Home sweet home: Austin, Texas
Expect: Silver-tongue-in-cheek country iconoclast
Must hear: KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (Lost Highway), out now
Hayes Carll is a throwback. He plays 250 shows a year. He writes wry, politically barbed story-songs like his hero Townes Van Zandt that reject the pop sheen and lockstep jingoism of his contemporaries. He's an experienced door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman.
"You go door to door in 100-degree heat telling people they've won a free rug cleaning and pour a bag of fucking flour on the floor," explains the droll 35-year-old Houston native, recalling his lean postcollegiate years in Austin. He'd then attempt to hoover up the mess with the occupant's inferior vacuum before busting out one with the transmission of a Porsche. "I did it for a few months and maybe sold two vacuum cleaners, but the guys who were good at it could make you pawn your car."
The home-appliance industry's loss was the music world's gain; unable to book gigs in Austin's eclectic scene, Carll retreated north in 2000, splitting his time cranking out "Margaritaville" and "Wonderful Tonight" in the shrimper bars of Crystal Beach and honing his singer-songwriter chops at Galveston's legendary Old Quarter. After two DIY albums in 2002 and 2005, Lost Highway released 2008's Trouble in Mind, blending tear-in-your-beer ballads and brawlers with humor too subtle for the typical honky-tonk crowd (see "She Left Me for Jesus," which offended Christians and Jews alike).
Carll's latest, the just-released KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) -- military-grunt jargon for "Kiss my ass guys, you're on your own" -- pushes that iconoclasm even further and more compellingly, from the cover photo depicting a befuddled Carll wearing a too small American-flag sweater to the title track, a subterranean homesick tongue-twister about a morphine-addled soldier hallucinating that he's been recruited by the Pentagon to drop acid in outer space. Neither is likely to garner an endorsement from Toby Keith.
"To me, it's music at its most basic," says Carll, "but I realize that's not the case for 93 percent of America." Still, Carll's career and music feel archetypal enough to have provided the inspiration for Garrett Hedlund's character in the Gwyneth Paltrow hick-chick flick Country Strong; Hedlund performs four Carll originals, which can be found on the iTunes-only cast album. Not bad for a guy whose first gig was singing "No Woman, No Cry" at a cross-dresser beauty pageant in college. But even if Carll isn't quite going Hollywood, he's at least found a way to get by in Austin, where he's been living since 2005.
"I love it now," he says, smiling. "And I better fucking keep the music job, because I wasn't any good selling vacuum cleaners."
Watch: "She Left Me for Jesus"