Ode to a Songwriting Lesson
About a year ago, under the occasionally depressive influence of an Arkansas summer, I came to the conclusion that I had very little skill at telling stories. I had recently started to hang out with musicians, and I began to envy the songwriters I knew who seemed to have such an easy time of it—scratching out whole sagas in just a few lines.
A few months later, I happened to stop for gas at a big truck stop somewhere between Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee. It was sunny, I had drunk gallons of coffee, I was going to be in Nashville before rush hour; I was in a good mood. I filled up and pulled out, fiddling with the music. I hit shuffle on the iPod connected to the stereo, and a song by the Texas songwriter Hayes Carll came on, a rocker about a bunch of crazies driving a highway late at night. At some point, before merging onto I-40, I realized that I had driven off with the gas-pump handle still in the tank, an act which ripped off ten feet of rubber delivery hose. I hit the brake, but somehow, with the music blasting, it seemed sort of inconceivable that I'd really go back and submit to a chewing-out by the attendant, or worse. I accelerated, the hose flapping behind the car.
About ten miles later—two songs at that speed—it occurred to me that what I was doing could probably get me arrested. I pulled over and threw the hose into a ditch, and that night, thinking it'd at least make a good story, I contacted Carll and asked for songwriting lessons.
Outside of Little Rock, where I once lived, Hayes Carll is a bit of an icon. He grew up in a khakis-and-polos suburb of Houston, but went to college in Central Arkansas, and around there, a mention of his name summons the kind of shy affection people in little cities can feel for a star who's moved on gracefully to greater things, the way us Reds fans cheered for Aaron Boone when he sent the Yankees to the 2003 World Series. The difference being that Carll moved down in the world when he left, without any real indication that he'd someday pull back up. He wandered to the Bolivar Peninsula in East Texas, where he lived in a trailer and played shitty bar gigs. He tried moving to Austin and spent six months selling vacuum cleaners by day and working nights at Red Lobster. He gave up and moved back to the Bolivar, where he "couldn't find any guys my age without criminal records." He had to self-release his second album, which he called Little Rock. It's the first self-released album in history to go to No. 1 on the Americana charts.
Carll is back in Austin now, two albums later, doing soundtracks for Gwyneth Paltrow movies, married to a girl he met in college, and with an eight-year-old-son. At thirty-six, his face is lined and he moves a little slow, but he's still the lanky carouser he was ten years ago. A Texan journalist I know, when I told him I was meeting with Carll, said, "Oh yeah. I know Hayes. We ended up at a strip club in Memphis together, but he got bored and wanted to go down to Tunica and gamble. He's hard to keep up with."
I figured that asking for more than two lessons would test his patience, but Carll agreed to give me a couple on a brief break from touring. To get myself in a proper troubadourial mood, I caught a freight train out of Little Rock. For our classroom, he chose a musty old bar—smoke-filled in smoke-free Austin. Christmas lights draped the walls. Hayes explained that the owner's son went to Vietnam forty years ago, "and she told him that she'd keep it Christmastime until he got back."
It was a pretty good setting for a songwriting lesson, I thought, if you accept the presupposition that songwriting, or any art, can be taught. We worked on that question for a while. He quoted Steve Earle: "Writing with someone is like letting someone watch you fuck."
The Texas songwriter tradition—though now diluted by "a million songs about drinking beer on the river," as Hayes said at one point—has always demanded that its practitioners try for something like the status of literature. Its high points are Townes Van Zandt's ballads; Billy Joe Shaver's Whitmanesque use of apostrophe and metonymy; and Jerry Jeff Walker's old stab at creating, after Hunter S. Thompson, a whole new form: Gonzo Country. And it goes both ways. When, in Larry McMurtry's Texasville, the hapless main character says, "Anyway, I love you," to his wife's best friend, we are meant to hear Guy Clark singing his "Anyhow, I Love You," and smile at the misquote.
Hayes is the best young representative of this tradition, which put up an unexpected impediment to my attempts to get him to teach me: He just didn't seem to think there was much difference between songwriting and writing a short story, or maybe even that the distinction was false to begin with. Kerouac was the first name he mentioned when I asked about influences, and I had several moments of embarrassed confusion when he would refer to a "great writer" that I'd never even heard of, much less read. Only later did I figure out that Todd Snider and Darrell Scott are songwriters, a term he never once used. "I just try to make it rhyme," he said.
After a couple hours, Hayes's wife called—one of the family cars was in the shop, and we had to go pick up her and their son from an early showing of Zookeeper. I figured the lesson was over, that I'd learned nothing, and I was making mental plans to leave Austin and skip the next one.
After picking them up, we pulled into his driveway, and—as we sat idling—Hayes got puckish and turned to his wife in the backseat: "Baby, I think James has some more questions. This thing isn't for some newspaper—it's for a quarterly."
We reclaimed our seats in the back of the bar and tried to figure out how much life experience it takes to write a country song. It was another trite question, but it led neatly to more rounds and a story swap. We talked about his string of girlfriends with ridiculous names—Dinger, Karma, Sunshine, Cadence, and Pepper—and about how he used to get high and play chess at Midtown, a great, sleazy Little Rock bar. We were just two dudes with problems with alcohol and of mental disposition, reminiscing in a sad old bar. Carll was drinking two at a time, shots and cans, and I was manfully trying to keep up, a burro chasing a mustang.
A designated driver, thank God, joined us. She asked what I'd learned. I shifted. Hayes leaned back in his chair. "What does it even mean to write a country song?" she asked. Hayes looked at me. I quoted Kris Kristofferson: "If it sounds country, man, that's what it is. It's a country song." Hayes knew the reference and leaned forward again, smiled indulgently, and said, "Yep."
To the extent that Hayes actually had any interest in imparting a lesson, it was that guys like us (him?) are bound to muddle along. The point is to be a persistent muddler. There is a defiant line on KMAG YOYO, his latest album, when he sings, "And everybody's talkin' 'bout the shape I'm in / They say 'boy, you ain't a poet, just a drunk with a pen.'" But it's the rare writer with any perspicacity who can live hard and still hold onto his pen. "Lord," the next line goes, "they don't know about the places I've been."
Nashville country has always been an easy target, but too much of it today is composed of awful, twangy rap songs or banal right-wing moralizing. Texas country seems to be descending into a regional variant of frat rock. The country rappers have substituted cross-cultural catchiness for the hard work of writing a moving song, and the frat rockers have substituted nostalgic appeal for the even greater burden that used to be placed on a Texas songwriter: to be, through a combination of honed insight and lived experience, more interesting than the rest of the room. It's the same burden placed on a novelist. Hayes, half in spite of his drinking and carrying-on, half thanks to it, has stumbled his way to that point.
That weekend I rode up to Dallas to see him play the House of Blues. He's laconic and sleepy in person, but onstage he's lively and funny, a practiced charmer. At one point, he got serious and talked about some of the guys he'd seen make it big. "Man, I look at these guys and I think: You ain't fuckin' country." The crowd cheered. "'Course, I don't know if I'm country, either. I just write songs."