Songwriter Interviews

Hayes Carll

by Dan MacIntosh

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Hayes Carll is a long, tall Texan. He's also as talented as he is tall. Fortunately, he's been rewarded for his songwriting skills, namely with the acronymic song, "KMAG YOYO," which was chosen as American Songwriter's number one song in 2011. The album it came from bears the same name and shares similar accolades, making best-of lists on Rolling Stone, SPIN, and The New York Times.

Carll has the unusual ability to fit in at a country music festival, like California's Stagecoach, and also Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Texas' SXSW. He's been compared to stubbornly individualistic singer/songwriters like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Todd Snider because nothing seems to be off limits with the songs he writes.

With "KMAG YOYO," he even brings to mind – and hopefully this won't put 'the next Dylan' curse on him – the one and only, Bob Dylan. Nevertheless, it has that speedy, wordy feel of early Dylan music.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): The first song I wanted to ask you about is... is it best to describe it as your acronym song?

Hayes Carll: "KMAG YOYO"?

Songfacts: Yeah. Now, I looked that up. It's a military term.

Hayes: It is. We found it in a military dictionary. It's "kiss my ass, guys, you're on your own."

Songfacts: Do you have a military background?

Hayes: No. My dad was in the Navy, but I don't have a military background. We were writing the song and we were just going through looking for terms, and we found that one and it fit in that particular part of the song. Then when it was done I thought it was a pretty great title because it just sums up the whole thing.

It was going to be a title of my record for a while; the idea that the whole album was about somebody just checking out from society and moving out to the desert and saying, "Fuck it, I'm going on my own on this."

Songfacts: Did you have a lot of people that didn't know it at first? It's not as famous as FUBAR.

Hayes: Yeah, I found out after the fact that it was actually really obscure - almost no one had ever heard of it. So I thought I was at least going to have the military folks recognize it, but about 90 percent of them are just like, "Yeah, I've never heard that one."

Songfacts: Even military guys?

Hayes: Yeah. But it's making a comeback now.

Songfacts: You're on the cutting edge of the acronym songs. Have you gotten a lot of guff about your song "She Left Me For Jesus"?

Hayes: Not really. It got more exposure than most of the stuff that I've done, so it reached some people that probably weren't ready or expecting it and that took it the wrong way. Any time you have the words "Jesus" and "kicking his ass" in the same sentence, there are going to be people that misconstrue the joke.

Songfacts: Did the Westboro Baptist Church protest your recording?

Hayes: No. It didn't get to that. We had a few random threats and I've had people that didn't take it well, that didn't get it. Jerry Falwell's son, I think, wrote something about it. But I've had countless ministers and rabbis come up to me and say, "I'm a minister and the song's hilarious to me." But it's not aimed at anyone's religion. It's aimed at intolerance and poking fun at somebody who calls himself a Christian and yet would beat up Jesus if he walked into a bar right now. That was the idea behind it.

Songfacts: One of my favorite movies is The Life of Brian, which people were protesting when it came out, but it really had nothing to do with Jesus. It had to do with religious fanatics. It's the religious people that were being made fun of, not Jesus. I think a lot of times people think that if you mention Jesus in a song somehow you're putting him down, but I don't think you were putting Jesus down. You were putting down somebody that kind of missed the point.

Hayes: Yeah. Here's a long-haired Jew in sandals and this redneck thinks his girlfriend's fuckin' around with him and he's ready to get violent, but he's probably the same guy that would condemn me for my lifestyle due to his Christian values. But again, if Jesus walked in, they probably wouldn't be sitting at the bar together.

Songfacts: Well, country music is about the only place that you can hear Jesus on the radio. You have that Eric Church song, "She Loves Me Like Jesus Does," and "Jesus Take the Wheel," but I don't think you hear that in rock music.

Hayes: Yeah, you don't hear it a ton. There's a pretty stark difference between country and rock. Country music for the most part is people telling stories about their lives, and religion's a really important part of a lot of people's lives, so that's something you connect to with them through a song. And rock music, that's a lot of times more about partying and relief and escapism, so it's not as prevalent of a thing.

Songfacts: In your song "Hard Out Here," you do a spoken word part when you perform it live. Is that improvised?

