Visulite Theatre (16+ (Must have ID) - Under 16 with Parent Only)
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The chorus to the title track on the new Hayes Carll album, What It Is, is a manifesto.
What it was is gone forever / What it could be God only knows.
What it is is right here in front of me / and I’m not letting go.
He’s embracing the moment. Leaving the past where it belongs, accepting there’s no way to know what’s ahead, and challenging himself to be present in both love and life. It’s heady stuff. It also rocks.
With a career full of critical acclaim and popular success, Carll could’ve played it safe on this, his sixth record, but he didn’t. The result is a musically ambitious and lyrically deep statement of an artist in his creative prime.
Hayes Carll’s list of accomplishments is long. His third album, 2008’s Trouble In Mind, earned him an Americana Music Association Award for Song of the Year (for “She Left Me for Jesus”). The follow-up, KMAG YOYO was the most played album on the Americana Chart in 2011 and spawned covers by artists as varied as Hard Working Americans and Lee Ann Womack, whose version of "Chances Are" garnered Carll a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song. 2016’s Lovers and Leavers swept the Austin Music Awards, and was his fourth record in a row to reach #1 on the Americana Airplay chart. Kelly Willis and Kenny Chesney have chosen to record his songs and his television appearances include The Tonight Show, Austin City Limits, and Later w/Jools Holland. Carll is the rare artist who can rock a packed dancehall one night and hold a listening room at rapt attention the next.
“Repeating myself creatively would ultimately leave me empty. Covering new ground, exploring, and taking chances gives me juice and keeps me interested.”
He knew he wanted to find the next level. On What It Is, he clearly has.
It wasn’t necessarily easy to get there. Carll’s last release, 2016’s Lovers and Leavers was an artistic and commercial risk — a bold move which eschewed the tempo and humor of much of his previous work. The record revealed a more serious singer-songwriter dealing with more serious subjects — divorce, new love in the middle of life, parenting, the worth of work. What It Is finds him now on the other side, revived and happy, but resolute — no longer under the impression that any of it comes for free.
“I want to dig in so this life doesn’t just pass me by. The more engaged I am the more meaning it all has. I want that to be reflected in the work.”
And meaning there is. Carll sings “but I try because I want to,” on the album’s opening track, “None’Ya.” He’s not looking back lamenting love lost, rather, finding joy and purpose in the one he’s got and hanging on to the woman who sometimes leaves him delightedly scratching his head. “If I May Be So Bold,” finds him standing on similar ground
— lyrically taking on the challenge of participating fully in life rather than discontentedly letting life happen.
Bold enough to not surrender bold enough to give a damn
Bold enough to keep on going or to stay right where I am
There’s a whole world out there waiting full of stories to be told
I’ll heed the call and tell’em all if I may be so bold
There’s no wishy washy here and he’s not on the sidelines. In fact, he’s neck-deep in life. On the rambunctious, fiddle-punctuated, “Times Like These,” he laments political division in America while delivering a rapid-fire plea to “do my labor, love my girl, and help my neighbor, while keeping all my joie de vivre.” Carll’s signature cleverness and aptitude for so-personal-you-might-miss-it political commentary is as strong as ever. The stark, “Fragile Men,” co-written with singer-songwriter Lolo, uses humor and dripping sarcasm to examine his gender’s resistance to change in less than three minutes of string-laden, almost Jacques Brel invoking drama. It’s new musical territory for Carll, and the result is powerful. His voice is strong and resonant on these songs, and it’s thrilling to hear him use it with a new authority. He is alternately commanding and tender, yet always soulful.
Carll returned to trusted producer Brad Jones (producer of 2008’s Trouble in Mind and 2011’s KMAG YOYO) and Alex the Great Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, to record What It Is, and recruited singer-songwriter, author, and fiancee Allison Moorer as co-producer. The production is adventurous while keeping the focus on the singer and his songs and providing a path for him to go where he wants to go. Where that is, is forward.
That’s evident in the songwriting. Carll continues to hone his singular voice, but is also a flexible co-writer. Matraca Berg, Charlie Mars, Adam Landry, and Moorer have co-writing credits here, but it was Moorer’s inspiration that provided the largest impact.
