the highway to see where you end up.”

Carll also believes he’ll leave Crystal Beach before long. “My girlfriend’s pregnant, so we’re either going to move to Houston or the hill country out around the Austin-New Braunfels area. We’re just trying to figure out right now what the best place is that we can afford. My beach bachelor days look like they’re coming to an end.”

However, he’s not about to cash in his troubadour aspirations.

“When I started out, I had illusions of having a Dylanesque career, but as time goes on, you watch all the people that come in and go out,” he says. “If I could have some kind of longevity and put out a solid record every year or two and challenge myself artistically as I went, I think I’d be happy if I could, when it’s all said and done, say that I made a living as a musician. That’s pretty important to me — if I could actually pull it off.”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.