Interview: Hayes Carll on Co-Writing and Country Sound on New Album, ‘You Get It All’
"I can't say I ever sit down with the idea of writing a record. I just generally write to write."
Hayes Carll sounds relaxed as he chats with The Boot over the phone from his home in Nashville. He's in preparation mode for the release of his latest record, You Get It All, out Friday (Oct. 29) via Dualtone Records. For an artist who is heralded as one of the greatest living songwriters — and whose albums are always a "complete" listening experience, never hinging on the success of one or two tracks — it's surprising to hear he doesn't write with a full-length project in mind.
"With You Get It All, I was just having fun writing, and at a certain point, I realized I had a pretty good collection of things that I felt pretty strongly about and wanted to put out into the world," Carll explains. "I just write, and then I try to find, after the fact, pieces that work well together."
For his new record, Carll managed to find 11 songs that work beautifully well together, creating what he considers to be his most "country" LP yet. "I mean, I have a country background and I grew up with country music, but I feel like more than any batch of songs that I've written, these are a combination of trying to tell stories, trying to figure things out, and doing it all in a way that has this sort of classic sensibility," he says.
"It's straightforward but vibrant, and it leans on a lot of the things that I grew up listening to," Carll adds. "A lot of my influences shine through on this record."
While these country sentiments ring true throughout You Get It All, they are most impeccably captured and celebrated on the opening track, "Nice Things," a co-write with Brothers Osborne.
"I just write and then I try to find, after the fact, pieces that work well together."
"The first time we got together," Carll says of writing with T.J. and John Osborne, "we wrote a song called "Back on the Bottle," which ended up on their Skeletons album. The second time we got together, we came up with "Nice Things." I really do love it, because it combined a lot of things dear to my heart. It's a great country song with a little bit of humor and some observational stuff, but it's not too heavy-handed."
As soon as the needle drops on "Nice Things," the vintage, flawless guitarwork sets the foundation for what's to come. "That was Kenny Greenberg on the electric," Carll says with an obvious admiration in his voice. "He's all over this record, not just as co-producer, but he's one of our great guitar players. That was part of the joy of working with him: the sounds he was capable of bringing into the studio."
As for the song's lyrics, Carll has never been one to shy away from using his voice to make a statement, and that is truer than ever as the song's unique narrator turns her attention toward oil, cannabis and more.
"If I call out stuff or a song's character calls it out, there are people who will take issue with it," Carll says, "so we thought, 'Who can look at the world and its problems with total impunity because they created it?' Well, let's look at the Creator, and that gave us license to write this stuff. Hopefully it's taken as common sense, rather than people thinking we're attacking or criticizing."
It isn't all humor on You Get It All, though. One of the most powerful moments comes with "Help Me Remember," a deeply personal and profound statement rooted in an experience Carll had with his grandfather decades ago.
"When I was 14 years old, my grandfather lived in Waco and I was in Houston, but I spent a lot of time with him growing up," Carll recalls. "I remember, I was in his pickup truck, driving around town, and I was in the passenger seat. We were at a stoplight, and he turned to me and asked me where we were. It was a really frightening thing — I had no idea where we were. For the first time, I saw that he was scared and was lost."
Carll says his grandfather died about a year later, so his family never experienced him dealing with full-onset Alzheimer's.
"The idea behind the song was about having a witness for your life," Carll explains. "No matter what the circumstance is, we all can use somebody to remind us what we're about and what we've done and who we are, because we could all lose that thread. With that idea in mind, we started thinking about people, like my grandfather, who were starting to lose that; imagine how scary it is to lose the thread to your own story."
The response to the song and its accompanying music video has been overwhelming for Carll. "The number of people who have reached out to share their own stories, it's been a lot," he says. "I knew it was a major issue, but I don’t think I realized how many people it affects. It’s heartbreaking."
Carll co-wrote "Help Me Remember" with Josh Morningstar, and as he thinks about that experience — like his experience with the Osbornes — he speaks fondly of his time co-writing with others.
"There's a lot of stuff that I love co-writing on because it opens up a whole world that wouldn't exist without that other person and their take," he says. "I can get myopic in my view, and my skillset is what it is. I really enjoy working with other people with a different skillset and a different point of view, and when you combine those things, something really cool can happen. It doesn't mean it always works, and it doesn't mean it's always better, but it's always different than if that person wasn't in the room."
One of his regular co-conspirators — in writing, in producing and in life — is his wife, Allison Moorer.
"It gets better and better, fortunately," Carll says with a slight chuckle as he acknowledges the journey he and Moorer have been on together. "I'm lucky because I enjoy spending time with her, regardless of what we're doing ... maybe with the exception of moving furniture. It's really rewarding getting to spend time doing creative work, because there's a connection that comes from that and it's one of my favorite things."
In a time when the world is still learning what it means to be happy and how that happiness can co-exist with the ongoing realities of a global pandemic, Carll feels fortunate to be riding through it all with Moorer.
"We're both artists and it can be a really solitary life and process," he admits. "To have her be a part of it and share it with her, it's really rewarding. It just makes me happy."