“That's my kids with the cards/ he's nine years old/ with a head full of wonder/ and a heart of gold/ and there's not a trick that he can't figure out/ and he's never stopped the show for fear of doubt/ like the rest of us did/ he's the magic kid.” - The Magic Kid - Hayes Carll-Darrell Scott.

Texan troubadour Hayes Carll boomerangs from divorce on his fifth album that explores the rigours on and off the road during his 20 year career that started in the Woodlands, 28 miles north of Houston along Interstate 45.

The much travelled singer-songwriter won wide acclaim here on his 2012 tour with Hunter Valley dynamo Kirsty Lee Akers and has lived in Lone Star state capital Austin for a decade.

Carll, now 40, credits fellow singer-songwriters - producer Joe Henry and Steve Earle's seventh ex-wife Allison Moorer - for sweet solace during his five years recording hiatus.

But it was his son Elijah, now 12, who inspired evocative new song The Magic Kid and stars in the video featured in Series #30 of Nu Country TV on Wednesday June 8.

The magic helped inspire his resurrection after the breakdown of his marriage to wife Jenna took a toll on the singer, family and friends.

“I was walking out feeling invigorated rather than beaten down,” Carll revealed in a recent interview to promote his album on his own Highway 87 label, distributed here by Cooking Vinyl .

“At the same time, my personal life was going through a lot of changes, and my marriage was ending, and I was trying to figure out how to be a father to a soon-to-be teenage boy.”

Like many peers the singer harvested hay from his heartbreak.

“I wanted to do something that made me feel good and connected every night, rather than something that was escaping or hanging on,” Carll explained.

“The way I had been living in my 20s and 30s was just not working for me anymore. So when I was writing this music, I needed something that reflected where I was, and where I was trying to get to.”

A major catalyst was The Magic Kid - the song inspired by Elijah's fascination with magic tricks.

“He was constantly showing us these card tricks, and I was not super-supportive because it was annoying,” Carll confided.

“But he just kept at it and was so persistent: He had found this thing that he loved, and he had this spark.

“When he was just seven, he told me, ‘I live for the look of amazement on their faces when I blow someone's mind.'?As a performer, that resonated with me.”

“And that's when it hit me. I was like, ‘Oh, I know that feeling.' This thing that I've been annoyed by is actually your passion, and you have not let your father's negativity deter you. You have not let the world's negativity deter you.”

Carll still drives Elijah to Austin's South Congress Avenue to perform street magic for passers-by.

“He wasn't always good at it. The tricks didn't always work. But he'd bomb and try again. And again. He's become so amazingly committed to chasing that moment where he blows somebody's mind.”

The Magic Kid is one of three songs Carll wrote with Darrell Scott who recently released latest album 10 - featuring ten songs penned by Montana medic Dr Ben Bullington - who died at 58 of pancreatic cancer on November 18, 2013, after releasing five indie albums.

“The more universal part of that song was the line, ‘Who we are is who we are/ why is that so hard to be?'

“It's that idea of anybody having the courage to be themselves and not be conformed by a world that's trying really hard to beat everybody down. It takes a lot of strength, especially for a kid, to just be themselves.”

Carll says The Magic Kid was the key that unlocked the door to 10 new personal songs full of extraordinary insight.


“Sing your songs/ throw your hammer in the air/ burning both ends of that candle/ and pretend that you don't care.” - Drive - Hayes Carll-Jim Lauderdale.

Ironically, during Carll's hiatus he received two 2015 Grammy nominations for fellow Texan Lee Ann Womack's version of his song Chances Are that hit the cutting room floor when he wrote it for 2010 movie Country Song starring fellow singers Tim McGraw and Gwyneth Paltrow.

“I wrote Chances Are at the request of a music supervisor who was working on Country Strong and put it out to songwriters in Nashville that he was looking for a song with this title,” Carll recalled.

“I got a hotel room, stayed up all night, and turned it in before the deadline, but they ended up using a different song called Chances Are so I decided to put it on my own record KMAG YOYO.”

Carll was the inspiration for singer Beau Hutton played by Garrett Hedlund who also appeared with McGraw in 2004 movie Friday Night Lights .

Hedlund performed two Carll songs - Hard Out Here and Hide Me Babe - and Carll performed Take Me Away in Country Strong.

His new album entrée Drive - penned with occasional Australian tourist and Presbyterian minister's son Jim Lauderdale - is a salient signpost to the rigors of life on and off the road.

