When you get Hayes Carll and Corb Lund in a room together, the interview pretty much takes care of itself. This is a pair of scruffy, skewed, stone-country singer-songwriters — Carll hailing from Texas and Lund from Alberta, Canada — who’ve gotten in the habit of chipping in on each other’s albums of late.
Lund was a guest on Carll’s “Bottle in My Hand” last year, and the two of them teamed up for the rollicking road warrior duet “Bible on the Dash” on Lund’s latest album, Cabin Fever. So when it seems like they’re veering off topic, it’s really just an extension of their chemistry as performers and their insatiable urge to crack each other up. Be forewarned, the entire conversation was peppered with laughter.
CMT Edge: How far back does your partnership go?
Lund: We didn’t really plan it or anything. But we just sort of fool around, doing each other’s stuff. I think we met six or seven years ago.
Carll: Yeah. At Dauphin’s Countryfest in Manitoba. We met at a poker game. His girlfriend at the time took a bunch of money from me. And they invited me out on tour, I guess, to make it up to me. So I did a Canadian tour with him, and then he would come down to Texas, and we kinda traded tours off.
Lund: It’s fairly helpful, actually. We get to play in front of Hayes’ people in Texas, and he’s played in front of our people in Canada. So it’s been a trade-off. When you’re scrambling around on the fringes, you have to sort of use all the resources you can.
Carll: I’m just a resource to you.
Did you feel an immediate kinship since each of you have an element of humor to your songwriting?
Carll: Corb writes clever stuff. And for something like [“Bible on the Dash”], two guys singing together, we didn’t want to do a love ballad. … As we were writing it, we kinda did that back-and-forth thing. When I had him play on my record, it was the same thing, getting a different voice. It brings a different element to it for the listener probably, and it’s just a good excuse to have the record company pay for hanging out with your buddy.
It seems to me that the two of you often write about the same kinds of characters, the lovable losers who can’t quite get it together.
Lund: What are you trying to say about us? [laughs]
I said the characters you write about. I didn’t say you write autobiographically.
Lund: We do, actually. (laughs)
There may be elements of your life experience in the songs, but …
Carll: Yeah, man. Everybody’s different. I write about myself quite a bit. Corb is better at writing about specific trades and occupations.
Lund: Trades and occupations. That’s my thing. (laughs)
Carll: No, I was listening the other day, and I was like, “Wow, he’s got almost every job and then that military record.”
He’s right. You do get pretty detailed about the care of livestock.
Lund: I guess so, yeah. I’ve never thought of it that way.
Carll: You describe a very particular type of person or a job that they have. Which I think is cool, and it’s something I’ve never been very good at. …These characters in these songs are basically us doing what we do, which is drive around the country generally semi-armed and loaded down with illegal stuff. It’s not like it was in, you know, 1964 driving through Alabama. But you still are out there on your own, and you still get nervous when you see the police around.
Lund: I get nervous when I see the police even if I haven’t done anything, which is kinda weird.
Carll: Yeah. I have shoplifter’s guilt, even though I haven’t shoplifted since I was 8 years old. Every time I go in a store, I keep my hands up so they don’t have to ask me to see my pockets.
Hayes, you shouldn’t sell yourself short in the detail department, considering the portrait you paint of the main character in your song, “KMAG YOYO.”
Carll: I mean, we all have our different writing style. But what I appreciate about Corb’s style is that it is clever and witty and smart — smarter than most — and not in an obnoxious way but, to me, in an interesting way. Stephen Hawking writing songs would be a drag.
Lund: Maybe, maybe not. Especially if he used that vocoder thing.
You mentioned the intelligent aspect of your songwriting, which I’d say applies to both of you. But do you ever worry you’ll be pigeonholed as novelty songwriters and your heavyweight songs will be overlooked?
