Waxed: Hayes Carll's Trouble In Mind

Thank God for Hayes Carll.

From the opening violin run of “Drunken Poet’s Dream” to the last notes of the Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year, “She Left Me For Jesus,” Hayes Carll’s new album Trouble In Mind is a refreshing gust of familiar wind in a current culture of tired retreads, pop country, and fly-by-night television reality show stars.

Carll keeps his tongue planted firmly in cheek on most of Trouble In Mind, his third album and first for Lost Highway. And while the record brings to mind obvious influences (Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, et al), Carll manages to make his songs his own – as well as a few covers, too.

While it was hard to miss “She Left Me For Jesus,” it’s the song that opens the album, “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” that may be the best treat. Amidst traditional country instrumentation and Nashville swing, Carll delivers the kind of wry wit that Texas singer-songwriters are known for. The expert musicianship of producer/instrumentalist Brad Jones and the assorted veteran players compliments Carll’s Texas drawl and well-crafted lyrics so well that nothing ever detracts from the whole, and on the first track, that allows Hayes devilish story to unfold with earnest humor and infections, catching energy. When he sings, “I’ve got a woman she’s wild as Rome/ She likes to lay naked and be gazed upon,” you can’t help but listen, watch in your mind’s eye, and smile. This is a return to the carousing country music your parents warned you about, far from the sugary-sweetness of Nashville’s pop music machine.

Carll wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 14 tracks on the album, and on first listen you’ll have to try hard to not grasp his natural talent for songwriting. Though Carll visits familiar themes like love lost and solace in good (or bad) liquor, he delivers lyrics with fresh new twists that keep the listener tuned in to hear what is coming next, be it heartbreak or humor.

Hayes picks excellent covers for Trouble, too; “Bad Liver And A Broken Heart” rocks like the best country rock, sounding like The Eagles, The Stones, and, well, Hayes Carll, all at once. You wouldn’t expect it to be a song penned by Scott Nolan if you weren’t familiar with that songwriter’s work, Carll so expertly makes it his own. It takes guts to cover Tom Waits, and much more than that to do that artist’s songs justice, but Carll and his wonderful backing band do just that on Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”

This record stands as a testament to real Country music, real Rock and Roll… real American music. Much of that comes from the well-documented dues Carll paid playing and living hard for his music. Nowhere is that more apparently and more pleasantly portrayed, than in “I Got A Gig.” The autobiographical tune is filled with Carll’s enjoyable wit and humor, but also with a real grit that lends it the weight of truth. Once again, the expert cast of musicians makes the tune sound like old friends who’ve been on the road forever, playing their version of the blues behind old chicken wire.

The best thing about Trouble is how damned good it is – there’s nary a miscue to be found. This is music for music lovers, the kind of record that makes its way to your car stereo, home theater, or trusty iPod, and stays there for a while. It’s a record that sounds lived in, and is meant to be lived in.

Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention the reason you might have heard of Hayes Carll to begin with – “She Left Me For Jesus.”

To be honest, the first time I heard the song, I got a kick out of it but it didn’t really stick with me until I bought the record and discovered the rest of the excellent tunes (I am an admitted newcomer to Hayes Carll) and, more importantly, Hayes’ impeccable wit and knack with a song. What sounded like fun kitsch became so much more, simply because so many examples of Hayes humor and intelligent word craft are scattered throughout Trouble In Mind.

It’s a great song to end a great record, and truth be told, the lyrics are a perfect wink-wink that true music fans should get (and apparently did, as evident by the AMA’s Song of the Year award). “She’s givin’ up whiskey and taken up wine/ She prays for his troubles and forgot about mine,” Carll sings, “I’m a gonna get even, I can’t handle the shame/ Why the last time we made love, she even called out his name.”

The song moves through the story of lost love in the verses to the punch line choruses with equal aplomb, Hayes joyfully singing with mock sadness. “She left me for Jesus, and that just ain’t fair/ She says that he’s perfect, how could I compare/ She says I should find him, and I’ll know peace at last/ But if I ever find Jesus, I’m kickin’ his ass.” The song even ends with the Amen cadence, so commonly heard at the end of church hymns, but with the lyric sheet delivering yet one more sly wink, as Hayes and singing out, “Ahhh, man.” It’s one last perfect step, a look both forward and back, to close this excellent record.

As they say, though, the proof is in the puddin’, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better Americana record this year than Hayes Carll’s Trouble In Mind. Give it a listen, and I am sure you’ll be singing along with these hell raising tunes in no time.

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