Hayes Carll was stomping his way into country music success when he decided to dial it back for his most recent album, return to a quieter solo acoustic approach, and emulate once more the wry, road-weary wistfulness of a John Prine or a Townes Van Zandt.
In his headlining show at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Va., the day after Christmas, he even dropped the crowd pleasing “Stomp and Holler.”
Self-effacement was practically part of the set, with such songs that commented on misfires in the music business from the opening “Good While it Lasted” and “Sake of the Song” to “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and “Hard Out Here.”
Carll’s pretty funny, too, in his between-song patter, with stories that have been burnished from a long career in bad Texas bars along the Gulf Coast.
But there’s a clarity and emotional precision in his new songs from his “Lovers and Leavers” album that came out last April that offset them.
He’s maintained it’s not his breakup album, but there are some succinct truths about divorce, like the one he went through since his previous album, singing that he and a partner “got the life that we wanted, not the love that we need” and elsewhere, “We both said forever, forever till the end, but forever’s something different to a lover than a friend.”
At the same time, there are simpler statements about the love for his son in “The Magic Kid” or the sensations of a new relationship in “Love Don’t Let Me Down.”
Names aren’t named in these personal plumb lines, but he’s brought along living proof to this short holiday week tour in his girlfriend Alison Moorer, who joined him for a handful of songs at the end of his set — including covers of Merle Haggard’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” and the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love — as well as turning out her own short but stunning set to open the show.
Looking a little worn in his scraggly hair and beard, Carll proved himself as something of a soothsayer, with lyrics from his old “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” from the 2007 “Trouble in Mind” album sounding especially prescient: “Who’s the President? What year is it? Does anybody care about truth anymore? Maybe that’s what songs are for.”
It sure seems so for them. And maybe can do so while being a big crowd pleasers as well. Already, Kenny Chesney recorded “Jesus and Elvis” the couple wrote with Matraca Berg.
For Carll’s hat-tip to the holidays, he provided his own quite sincere “Grateful for Christmas.”
Moorer, in what might have been her first set in a year and a half, closed with some “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that sounded so fine, you didn’t mind hearing it once more after Dec. 25.
Moorer spoke of her own divorce to Steve Earle, and the challenges of being a single mom raising a son on the autistic scale. So, spending time at home with him, she decided to get a master’s degree in writing, apparently days before the gig.
She’d hardly need the parchment; early songs like “Alabama Song” and “A Soft Place to Fall” are written just about as strongly as they are sung — clear and pure and moving.
But her newer songs, the sultry “Wish I,” and the plainspoken reality of her own divorce song, “Down to Believing,” the title track to her own most recent collection that came out in April 2015, are knockouts as well.
Hayes Carll’s setlist at the Birchmere Monday was:
- “Good While It Lasted”
- “Sake of the Song”
- “Wild as a Turkey”
- “Drunken Poet’s Dream”
- “The Love That We Need”
- “Grateful for Christmas”
- “My Friends”
- “KMAG YOYO”
- “Chances Are”
- “Hard Out Here”
- “The Magic Kid”
- “I Got a Gig”
- “That’s the Way Love Goes” (with Allison Moorer)
- “Love Don’t Let Me Down” (with Allison Moorer)
- “Jesus and Elvis” (with Allison Moorer)
- “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”
- “Girl Downtown”
- “Bye Bye Love” (with Allison Moorer)
Allison Moorer’s setlist at the Birchmere Monday was:
- “Alabama Song”
- “Soft Place to Fall”
- “Wish I”
- “Down to Believing”
- “Mama Let the Wolf In”
- “Thunderstorm / Hurricane”
- “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”