Hayes: No. I've been doing that for a couple of years, and it started out where I would just try to talk to the crowd and find a place to land and get back into the song. Over the last couple of years I've got it fairly dialed in. There are different bits and pieces to it, so sometimes I'll do the short version and sometimes do a long one, and sometimes tell a whole different thing, but I've got different pieces of the puzzle I can insert and get out in one piece for the most part.

Songfacts: When you're performing live, do you alter your set list based upon how the audience seems?

Hayes: Yeah, a lot of times. Like, festival crowds. On one hand, you want to do what you do and try to bring them to you, but sometimes that's a losing battle. You've got a chance to make a lot more fans and everybody'll have a much better time if you just take them in the general area of what they want. Festivals in particular, it's not, "Let's sit around and talk about how our feelings are." They want to dance and yell and have a good time, so we keep it a little more upbeat. I played a couple of downers sometimes.

Songfacts: They need a little bit of that.

Hayes: Yeah, you've got to take a break sometimes. It's a long day.

Songfacts: George Jones passed away not too long ago. What's your favorite George Jones song?

Hayes: I've been singing "Who's Gonna Fill His Shoes" all day long. We used to cover "White Lightnin'," "Window Up Above." There are so many great ones. I don't know what my favorite would be.

Songfacts: I talked to Trent Wagler, he's the singer in Steel Wheels. He said "White Lightnin'," and then he was kind of embarrassed. It's like, "Oh, maybe I should have said something that's more serious." But I think it showed the range of what he could do. He could sing an upbeat song and just nail it.

Hayes: Oh, yeah. Back in my trailer, Robert Ellis and I, we were talking, I did some shows with him and Cary Ann Hearst and I and Robert would all do "White Lightnin'" at the end of the night and each take a verse. It was a lot of fun.

Songfacts: That's a fun song. And I'll bet it's a nice break for some of your other stuff to let loose on something sort of lighthearted.

Hayes: Yeah, it's good to have some fun stuff in there. I don't do a lot of covers, but we'll throw that in every once in a while, an encore song.

Songfacts: Do you go back a ways with Robert Ellis, or have you ever written songs with him?

Hayes: We've never written together. We've done a bunch of shows together. We're both from the Houston area and so he's done some shows opening for me, we've done a few festivals, and then we did a songwriters show with Rodney Crowell at the Paramount in Austin.

Songfacts: How often do you co-write with other writers?

Hayes: A fair bit. I didn't at first, but lately I've gotten more into it.

Songfacts: I found that that seems to be true with a lot of songwriters. It takes a while sometimes to warm up to the idea that maybe two heads are better than one. Did it take you a while to come to that?

Hayes: Well, yeah, it did. I always thought of it as my thing and nobody else was going to be on the same wavelength. Also, it can be an uncomfortable deal. It's a very exposed type of situation where you're chasing ideas, a lot of which are stupid, and you have to not be embarrassed about throwing it out there. But when it works, it's really an amazing thing, because you are exposed and open, and when you get on the same page - which doesn't happen every time - it's a really cool thing.

I've been writing with Darrell Scott up here lately and to me it's like not only do we get some great songs, but I leave there feeling like a better person. It's just a really cool thing. So when you get with somebody who's really open-minded and creative, it can take you places you never thought about going.

Songfacts: Have you written any songs with Darrell that you're particularly proud of?

Hayes: Yeah. I've got three of them. Only one's on a record. I wrote one called "Willing To Love Again" on my Trouble In Mind record, and that was the first song I'd ever written about my wife, and so that was meaningful to me. And then we wrote one recently called "Love Don't Let Me Down" that I did as a duet with Caitlin Rose; it's not on a record anywhere, it's just a single. And then we wrote one about my son called "The Magic Kid," and it's my favorite song right now.

Songfacts: Why do you call it "The Magic Kid"?

Hayes: Because my kid's a magician. He's 9 and he's just super into magic. So we wrote this song about him. It's really special for me... you know, I don't do good writing about personal stuff.

Songfacts: But now it seems like you're kind of moving in that direction.

Hayes: Well, sometimes. But Darrell's helped me with that. So now I've got a song about my kid and one about my wife. I don't know who else digs them, but I'm real proud of them, and it's just good to have that.

December 6, 2013. Get more at
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