NEXT: Elle King...

You’ve been performing for over 20 years now;
what has changed most in terms of the themes in your songwriting, and what has proved to be enduring?
Changed? Maybe everything around me. My first single, “Never Again Again,” had Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White on it, and I kept telling them to turn up the singers—it was as country as you could get, and sounded so different on the radio. But today, the kind of real, true pure country music I make and the things I sing about, you know, stumbling through life, seem even more out of place in this party-hearty, kiss-a-boy theme-park than they did even then.

It’s funny, real life, hard things, tough spots have always been what’s interested me about country music, going all the way back to George Jones—and that was country music. My dad was a disc jockey, and he’d let me play with the albums at the station, and that’s where I learned this kind of country. Seems like people are afraid of it, but then Chris [Stapleton] makes his record, and nobody pays attention. Then he has that CMA performance, and everyone’s going “What’s that?” Maybe people will get hungry for this kind of country music again.

Who were your biggest influences when you started? And have you found inspiration from any new artists?
Man, George Jones! George Jones! George Jones! And all those Starday records—even the Thumper Jones stuff. And “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” How can you hear that and not respond to it? If I ever have vocal performances that do that, whoa, buddy…

And yeah, I get inspired all the time. I remember when Frank [Liddell, her now-husband and producer of The Way I’m Livin’) was my A&R guy at Decca, and he gave me a CD one night as my bus was pulling out. He said, “This isn’t obvious, but I think you’ll get it.” And it was Buddy Miller. I rode down the road gobsmacked—it was soooo good! And Jim Lauderdale too.

Brittany from Alabama Shakes and my friend Patty Griffin’s last few records, Lyle Lovett and what he does with songs and style; John Prine. My daughter Aubrie Sellers’ record she just made knocks me out with the way she’s taken garage grunge, almost, but applied to country. The Fairfield Four, whose Grammy-nominated record I’m on, and Lucinda for being so to the bone, and John Legend, who I did Crossroads with and who took me to school as singer. A buncha little writers who haven’t had cuts yet. Too much bluegrass! If you listen, how can you not be inspired?

Do you have any advice for new country artists trying to break out of their genre?
Trust your gut. Know what you want to sing about. Don’t chase trends, ’cause they pass. Be real with your music. Hell, be real about life. I’ve got a song about a guy obsessed with a stripper that was Roger Miller’s last Top 10, a Mindy Smith gospel song, a Neil Young song I learned when Frank and I started dating, a couple first cuts, an incredible Julie Miller song about not being able to let go of a memory, a couple hardcore songs about what drinking does to you—and people are amazed how that holds together. Think outside the box, you’ll make more of a difference.

In making your most recent album, what came easily and what element was the hardest to deal with?
Well, Luke Lewis told Frank and I to make the record we’d always dreamed of—and that’s a lot of room to run around in, but it was also so much fun. We tracked everything live, and the players built their performances around my vocals. So what could be easier, or more wonderful for a singer? Having players like Matt Chamberlain, Duke Lavine, Mac McAnally, Paul Franklin and Glen Whorf playing with you and to you? And maybe what was hard was letting go of the idea we needed to worry about radio or what the marketing department wanted; just to, you know, truly do whatever we thought was strongest. I’ve always believed I work with the label, and if they know what they need, I should listen.

What does a Grammy nomination mean to you? What’s your sense of the significance of the Grammys in people’s minds these days?
When I left the label I’d been at for my whole career, where everyone knew me and looked after me, I knew it was a much different world out there. So, I realize when my name gets called—or Hayes Carll, who wrote such an incredible timeless country song—it is a lot about the people who vote for the Grammy recognizing the quality of this music, the work of a very few people who’ve worked very hard for me over the past year, and the players and the writer—and that fires me up.

It’s not just part of the momentum of being on a major label and all the things they can do with great music. It’s about the music, and a few people. And I think—just like the Americana Music Awards where they blew me away with an Album and Artist of the Year nomination this year—the Grammy voters really care about the music, take it very seriously. And I think the people who love music who’re trying to sort through all the music in the world, they do, too.

It’s like a gold star from your peers. And not just my peers in Nashville, but the people like John Legend and the Fairfield Four, George Drakoulias and Randall Poster. When I meet people like Richard Thompson and they ask me about the songs, that’s where the Grammys bring music across genres and make it about what musicians and songwriters and producers and the folks making the music love.

NEXT: Elle King...




"Dangerous" nudges "SOUR." (12/2a)
Big numbers for 30. (11/29a)
good 4 him (12/1a)
Viva, Ms. Adkins (12/1a)
Putting the audio into audio-visual. (11/30a)

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