Texas singer-songwriters aren’t so much a genre as an infestation. They spring up like a hill of fire ants—overnight you could find a handful clogging up your empty stage and begging for a bar tab. You can’t necessarily make a killing burning oil from Galveston to San Antonio, but you can keep yourself employed and harvest tons of material for the next show. Shaggy-haired, hard-touring Hayes Carll has kept his eyes open and followed the well-worn path of such more-legendary-than-popular heroes as Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett; he’s a few steps ahead of his fellow fire ants because he’s clearly read a book or three, and he knows how to tell a joke.
On Trouble in Mind, Carll’s roadhouse country blues work because he takes on what he knows: goofy tales of barflies like the “barefoot shrimper with a pistol up his sleeve” in “I Got a Gig,” and the girls that abandon him in “She Left Me for Jesus.” “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”—a big, burly rock song that opens with the memorable couplet “Arkansas, my head hurts/I’d love to stick around and make it worse”—is the peak, with Hayes’s baying drawl summing up both the tequila shots and the hangover. The blind spot in his mirror are the ballads, which too often sound sappy. But he knows the roads, and even if he’s right that in “This line of work, no one retires,” he’s got a thousand miles or more before clocking out.
Hayes Carll plays Bowery Ballroom May 1 with James McMurtry