NASHVILLE -- Hayes Carll, 32, arranges his long limbs around a high-top table in the bar of a trendy Nashville restaurant. He's clearly out of place, but frequenting these locales comes with the new visibility he's earned as one of the most talked about emerging artists in the country arena.
Rave reviews of his third full-length album, "Trouble in Mind," have cascaded in from any number of outlets, transforming this journeyman singer-songwriter with the face of a prairie dog into one of the must-see performers at this weekend's Stagecoach Festival at the Empire Polo Field in Indio.
The event opens today and runs through Sunday, with Carll performing Saturday.
Carll's quirky songs merge eccentric metaphor and off-center tales with ambling folk and classic Lone Star roadhouse arrangements. His music falls between the unpolished Outlaw moments of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and erstwhile troubadours Townes Van Zandt and Billy Joe Shaver, and he's existed for years between the cracks, playing dive bars but running his own label. Finding him- self in the spotlight now, well, Carll admits it's an odd place to be.
" 'Old Memories & Degenerate Love Songs' just wasn't as catchy," says the lanky country singer of an alternate title for "Trouble in Mind," his major label debut. "But that's kinda the deal: These songs are about a time and place in my life that's come and gone. They're my way of hanging on."
After graduating from Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., Carll fell in love with the work of the Beat writers and the music of John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and Todd Snider and was inspired by daydreams of life as a wandering folkie. "There's a certain magic to the life," he says. "I had to be part of it, whether writing, traveling, drifting or exploring."
Those explorations took him to the entertainment low-water of Crystal Beach, Texas, where, with a handful of original songs, he staked his claim. "It's a long way to here from there," he says. "Asking to play for free to three shrimpers, taking it one show at a time. It was fierce: me and the karaoke guy, battling it out for the entertainment dollar in Crystal Beach. They'd run food specials at my bar: All You Can Eat Fried Chicken and Hayes Carll, $4.99."
That era informs great chunks of "Trouble in Mind." "I Got A Gig's" driving shuffle paints pictures of punching it out with a guitar for tips in a rough Texas seaside dive, while "Knockin' Over Whiskeys" and "Wild as a Turkey" offer vivid takedowns of a certain strain of coastal Friday night.
Crystal Beach also gave Carll his perspective on the music business. "This isn't for the meek of the heart . . . or the afraid," he cautions. "To get out there and live this, it takes determination to be broke, to go out and perform to three drunks, to struggle with any kind of writing. But you know if labels come or go, the record industry crumbles; if I look back in 20 years with songs I stand behind, that's what matters."
The songs are certainly impressive. Carll's 2002 Compadre debut "Flowers and Liquor" met with critical acclaim, especially in Texas, and was followed by 2005's "Little Rock." The album sold 15,000 copies, making Carll the only self-released artist to top the Americana charts.
Not selling out
For "Trouble in Mind," Carll moved to Lost Highway -- home of Van Morrison, Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson. But the man who drawls "She Left Me For Jesus" -- about a good ol' boy who thinks his girlfriend is cheating with a long-haired hippie in sandals -- figures it's not selling out but buying into a full arsenal of marketing, distribution and opportunities.
"As a folk singer, it's exciting to try things with these amazing players. Sometimes it wouldn't work, but seeing a song come to life that had been on paper 10 minutes ago. . . . Figure I didn't even have a band 'til my second album, and that's only three more pieces."
Fellow Texas roadhouser turned mainstream country favorite Jack Ingram knows the challenge "is defining how big he wants to be -- and where he wants to go. With Hayes, he's very truthful about the things he makes up, but he's so honest you can't tell. His wit is sharp, dry, poignant . . . and it's always to the better his world gets embellished."
Certainly the squalid romantic tinges that permeate "Trouble in Mind" embrace that notion. Married with a child, Carll is tacit on specifics, but the quixotic bad timing of "It's a Shame," the ardor of "Girl Downtown," the tornado aftermath of "A Lover Like You" or the erotic perfection that's "Drunken Poet's Dream" show Carll to be enamored with inamorata.
"I've always been drawn to relationships, though the fantasy more than reality," Carll says. "I always liked the falling-in-love part, just not the aftermath, so when they'd start participating, I'd check out before it got messy."
Still, the faltering "Willing to Love Again" for his wife and the white-knuckle addict's plea "Don't Let Me Fall Down" bring a certain amount of gravity to the album.
"There's some kinship with Steve Earle in the early days," says Kim Buie, Lost Highway vice president of A&R.; "[He's] very smart, real, honest about people."
"I have an odd sentimentality," Carll murmurs, pushing a stray hair out of his face. "This is my way of holding on to those memories. It's like here I am: tell my stories, make my apologies, drag up old memories. These people, Arkansas, Crystal Beach, sleeping on couches, everything else. You have to listen to know."