Powerful songs walk a tightrope between comedy and tragedy

There are so many good lines on What It Is, Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll’s sixth album, I don’t know where to begin. How about: “In times like these, everyone could use a hand / instead of standing round, losing ground, fighting for the promised land.” That’s a rocker, a song Carll says “is about the world around me.” Or maybe: “What it was is gone forever/what it could be God only knows/ What it is, is right in front of me / and I’m not letting go.” That’s from the country two-step title track, catching Carll at this moment in time, engaged to singer/songwriter Allison Moorer and thinking of all the ways they could mess it up. 


Put those two halves together—and throw in the painted-velvet, shaggy dog story “Jesus and Elvis”—and you’ve got Carll at his sharp-witted best, tip-toeing a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, learning to accept the absurdity of everyday life. But more than that, more than Carll’s dust-dry Texas delivery, this album knows how to rock when it needs to rock, dance when it needs to dance, and lean in close when Carll needs to promise—as on the touching closing track— “I will stay.” It knows when the mood could use a little brass (“Things You Don’t Want to Know”), when it calls for strings (“American Dream”), and when all it needs is a solid fingerpicked acoustic guitar (which appears on various songs). It also knows how difficult it is to walk the line between cracking wise and being wise, and it knows how good these songs really are.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.