But there is a caveat.

“Not everything on here is autobiographical,” Carll confessed.

“But I relate to everything and every character in there. I was trying to make sense of my life through some of these songs. Some of them are just stories, but yeah, some of them are personal.”

So how did Drive emanate?

“I wrote that with Jim Lauderdale one day when we got together in Nashville,” Carll revealed.

“He had just finished a record with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and he was talking about a book he had just read about Neal Cassady, this famous underground character who was Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road . He was also himself in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test , a legendary character known for his stamina and ability to drive better than anybody and travel and consume drugs and live life to the fullest. We both had a real connection to him. Now when I play it, I think about how it relates to my own life.”


“There's the man who wrote ‘your cheating heart'/ no, he's lying through his teeth/ and he plays it on a stolen harp/ that's soaked in 100 proof/ and there's the one who might be happy/ but for the writer's curse/ she lost the crowd's attention by the 42 nd verse.” - Sake of The Song - Hayes Carll-Darrell Scott.

Sake Of The Song - inspired by Hank Williams and late Texan Townes Van Zandt - is one of three collaborations with Scott.

“On this record, I was searching for songs that were honest, and I was trying to let go of the cleverness and couching what I was trying to say and just be open,” Carll says.

“That was challenging for me. I wrote three songs with Darrell Scott who's one of my favourite songwriters and human beings. He really helps me with just saying what needs to be said. I kept getting exactly what I wanted out of those sessions with Darrell and I tried to incorporate that in my writing in general in a way I hadn't before.”

Carll grew up in The Woodlands with dreams at 15 of being a country singer.

“I didn't want to be a suburban pop singer in a turtleneck,” recalled Carll - son of two lawyers.

“I wanted to be seen as Guy Clark or Jerry Jeff Walker - a wild, smoking, drinking cowboy. Music and Kerouac opened my eyes to pool halls, bikers, and shady characters. Those things weren't part of my upbringing. I didn't know how to get to them. But I knew I needed to find it.”

After graduating from Hendrix College , a small liberal arts university in Arkansas, Carll headed south to Bolivar Peninsula on the Gulf Of Mexico.

It was a series of beach towns - a magnet for drifters and outlaws he graphically depicted in Drunken Poet's Dream on 2008 album Trouble In Mind.

“For a long time, I thought it was less genuine if I wasn't that character, that there was some authenticity that came from being the drunken rambler, the singer-songwriter who has the respect of other singer-songwriters and maybe not much of an audience beyond that,” Carll says.

Early in his career Carll relied on volume and humour - especially at Galveston's legendary the Old Quarter , where he opened for artists diverse as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Shake Russell, Willis Alan Ramsey and the late Steve Fromholz.


“I smoked my last cigarette/ I drank my last drop/ I quit doing all the things I thought I'd never stop/ changed my direction, sang a different tune/ gave up all those things that made me old too soon.” - Good While It Lasted - Hayes Carll-Will Hoge.

Sake Of The Song segues into Good While It Lasted - penned with fellow Grammy nominee Will Hoge who hails from Civil War battle town Franklin, south of Nashville.

Both appear autobiographical.

About halfway through the five-year gap after fourth album KMAG YOYO his marriage to Jenna, became irreconcilable.

So he dramatically cut back on whiskey consumption - an anaesthetic during and after his 200 shows a year on the not-so mythical Lost Highway.

“I'd stopped evolving,” Carll explained.

“I was bored creatively and getting depressed about it. If I didn't push myself now, I knew it was going to be harder and harder to do later. And I knew if I was going to do that, I'd need to shake free of my comfort zones. I knew that in 20 years I didn't want to be playing the same 20 songs for people every night, knowing exactly the kind of reaction each one would get, while I'm up there secretly, slowly dying inside.”

Carll's drinking never reached the liquid depths that claimed Van Zandt at 52 on January 1, 1997, and Townes mentor Hank Williams Sr at 29 on the same date just 44 year earlier.

But it drained his health and creativity.

“Being a travelling party takes a toll physically, and for me, psychically. I kind of lost who I was,” Carll added.

“My drinking got progressively worse, almost second nature. When you're bored and not challenging yourself, you have to find a way to make it interesting. If I drank enough whiskey, I could fool myself into feeling my lyrics and feel like I was connecting in a profound way.”


