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Hayes Carll is coming for you, young rock fans. He will make a country music believer out of you. He'll have none of this namby-pamby, softly-strummed, lightly twang-tinged, big city “alt-country” stuff, either. Don't let his history degree from Hendrix College fool you, this is the real thing — songs about heartache, drinking whiskey and smoking dope. These are country tunes for people who hate country, where the steel guitars aren't poured on like syrup, and the lyrics aren't scrubbed clean for Bible Belt consumers. As part of a Texas tradition of iconoclastic songwriters like Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett, Carll never plays it safe. On his third CD, “Trouble in Mind,” he continues to deliver the hard-rocking, hard-complaining goods.
True to form, Carll invaded Nashville to make the record and, rather than hire a bigwig country producer, opted instead for power pop legend Brad Jones to helm the project. The result is an album that gleams with sharp, rustic tones and balanced sense of space.
“Arkansas, my head hurts,” Carll nods to us as he opens “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” which sounds like a fairly generic country anthem before its third verse, wherein Carll delivers a solid political punch: “Doesn't anyone care about truth anymore? / Maybe that's what songs are for.”
One of his songs may even cause him a little public relations ruckus: “She Left Me for Jesus,” which Don Imus has already hailed as “The Greatest Country Song Ever Written.” It stops just shy of parody, but no doubt there are reactionaries lying in wait who'll demand his head for the line “If I ever find Jesus / I'm kicking his ass.”
Whether channeling John Prine's light touch and sense of humor on tunes like “Girl Downtown,” covering Tom Waits' “I Don't Wanna Grow Up” or hollering like a young Bob Dylan on “A Lover Like You,” Carll's voice cracks in all the right places. He's got the country music chemistry down pat, as well he should after four years of playing six nights a week in south Texas. Just you wait, rock 'n' roll kids. He'll pour whiskey down your gullet and you'll thank him for it.