“On the songwriting front she’s just a pro. She helps me cut through the noise and she does it with wit and style.”
Carll’s own wit and style has never been more evident. Whether it’s with the put-you-in-picture detail of, “Beautiful Thing,” the not quite sheepish enough, dude-esque defense of dishonesty in, “Things You Don’t Wanna Know,” or the strong as a tree trunk declaration of love on, “I Will Stay,” he displays an increasing command of his poetic lexicon.
Writers most often wrestle with experience and expectations, either romanticizing the past or telling us how good it’s going to be when they get where they’re going. What It Is is a record that is rooted solidly in the present, revealing an artist in the emotional and intellectual here and now.
Start Time: 8:00
For a guy whose career has evolved more by serendipity than design, Ben Dickey’s professional journey has turned into one heckuva ride. It’s not every day an obscure musician’s famous actor/ director friend hands him the lead in a passion-project indie film, and he not only winds up sharing the screen with one of his musical heroes, he also wins a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Dramatic Achievement in Acting — and a Variety magazine “for your consideration” plug for a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Dickey’s acting debut in Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s biopic about doomed Texas singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, has already led to more roles, including their pairing as bounty hunters in The Kid, a western directed by Vincent D’Onofrio. But just as exciting, as far as Dickey’s concerned, is the opportunity it provided to record with that musical hero, longtime Bob Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton (who played Blaze’s other troubled Texas songwriting legend, Townes Van Zandt). After they did the film’s original cast recording (on Light in the Attic Records), Sexton produced Dickey’s solo album, A Glimmer on the Outskirts. That inspired Sexton, Hawke and Blazeexecutive producer Louis Black to form SexHawkeBlack Records, a new Austin-based imprint under the umbrella of Nashville’s Dualtone Records. Dickey’s March 7, 2019 release is the label’s first.
It’s hardly Dickey’s first recording foray, however. In fact, he says, he preferred the idea of forming a label to shopping for one because he’d been signed before — and still bears scars from watching the dream morph into a momentum-sucking nightmare. But SexHawkeBlack president Erika Pinktipps happens to be friends with Dualtone’s founder; that connection quickly turned into an actual alliance. “We’re all doing this together,” Dickey says, “[it’s] a group of people who all care about each other and have similar artistic arrows pointed in the same direction.”
Dickey was 10 when his artistic arrow started pointing toward music; that’s when his grandfather handed down his 1935 Gibson L-30 archtop. “He was a magical fellow, and his guitar is, too,” Dickey says. “So I wanted to be magic, too.”
Within a year, his grandfather was gone. The magic, fortunately, stayed. But conjuring it wasn’t always easy for a kid growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, far from his dad — a college football star who’d moved to Georgia after the parental split, when Dickey was 4. Ten years later, Dickey’s mother left, too — following her friend and boss, Bill Clinton, from the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion to the White House. Dickey moved into his grandmother’s basement — and became one more angry, disaffected teenage rocker.
He formed his first “real” band, Shake Ray Turbine, at 16, made his first record at 17 and began touring at 18, ditching Little Rock Central High (most famous students: the Little Rock Nine) for an $850 Ford van. When the founder of their D.I.Y. label, File 13 Records, headed to Philadelphia for college, they followed.
Dickey wound up staying for 17 years, becoming a chef, falling in love and making music, first with Amen Booze Rooster (the band that got signed, then shafted), then with Blood Feathers. That band recorded three albums, including one created over “a magical rock ‘n’ roll summer” at a Nova Scotia home Hawke owns. (Hawke’s wife and Dickey’s “sweetheart,” artist Beth Blofson, have been besties since childhood.) Several labels and a top management agency courted them, but some members’ changing priorities and Dickey’s label trauma scotched potential deals. Still, when Blood Feathers fractured, he was heartbroken. It was time for another change.
Once again, a music connection provided it. The band’s former manager had returned to north Louisiana to run his dad’s cotton farm, and offered Dickey and Blofson a vacant house on the rural property. They’ve been frolicking in that cotton since 2014.
