The last time I saw Hayes Carll was at South By Southwest a month ago and the man - standing in the green room, waiting to speak on a panel at the Austin Convention Center - looked as if he'd been shot, then dragged, then clothed again, all of which seemed to have followed a month's worth of sleep deprivation - insomnia, worry, whatever the case may have been. Of course, SXSW week is not the week to catch anyone at their best or brightest, with the physical and emotional onslaught of continuous responsibilities and hustling, it leaves every man, woman and child bleary-eyed and mostly barren for large chunks of the days, but this was Carll at four o'clock post meridiem. He should have been a few hairs of the dog deep and catching a first wind of the day by then, but he wasn't and after listening to his latest album, "KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)," we're willing to believe that the Carll we saw that afternoon is the one that a lot of people have seen for, going on 13 years now. It has been an ongoing battle between he and the road and the road has been getting the better of him for many of those years. Like the house, the road always wins, and most people choose to forget the helpful truism because they instead focus on the bouts of randomness that affect the house and the road. There are times, when always is an overstatement.
Carll, a native of The Woodlands, Texas, a suburb of Houston, has been taking lumps for a good, long while and the songs on his latest album are the effects of his stubbornness and the brilliant country songwriting that he is capable of. It's a record that hits all of the main subjects of country and western music - regret, loneliness, sorrow, dark days, America, self-pity and hard luck love - and still, we hear something new in the delivery that Carll makes, giving us these songs, crazily enough, in a similar way as Stephen Malkmus gave us Pavement songs. They are sung with a savant's touch, as if coming from someone who, while articulating very specific and intelligent new imagery about all of the above, gives us these insights blindly or drunkenly. Some are offered in classic country fashion and others assume a very unorthodox style, with a liquored voice, a loping pace or a beaten man's nonchalance. We are certain that it's all a trick that Carll has learned over the years, something that he's picked up over the course of his rambled distances and open highway, to tell his stories better. It seems to have worked, as "KMAG YOYO" is his most solid album to date and it's made him into a storyteller of the likes of a classic like Kris Kristofferson, singing about personal wars and unnecessary wars in ways that makes them feel fresh and new. "Hard Out Here" is Carll's anthem about the difficulties that he's endured following a dream, something that he's considered might kill him. It's the wild people and the dear ones that he always seems to come back to and the God that he speaks to on this song changes from the beginning to the end. At first, he's looking for the Lord to make a purpose perfectly clear, to give him some glimmer of hope that this isn't all just futile. By the end of the song, he's only exclaiming to God, with some serious consternation, "We're all out of beer." It's not certain if this is a win or a loss - during the hard times out there - but we're inclined to think that it might not matter. It's a little of both and regardless, it just adds to the bleariness and sadness in the man.