If you like folk-county served up with a side of sawdust and whiskey straight, this was your night. Speaking frankly during "Hard Out Here," Hayes delivered a stream of consciousness monologue about how his friends tease him for complaining about having the best job in the world. The three other musicians on stage -- Bonnie Whitmore on bass (who opened the show with soulful murder ballads); Scott Davis on lead guitar, banjo, lap steel and organ; and Kenny Smith on drums -- galloped along while Carll lamented the weariness of tour life and then delivered "Folk, Bluegrass, Country and Rock & Roll."
The crowd at the sold-out show pushed up to the stage, singing along to "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart." Tall and sleepy-eyed, Carll is an exact fit for the country-folk, singer-songwriter traditions of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. A highlight of the set, which lasted for an hour and a half, was introduced by Carll with a comment that he's been traveling around the United States "and it seems everyone is divided into red and blue, conservative and Democrat." He sympathizes with anyone who is single and must rule out 50 percent of the dating pool because of political persuasions. A duet with curly-haired Whitmore, whose Tennessee vocals whipped up a sassy back-and-forth, found each delivering their own political retorts (think "Jackson" by Johnny and June Carter Cash, but political). Carll said of the duet, "One voice is the Fox News watcher and the other gets their news and entertainment from MSNBC."
Song after song, from the rocking "Little Rock" to the tender "Beaumont," the foursome drew this listener into a dusty, country-road dream where heartache meets hard-lived miles and the faces and fast times settle into the ample room within the musician's big heart and wide eye for poetic lyrics matched with music.
He shared stories between songs about his wife and mother helping to write a song he was struggling with and his reluctance to share songwriting credits with them, "because it's not rock & roll to write a song with your mom." He then second-guessed: "Maybe it is…" The last time he had played the Duck Room, "about 40 people came." He thanked the audience for paying its hard-earned money and for coming out and supporting live, independent music. The crowd remained enthusiastic throughout the show, a mood that peaked when Carll went into one of his most well-known songs, "She Left Me for Jesus."
All night long, Carll's stage presence captivated, his lyrics drove straight to the heart and his music whirled on a honky tonk thrill ride. Given just the right movie, I could picture him in the leading role, or maybe writing the score. Perhaps he'll one day get scooped up by the bright lights of Nashville or Hollywood. But it's clear that he has enough integrity and commitment to remain true to a vision of filtering experiences through his Texas-rooted gifts. And no matter which way he goes, we are the lucky ones who get to revel in his music.