Becoming a Songwriter

Becoming a Songwriter
Photograph by Dave Mead

NAME: Hayes Carll | AGE: 35 | HOMETOWN: The Woodlands | QUALIFICATIONS: Has released four albums, including the new KMAG YOYO / Contributed three songs to the recent Gwyneth Paltrow movie Country Strong / Wrote “She Left Me for Jesus,” which Don Imus called “the greatest country song ever”

One reason I was so enthralled by song-writing was that it took me far away from my surroundings. When I heard Kris Kristofferson or Bob Dylan sing, that was about as far from The Woodlands as I could imagine.

The first time I heard Dylan’s music was at a Unitarian church. The Unitarians aren’t known for their choirs, so they would bring in acts, and this particular Sunday it was a three-piece acoustic trio that was singing Dylan songs. It changed my life.

The first song I ever wrote was inspired by Pat Frank’s science fiction novel Alas, Babylon . It was a school project, probably seventh or eighth grade, and I wrote a song to the tune of Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” about a postapocalyptic world. It was terrible.

After college I moved to Crystal Beach, on the Bolivar Peninsula. I was looking for a change of scenery. Some people were down there to hide out from the law, some to save up money, some to live on the beach. I was there to do some of that and to write songs and get stories. I knew that whether I wrote the stories down or not they’d turn up later in my songs.

My best friends in Crystal Beach were seventy-year-old guys who would just sit around and tell me stories all day. They were dying from alcoholism and slowly killing themselves. Some were quickly killing themselves.

When I started, I thought I’d write about the political landscape and all the injustice in the world. Instead I wrote about being drunk and lonely, which seemed more relevant to my life at the time.

I wrote a song with Guy Clark. He uses graph paper and writes one letter at a time into each square. So, like, for “and” he wrote a in the first square, then the next square, n, the next square, d. I’m the polar opposite; my instinct is to write in a stream-of-consciousness style.

I spent a lot of time waiting for some brilliant idea to come to me. To some degree that stuff is either there or it isn’t, but you have to work on it. That’s one thing I learned from Ray Wylie Hubbard, how much of songwriting is craft. I still wait around for that “aha!” moment and think a whole song is going to come out. But I’m getting better about it.

On my new song “Stomp and Holler” I ripped Dylan off entirely. I really did. What are you going to do? If you’re going to steal from somebody, steal from the best.

I was introduced to Gwyneth Paltrow at the wrap party for Country Strong. She said, “Let’s dance,” and I look up and the actor Garrett Hedlund is onstage singing my songs while I’m dancing with Gwyneth Paltrow. It was a pretty cool night for me.

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week