Hayes Carll

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Hayes Carll performs Saturday evening at La Crosse's Cavalier Theater, with Luke Callen starting the show at 8 p.m.

Contributed photo

For most singers, there’s a sense of safety in numbers when you hit the stage with a band. Texas singer/songwriter Hayes Carll had a long stretch of presenting his songs in a rockin’ honky-tonk roadhouse style, traveling the country with a band after releasing his fourth album, “KMAG YOYO,” in early 2011.

But Carll has never been one for playing it safe, and he’s actually in his element on his own — going back to his early days of performing at age 15.

“I would try to sing in the corner at parties in high school and usually empty the room, playing ‘Masters of War’ or some sad Kristofferson song,” Carll said by phone recently from his home in Austin, Texas. “But where I’m most comfortable and what I’m best at is the intimate and the personal.”

When he performs Saturday night at the Cavalier Theater, he’ll be on his own, just him and his guitar, just like it was back when he had just gotten out of college, moved to a Gulf Coast Texas beach town and started to get serious about performing. “It was good for me. It helped me hone those chops. I didn’t need much to get by, so I could go out on the road with guys like Todd Snider,” Carll said.

Like Snider, Carll likes to present songs live with a good dose of between-songs banter, a habit he developed early on. “When I first started I had a lot of long, slow depressing songs. I found that a little levity in between helped,” he said. “I like to engage. Todd’s one of my favorites at that, watching him perform. I’ve just always thought no matter how good you are or aren’t, getting an insight into the artist and being entertained is part of the fun for audience members.”

Carll, who fits in the country genre the way fellow Texas troubadour Steve Earle does, has been releasing albums roughly every 2½ years since his first one, “Flowers and Liquor,” gradually gaining a national following. The title of that debut album is a good clue to the humor with which he laces many of his songs — as is “KMAG YOYO,” a military acronym for “kiss my ass, guys, you’re on your own.”

That album kicks off with “Stomp and Holler,” a romp that was well covered by his longtime friend Snider in the jam band supergroup Snider fronts, Hard Working Americans — a band that now includes La Crosse’s own Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi on keyboards.

For Carll’s most recent album, 2016’s “Lovers and Leavers,” he was ready to move away from the raucous and toward the reflective, and he spells it out in a plain-spoken but stylish mission statement/note to fans on his website when the album came out.

“It’s been a while since my last album by some measurements of time. Not ‘history of the universe time’ or ‘getting a bill through Congress time,’ but in the lives of dogs and recording artists, five years and 53 days is only a little less than an eternity,” Carll wrote, explaining that he had gone through a divorce and then fallen in love again. “Changes were made, realizations were realized, and life was lived. But, I kept on writing songs, on my own and with a cast of accomplished characters who combined their own stories and perspectives with mine.”

“Lovers and Leavers” has, as Carll puts it, “almost no hollers.” It’s a collection of finely crafted, perfectly adorned songs, produced by Joe Henry, and it’s telling that it hit No. 4 on the folk music album sales charts. “KMAG YOYO,” on the other hand, peaked at No. 12 on the country charts.

Carll got a lot of hometown love for “Lovers and Leavers,” winning Austin Music Award nods last spring for Album of the Year, Song of the Year (for “Sake of the Song”), best male singer, best folk performer, best songwriter and best album art. To top it all, he was named Austin Musician of the Year.

He didn’t mention any of those honors in the interview, nor does he mention the 2016 Grammy nomination for Best Country Song for Lee Ann Womack’s recording of his song “Chances Are,” or the fact that his second album, “Little Rock,” was the first self-released record to top the Americana chart. His humble, self-deprecating manner during the interview made it clear he probably wouldn’t have wanted to talk about the kudos if they’d been brought up.

After the long gap between his fourth and fifth albums, Carll is determined not to have another drought like that. This year, in fact, he’s been putting out a song per month on a website called Patreon. Fans can become patrons at a variety of funding levels, starting at $1 per month, to get access to his monthly songs. For $5 per month, people can be members of his Drunken Poets Society.

Carll briefly tried the weekly song challenge organized by Bob Schneider, another prominent Austin songwriter. “I admire Bob’s ability to do it — 52 songs a year is impressive,” Carll said. “I’d be fine doing it if it was just me that heard them. I think I’m too critical of myself. Maybe that’s the idea, to get you to loosen up and get some stuff out.”

His own Patreon song-a-month challenge has been invigorating and satisfying, and he might just keep doing it in 2018, when he plans to release another album. “It keeps me sharp,” Carll said of the monthly song releases. “It gets me in the studio, where I can use different producers and try different things. I can do a reggae song. I can do a rock song. … I don’t put too much pressure on myself.”


Entertainment and county government reporter

Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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