By Al Kaufman
“I’m like James Brown only white and taller,” boasts Hayes Carll on his fourth CD, KMAG YOYO. He’s not. The Arkansas native is more like Terry Allen, John Prine, or good friend Todd Snider. In other words, he writes the kind of songs that people in honky-tonks all over the country are dying to play. His songs can be hilarious, provocative, and gut-wrenching, sometimes all at same time. He’s a liberal, wisecracking, good ol’ boy, who hasn’t lost touch with his sensitive side. He is, in short, a gift from the songwriting gods.
KMAG YOYO demonstrates Carll’s deftness with both the pen and guitar. The title track, a military acronym enlisted men used when getting discharged (Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re On Your Own), rambles on the feverish pace of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” In it, our army hero steals from the Taliban and ends up working for the Pentagon for his trouble. He ends up a peace-loving, drug-addicted mess, yet comes across as saner than those leading this war.
The song is followed by “Another Like You,” a duet with Cary Ann Hearst. The song is equally as engaging, but for entirely different reasons. In their verbal sparring (He: How much did you pay for that tan? She: More than you paid for your boots.) they recall classic couples like Ella and Satchmo, or, more recently, John Prine and Iris DeMent. She tells him he’s a member of the Taliban because he’s a Democrat, and he tells her she should be on “The View.” Yet they both know they’re going to end up in bed together. Carll perfectly depicts those people who put on the tough front, but are really lonely and miserable inside. “I don’t know if it’s forever but I’m glad that we’re together,” he sings at the end of the roadhouse country-rocker, and you can’t help but believe him, even if it’s only for that one night.
There’s the jaunty “Bottle In My Hand,” a soon to be troubadour anthem, sung with fellow partners in crime, Tood Snider and Corb Lund. While the world falls down around them, they play their tunes and move on to different towns. It’s a fun little tour through the end of the world.
All this would make a fine album, but Carll goes a step further by interspersing them with quiet, personal ballads about love and dreams long gone. They are songs wracked with pain, yet still contain shards of hope. This is best depicted in what is sure to be the most depressing carol of all time, “Grateful for Christmas.” As he goes home every year, less and less people show up, until the last year it is just him and his mother. Yet it’s told with a poetic gracefulness and sincere love for the spirit of the holiday. He feels at grateful for Christmas this year as he did when he was a little kid and he and his cousins snuck in and opened the presents early.
“They say, boy you ain’t a poet, just a drunk with a pen,” Carll complains on “Hard Out Here.” Anyone with ears should beg to differ.
Hayes Carll plays The EARL on July 21.