Hayes Carll plays country music I can get into. Last Saturday he turned the Rock & Roll Hotel into a honky tonk for the night when he and his band The Poor Choices brought their foot-stompin’ blend of country, bar-room rock & twangy folk to the stage. Texas native Carll and his gang are on US tour right now in support of his fourth studio album “KMAG, YOYO (& Other American Stories) “, released in February of this year on Lost Highway Records.
Hayes Carll packed the house, playing to a sold-out crowd of very enthusiastic Washingtonians. Cowboy boots and even a few cowboy hats were in the house (not onstage), though I wouldn’t say the audience looked particularly “country”. Country or not, they were clearly excited and into the music of the evening. Carll started off his set on a mild note with the quiet, twangy “The Letter,” from his latest album “KMAG, YOYO.” He and the band were just warming up, though. Things sped up a little for “Wild As A Turkey”, from his album “Trouble In Mind.” The song showcased his humorous, sometime self-deprecating lyrics, and warbling vocal style.
His backup band was a very talented group of young guys. Bassist Cody Foote kept a bouncing bassline going and synced well with drummer Kenny Smith, who drove the beat and kept the feet tapping and momentum going through the set. Two guitarists in addition to Carll switched off between electric guitars, dobro, mandolin, lap and pedal steel, weaving traditional country sounds in with their rock and Americana repertoire. Carll was a charismatic frontman, though humble, and led the band through a long set that shifted from quieter, introspective songs to fast-paced full-on rock numbers, and told stories and even a joke in between songs.
The highest points in the night came from his latest album “KMAG, YOYO”. “Stomp And Holler” was a rolicking good time, and people did stomp and holler right along. That song had a great line, a good example of his lyrical lightness and humour “I’m like James Brown, only white and taller, and all I wanna do is stomp and holler!” Another great moment came in “Hard Out Here”, a real honky-tonk sing-along song about life on the road. A particularly humorous moment came in the evening when the band left the stage, and Carll played “Another Like You” , which was written and recorded as a duet. He told the audience he’d sing both parts, and that when he faced one way he was the guy, and when he faced the other way he was the gal. His delivery was great, and he made it work in a funny way. My favorite song though, and the pinnacle of the night for me was “KMAG, YOYO” (an acronym used in the military that means “kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own”). The song features Hayes Carll’s sharp-witted lyrics sung at a quickfire pace, and sounds like a 2011 take on Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
One thing that I really like about Hayes Carll- he has a trait that is essential to the best country legends, and one you can’t manufacture: believability. Think of Johnny Cash, or Hank Williams- you could believe what they were singing, that it was their life, regardless of if it was fiction or not (Johnny Cash never did time in Folsom Prison, or shot a man in Reno, but he sure sold it). Hayes Carll is believable. He’s down to earth, not contrived. He sings about life on the road, life in the bars, life in general, and it sounds real. Also, it helps that he has a heaping dose of humility thrown in. He isn’t putting on airs- the only thing grandiose about him is his tall frame. Now, I’m not saying he sounds like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, (he doesn’t) or that he’s trying to (I don’t think he is). He has his own sound, and it works for him. He may have a way to go before he gets to that revered status in country music, but he has a lot of strong points on his side, and he’s heading in the right direction.