At a Sturgill Simpson show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium a few years back, some drunk dudes got into a fight down in front of the stage. As they were escorted out, Simpson said something along the lines of, “One of these days, these bearded, redneck motherf#@kers are going to realize I’m not one of them.” Jason Isbell and Will Hoge deal with similar types of machismo-based assumptions on social media when fans finally clue into a song’s meaning and get, shall we say, perturbed by the politics therein. Clearly, those folks haven’t been listening very closely or deeply at all.
The same likely goes for some in the Hayes Carll crowd. Having come up playing bars in Texas and Tennessee, Carll knows how to hook ’em with a holler. He also knows how to slip ’em a musical Mickey, as it were, in order to deliver some truths that might well be hard to swallow. He’s done so numerous times in the past, but never more so than on his new album, What It Is. And, with the effort, Carll continues to prove that he’s one of the most gifted wordsmiths in the game.
Some of the cuts eschew any efforts at politeness or humor, and simply call it like he sees it. “Times Like These” chugs along that track, detailing that, yeah, it’s some hard times out there right now, even if, as with the narrator, “I just wanna do my labor, love my girl, and help my neighbor.” The chipper bop and tap of “American Dream” takes a similar tack, but with slightly more hopefulness.
Further in, “Fragile Men” takes male privilege on, with what might seem like a sympathetic tone, but only if you don’t understand irony. The same goes for “Wild Pointy Finger,” in which he tackles people’s astounding ability to blame everyone but themselves for the problems of the world: “It points at Parisians across the sea. It points at anybody who thinks different than me,” he sings. “If you’re marching to your own drum or kneeling in the news, my wild pointy finger’s probably pointed right at you.”
Carll turns the lens and pen on his own life, as well, sometimes with humor (“None’ya”), sometimes not (“I Will Stay”). To be sure, his gifts serve him well in all settings, as they always have. Catalog classics like “Beaumont” and “Chances Are” show that his serious side is no less a force to be reckoned with. But the songs in which he tosses barbs at himself and others are what set him apart, as they always have. They are also, presumably, the songs he loves lobbing over the heads of the bearded, redneck motherf#@kers who think he’s one of them.