Album Review: Hayes Carll – What It Is (Dualtone)

When we last heard from Texas troubadour Hayes Carll he was singing about heartache and divorce on 2016’s Lovers And Leavers. What a difference a few years makes.

Since then Carll has hooked up with Allison Moorer, a fine singer/songwriter herself and former wife (one of many) of Steve Earle.

Along with inspiring songs such as Beautiful Thing and I Will Stay, Moorer contributes as a co-producer, occasional co-writer and backing vocalist.

Like many Americana artists that are making new music (see our review of Ryan Bingham’s new album) Hayes Carll has political affairs on his mind as much as affairs of the heart.

Things get started with a tune directly written about Moorer, titled None ‘Ya, as in, “I asked you where you been you said none ‘ya…none ‘y business”. Ultimately it’s a declaration of love with Carll singing, “All I want to do is be your man”, as Fats Kaplin’s fiddle weaves in and out of the mix…and Moorer herself can be heard singing BVs during the choruses.

Times Like These follows with a shot of Chuck Berry-like guitar and a poke at the current administration…”In times like these do I really need a billionaire”. Despite the hard times, it sounds like Hayes and his band are having a good time.

Next up is a slice of country/soul in the form of a song titled Things You Don’t Wanna Know, featuring some fine organ playing from Gabe Dixon and a lyric that touches on the changing times and what it takes to adjust, with the protagonist complaining, “Nobody wants to hear the truth, they only want to see a show”.

Carll seems to be channeling the spirit of Johnny Cash in the galloping rhythm of If I May Be So Bold. Again, the rockin’ track finds the singer speculating, “why some men do their damndest when half-a-damn would do.

Indeed, Hayes seems concerned with how traditional men’s roles are changing and how they need to adapt on many of the songs here, most critically on Fragile Men, a slow, pedal-steel driven tune that tries to get into the head of men who may be pushing against these changes.  It’s a powerful song, co-written with LOLO and the string arrangement near the end of the track only drives the point home further.

One of the high-points among the album’s 12-tracks is Jesus And Elvis, a song written by Carll and Moorer along with Matraca Berg. Sounding like an early John Prine gem, it tells the story of a woman who opened a bar in 1967 and then lost her son to the war.

The disillusion in that song is brought to contemporary relief on the following tune, American Dream. Like most of the songs here, it’s a thoughtful, articulate and poetic rumination on America in the 21st Century.

Throughout this fine album, Hayes Carll delivers his lines with a straightforward, honest delivery that sounds like it comes straight from the heart.

Speaking of the heart, the final song here, I Will Stay, finds the singer declaring his commitment to his lover while strings swell to a close.

Very nice.

Marty Duda