Carll: Yeah. It’s the risk you run. … I had a “She Left Me for Jesus” song that I didn’t want to put on my record because I thought I had a pretty solid record, and I knew this one song was gonna kinda overshadow everything. I figured there are 13 other tracks, and I put the song last. That’s all I could do, you know, other than leave it off. And it’s this weird thing where it got me a lot of attention and notoriety. On the other hand, you run that risk of getting labeled as a gimmick songwriter. And I read that occasionally where people say, “Oh, he’s just a joke guy, funny guy.” Your entire other body of work can slip away. But you are what you are.
Lund: I mean, you’re a funny guy. Making a whole record of earnest weepers is kind of a bummer too, right?
Yes, it is.
Lund: I look at it in terms of … I try to keep my art fairly pure, but if it means that somebody buys the record because they find the catchy novelty song and they hear the other ones, that’s OK. Jerry Reed is one of my favorite guys, and he’s awesome. He was funny all the time.
I think another thing that plays into it for me is when I play live, when I create the list of songs I’m going to play, I try to vary it. Same as having a record full of serious, dark shit. It kind of creates a flow, and you can push and pull the audience a little bit if you can play a couple of light songs and make ‘em laugh and then hit ‘em with something heavy.
You mentioned Jerry Reed. There are lots of examples of respected, funny songwriters who were working back in that era. Tom T. Hall, Shel Silverstein, Roger Miller. They all established themselves in the ‘60s or ‘70s. Do you feel like the singer-songwriter parameters have changed?
Lund: I don’t think so, really. That’s hard for me to say. I think sometimes what gets played on the radio has changed. But we’re not talking about that really, are we?
Lund: I don’t think the idea of a guy with a guitar standing up in front of a bunch of people writing songs and playing them for people has really changed much at all over the last years and years and years and years and years. It’s kind of a fundamental thing to do. The career path and the music business have changed, but people have been standing in front of other people singing songs for hundreds of years.
Another thing about the humor is that when we play live, the patter in between the songs, I mean, occasionally you’ll do something in a heavy way. But almost never. At least me. I don’t often say [in a melancholy mumble], “This is a song about when I broke up with my girlfriend.” Even if it’s a heavy song, I joke about it. I hadn’t even thought about this until you asked about it, but the humor thing in what we do is actually a pretty big part of the live show. Especially when you’re playing solo.
Carll: That was always my deal. All my songs were five or six-minute just wrist-cutters. And I was playing solo. When I’d watch a show, I found no matter how great somebody was, I wanted them to give me something else. I wanted to see a little bit of their personality, even if it was canned and they did it every night.
To be entertained.
Carll: I wanted to be entertained. It makes it feel like a more complete thing. No matter how great you are, short of Dylan or Neil Young or somebody, you’re gonna get bored at some point if it’s song after song after song after song. So what I would do was go out and spend half my time talking, I’m sure, to a lot of people’s frustration.
There’s an art to being an entertainer and having stage presence, though.
Carll: Yeah, there is. And if I could do that, then they could hang with my depressing songs. Because I’d make ‘em laugh and then they’d be like, “OK, we’ll tolerate this kid for five minutes.” Then I finish and they’re like, “Holy shit, that sucks.” Then I’d say [something like] “My dog jumped off the roof today” and get ‘em laughing again.
For me, it was an incredibly valuable tool. I never would have evolved past just playing covers without that because it was the only thing that kinda helped me keep a crowd and actually won me more fans than my actual songs were when I was starting out. It was like, “I kinda like this guy. I’ll give him a shot. He’ll get better someday.”
Some people look at “entertainer” as a dirty word. But it’s really a skill you have to hone.
Carll: That’s what we do, honestly. We make our livings as entertainers. I don’t ever think of it that way, but in reality, people pay money to come out and see us play a show. And whether we’re staring at our boots or interacting with them, it’s a form of entertainment. How much you want to embrace that is up to the artist.
Lund: Just doing that has made me think about what it must be like to be a stand-up comic. Because we can do something like that and it’s funny or it’s not, and if it’s not funny we go, “Anyway, here’s the song.”