Singer-songwriter Hayes Carll slows down for current tour
In a classic tune recorded by the country outlaw David Allan Coe, the singer chastises the writer — the late Steve Goodman — for declaring it could be “the perfect country and western song.”
Hell, he complains, the song makes no mention of all the things that make a country song great: “mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk.” Then he proceeds to add a verse that folds together all of those clichés.
Hayes Carll is too self-effacing to say he’s on a mission to write the perfect country song. But after making strong bids with the tongue-in-cheek “She Left Me for Jesus” and the sweet, wistful “Beaumont,” he’s hoping to raise his songwriting game on his next album, his fifth, which he plans to record in the fall. To prepare, he’s hitting the Northeast Corridor, taking on a monthlong residency with weekly stops in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., by the old-fashioned route: on the train.
“I don’t know that I’m gonna come up with a bunch of songs about trains,” Carll said recently, on the phone before soundcheck at a gig in St. Louis. “But it seems like a good way to travel. I’ll do a lot of reading and writing, do things in a much less stressed-out way.”
Carll, who plays the Lizard Lounge on Thursday and July 23 and at Club Passim on July 16, has never been in a huge hurry to make something happen. Since his debut in 2002, he has released four albums; by the time the next one comes out, it will be nearly five years since his last, “KMAG YOYO.” (It’s a military acronym that means, euphemistically, “so long, suckers!”)
He’ll turn 40 soon. He’s got a kid who’s about to turn 12; Carll and his son’s mother are no longer together.
“My ‘direction’ has always kind of been self-evident to me in the past,” Carll said. “Now, I’ve hit a point where I want to take some time to figure it out — creatively, artistically, what I want my career and my days, to look like.
“I’ve been on the road for about 17 years. If I don’t address it, that just will be my life forever.”
Touring relentlessly with a group of musicians who grew into a “honky-tonk rock ’n’ roll band,” as he describes it, he spent years chasing the lifestyle, not bothering to take too much care of himself. Getting drunk, like a good country song.
“When I first started, I was just thrilled to be on the road,” he said. “The first time I played Boston, I slept on somebody’s porch.”
And now? “The drinking, the traveling, the carousing — there’s still elements of fun, but there’s more to it than that.”
Asked whether his 40th birthday, which arrives in January, has weighed on his mind, he replied that he doesn’t normally focus on birthdays. But he’ll admit that he’s had a bit of that “how did that happen?” feeling.
“I had my head down, just kind of busting [expletive], trying to handle life and art,” he said. “But I was reading an article on Audrey Hepburn, and I started doing the math. She was 63 [when she died]. So I got 23 years on Audrey Hepburn time.
“It used to feel like an eternity. It’s cliché, but you blink and it’s gone.”
For his next album, then, he’d like to revisit his roots as a songwriting craftsman, and to put some sincere thought into what he wants to say. To that end, he expects to work with the producer and fellow songwriter Joe Henry.
“We’ve never actually met,” Carll explained. They first talked on the phone about eight years ago, when Carll was conducting a series of “speed-dating” interviews with various producers for what would become his third album, “Trouble in Mind.”
“I’ve always been aware of him. I wrote a song with Mary Gauthier that was the lead track on a record he produced. Then I heard a song that really struck me.”
It was Henry’s spare acoustic, nearly-nine-minute storyteller “Sign,” from his recent album “Invisible Hour.” Carll was drawn to “the intentional way he communicated, the way he thought . . . created. It struck me as where I wanted to be.”
Though he’s trying to live a little cleaner, he hasn’t taken up any diverting hobbies, he says with a chuckle. “There’s no origami, no Ping-Pong table on tour.” Mostly he just finds himself reading more.
He recently talked a bookstore clerk into letting him buy a copy of Milan Kundera’s new novel a day before it was supposed to go on sale. And reading Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” — a recommendation from his friend and mentor, the roots songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard — was “a game-changer for me.”
Like Hubbard and plenty of Carll’s peers — he mentions Ryan Bingham, Jason Isbell, and the band Dawes — he makes music that might be considered country, if it weren’t so little like the country music currently dominating the airwaves.
“At least two times a day, someone asks me, ‘What kind of music do you play?’” he said. “I started as a folk and country singer, and I tried to be rock. I never really know what to tell them, so I usually just say ‘singer-songwriter.’”
He’s especially pleased when a punk or metal diehard winds up at one of his shows and enjoys it. “I really like the honesty,” they’ll sometimes say.
Honest music. That’ll do.
At: Lizard Lounge, Cambridge, Thursday and July 23 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $22-$25. www.lizardlounge.com
At: Club Passim, Cambridge,
July 16 at 8, 10:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20-$22. www.clubpassim.org