Before leaving Philly, however, Dickey devoted 81⁄2 months of Mondays (most chefs’ lone day off) to recording Sexy Birds & Salt Water Classics, his first solo album. Former Arkansas Times arts editor Robert Bell called it “impeccable rock ‘n’ roll ... which effortlessly melds Dylan/Petty singer-songwriter tunes and a touch of T. Rex-y sheen with a peppering of country-blues guitar- picking of the first order.”
Classics took Dickey in a folkier direction, which continues with A Glimmer on the Outskirts. ?With a broad, low-edged tenor, this 6-foot, 5-inch linebacker’s son sometimes sounds remarkably like Dylan. But while he claims to be influenced by all musical forms, including “mockingbird word, Marshall feedback stack, tap-dance prance, orbital odes and Dinah the dog” (a partial list), Dickey says he’s most attracted to cats like jump bluesmen Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker and especially, the phrasing of Piedmont/ragtime bluesman Blind Willie McTell.
“I’ve been doin’ an impersonation of him forever,” Dickey claims. “He takes joy in certain words, and the listener likes that. And I like that.”
Of his own style, he says, “I reckon I play rock ‘n’ roll — emphasis on the roll.”
“The roll” is about musicality and rhythm, he explains. It’s the unforced ease of big-band swing, or the way late guitarist Hubert Sumlin played before or after the beat, creating another rhythmic pattern. “Chuck Berry doing the first 16 bars of ‘Maybelline’ is a microinjection of what I consider rock ‘n’ roll. When I think of rock ‘n’ roll, I think of that; I think of the Stones; I think of the Beatles’ ‘I Feel Fine.’”
The roll is all over A Glimmer on the Outskirts, most of which was written over a few days afterBlaze wrapped, except for “Eloise” and his easygoing, JJ Cale-like cover of Foley’s “Sittin’ By the Road.”
“When I say wrote, I mean they just came,” Dickey clarifies. “They usually come in clusters.”
That helps explain their thematic connection; the album, he says, is an exploration of hope.
“Hope comes in different ways, and in little doses, like when you're on the freeway and you’re hungry, and you see a sign for food,” he says. “It also comes when you’re chest deep in quicksand and you see someone coming with a rope.”
In “Stranger on a Silver Horse (Be Amazed),” it comes “on the outskirts of town, like A Fistful of Dollars; a fixer or something.” In “Sing that One to Me,” hope takes the form of an adventure. Its lyrics directly mention that fixer, who appears again as Dickey explains the album title “refers to finding or remembering hope when all is lost, but there’s a light on the edge of town, or the edge of the galaxy. A fixer on the way.”
That’s not necessarily a divine metaphor, however. Celestial citations fill Dickey’s lyrics and conversation, but they’re mainly astronomical, not biblical (though he does debate what’s heaven and what’s hell in “I Think It’s All Different”). His favorite memory involves watching the Orionids meteor shower with his family when he was 3, and he admits, “My version of counting sheep is reading how fast Jupiter is expanding and despanding through the day.”
He’s got a thing for prime numbers and has fantasized about working for NASA, but can’t imagine not making music. “That’s how I relate to the world,” he says. “I've always been drawn to it.”
Eventually, he figured out why.
“What happens when you go to a show? You form a relationship with an artist,” he notes. Despite the uncertainties and absurdities of the troubadour life, Dickey needs that connection — “this weird hour of time where you share with a group of people” — to satisfy his soul.
Something else he’s figured out: the benefits of trust. After finally agreeing to let Hawke put him onscreen, Dickey discovered he loves acting. “It’s very musical,” he says, “so it feels natural.”
He also agreed to let Sexton choose the album’s songs, and players: drummer Conrad Choucroun,bassist John Michael Shoepf, pedal steel player Mike Hardwick and keyboardist, pianist and Mellotron player Bukka Allen. (Dickey and Sexton both play guitar and sing; Blofson sings backing vocals and Emily Galusha whistles on “The Man with the Hammer.”)
Dickey is thrilled with the results. He’s giddy about life in general right now. It took a while for him to find his script, so to speak, but he sums up the experiences between getting his grandfather’s guitar and his current pursuits with a perfect quote from Blaze: “You might not get what you go after, but you do get what you wouldn't have got, if you hadn't gone after what you didn't get.”