“My friends spend my money/ at every last chance/ my friends they done taught the devil to dance/ my friends they sing a wild melody/ breaking hearts, losing fights/ singing songs all through the night.” - My Friends - Hayes Carll-David Beck-Pat Cauthen.

Carll blazed a trail early in his career with hell raising memories and humorous songs such as Bad Liver And A Broken Heart, Wild As A Turkey, Naked Chequers and Knocking Over Whiskeys.

We found his hilarious video for She Left Me For Jesus so nice we played it twice on Nu Country TV in 2012 and 2014.

The irreverent parody of Houston tabloid TV show Cheaters and a woman dumping her beau for religion, was also dubbed funniest country song by syndicated broadcaster and telecaster Don Imus.

That was a big call as Imus frequently lures Texan singing crime novelist Kinky Friedman to his shows.

During the singer's hiatus kindred spirits Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell scored mainstream success against the odds on TV, radio and equally importantly the sales charts.

But Carll's disc is a more reflective low key production with songs about mortality such as You Leave Alone - penned with Scott Nolan - and his collaboration with Scott on Love Don't Let Me Down that includes the title in the lyric.

Yes, a positive love song where the male lead looks forward - not back - in his plea for romantic bliss.

“I didn't name the title until after I recorded it. Love Don't Let Me Down included the lyric “there are lovers and leavers and moments forgotten and dreams that don't ever come true.” Carll confessed.

“I had just gone through a divorce and had fallen in love, and I was looking at the songs on there. Whether they're personal and autobiographical or about other characters or point of view, they had this thing in common, some kind of searching for love, searching for life, trying to figure things out. I just went back to that song and saw that lyric and thought it encompassed a lot of people on this record.”

Carll has no qualms about his change of direction.

“This time, I had the songs and said, ‘this is what it is.' I wish that was something I could have done earlier in my career,” he said.

“Writing from a personal place always made me feel really exposed. So I'd distract people with sleight of hand - it's always been a lot of ‘now look over here. Let me make you laugh.' I could hide behind that laughter. Making 'em laugh, making 'em cry, and then shifting back felt safe to me. But I think after the divorce it wouldn't have felt real to come out cracking jokes and one-liners. For the first time, I didn't feel like I needed that distraction.”


“In our hearts we knew better/ but I couldn't let go/ so it's time to quit hiding/ what we've always known/ that something was missing/ but we were too scared to look/ too busy telling our story/ instead of writing the book.” - The Love We Need - Hayes Carll-Jack Ingram-Allison Moorer.

So how does Carll feel about critical analysis of his songs especially now he has written The Love That We Need with his new belle Alison Moorer - seventh ex-wife of Steve Earle - and fellow Texan Jack Ingram?

“Some are confessions, some are just characters making confessions,” Carll confessed.

“I was trying to make sense of my divorce in some ways and trying to understand and put some closure to it. Writing is a good way to do that, whether it's in songs or a journal or going to a therapist. You articulate something and say it out loud and, for me, it helps make sense of things. That song was an attempt to do that.”

So where was it written?

“Yeah, I started out writing it with Jack,” Carll recalled.

“He and I started writing that in a hotel room in Nashville a while back and then I kept toying with it and took it to Allison and she helped me finish it up. I like writing with Allison a lot. We've written a handful of songs together. We just got one cut by Kenny Chesney. She and I did one with Matraca Berg, and Chesney put it on his next record. Being creative is fun and having a creative partner is fun. We don't end up in fights about what lyric goes where because we have different sensibilities in some ways. I think that adds to the strength of the song.”

He also included another paean to romantic triumph in Love Is So Easy.

On previous albums most of Carll's songs were solo compositions.

“Well, I co-wrote every song on this record, which is a first for me,” Carll explained.

“I started off not co-writing at all and then dipping my toe in it with Ray Wylie Hubbard and Guy Clark. For me, that was a way to learn from the masters, a song-writing school. Then I got into it because I started liking the results I was getting. The whole experience was not only educational, but I ended up with work I would never get on my own because other writers have different points of view and different sensibilities.”

He also admits a direct connection between the sobriety of the record and his decreased alcohol intake.

“Partying constantly was romantic for a long time, maybe too long,” Carll says.

“But that's not who I want to be now. I can be an artist without having to be the drunken guy who's up all night at every party.”

His fitting finale is Jealous Moon - penned with J.D. Souther - where he uses a moon metaphor to colour unrequited dreams of a rejected songstress.

top / back to diary