Texas songwriter displays newfound boldness amid personal, artistic transformation on 'What It Is'

Back in the summer of 2017, Texas musician Hayes Carll took to social media to post the video for “Fragile Men,” a tune he co-wrote with fellow songwriter Lolo. “The whole world is exploding,” Lolo sings over a montage of photos depicting men marching with Tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, and others dressed in KKK robes.

“The post that I made was just to explain what the song was about. ... I didn't feel like it was that incendiary. I thought we could all come together and say, ‘We're all anti-white supremacist,'” Carll said recently by phone. “It turns out I was wrong.”

The post blew up, with angry commenters accusing Carll of being a gullible communist who's been duped by the media and the Left. Some called him out for not writing a similar song about Antifa or Black Lives Matter. One commenter's opinion summed up what a portion of Carll's fans wanted from him: “Just play good music and keep your views to yourself.”

“To have it reframed as if I was the enemy for expressing that [opinion] was disturbing to me, because I felt like I was in this weird, surreal plane where the things that mattered to me… I was told they're not important, and that I was crazy and a bad person for expressing my concern about them,” Carll said. “And that was shocking to me.”

The incident sparked a change in Carll, who penned a March essay for No Depression about the “tacit agreement” he realized he had made with some of his fans. “I would play music, make people laugh, cry, and dance, but be vague enough in my songwriting and in my persona to allow them to overlook anything that didn't jive with who they wanted me to be,” Carll wrote.

The act of writing an essay made Carll feel even more vulnerable than the process of writing a song. “It sits there on the page. There's no guitar or facial expression or joke to cover it up,” he said. But Carll didn't pull any punches, letting his audience know that he's throwing out the old social contract between himself and his fans and writing a new one: “I reject the notion that occasional support of my creativity and work equals the right to silence my voice. … I've decided I would rather be criticized for the things I believe in than be embraced for the things I don't.”

Carll's excellent new album, What It Is, reflects this new trajectory, complete with a darkly comedic version of “Fragile Men” and songs like “If I May Be So Bold,” which find Carll doubling down on the ideas expressed in the essay: “Bold enough to make a difference, bold enough to say I care/Bold enough to keep on trying even when the will's not there/There's a whole world out there waiting, full of stories to be told/And I'll heed the call and tell 'em all if I may be so bold,” Carll sings over spiky country licks and a peppy, boom-chicka beat.

Carll's new way of thinking about his artistic voice and his audience coincides with a broader personal transformation jump-started by a divorce (documented on Carll's moody, confessional 2016 album, Lovers and Leavers) and a new relationship (Carll is engaged to songwriter Allison Moorer).

“I've had my head down for a while, and it was time to look up and take stock,” he said. “It's been almost 20 years of touring and of living a certain way, and I realized it wasn't working for me. It ultimately left me hollow. I felt disconnected. I felt like my life had passed me by, and I looked at the next 20 years and thought, ‘That's gonna go by even quicker. I need to have more to show for this next 20.' Doing the same thing wasn't going to accomplish that. And having a really smart and vibrant partner who challenges you and pushes you can certainly help speed up that process.”

What It Is can't be separated from Carll's relationship with Moorer, who co-produced the album and co-wrote several of the songs. “The record wouldn't have been there without her, and in many ways I wouldn't be where I am without her,” said Carll, who voices his dedication to Moorer in closing track “I Will Stay.”

“Sometimes you will get angry, and sometimes you will get cold/But that's OK, I will stay,” Carll sings as a softly fingerpicked guitar gives way to a swelling string arrangement.

“Relationships are challenging,” Carll said. “I wanted a song as a reminder when she gets tired of hearing all my BS and excuses and everything else. On the days when it's hard to believe me, I wanted to have something that was a promise.”