In Times Like These: Troubadour triumphs from Hayes Carll, Todd Snider

what it is

The sixth Hayes Carll album, What it Is, includes a song called “Fragile Men.” It’s about exactly what you think it’s about, and it’s even better than you might hope. “It must make you so damn angry they’re expecting you to change,” he sings, faux-commiserating with the eternally privileged and the permanently embattled. The subtext, of course, is that Carll (much like your humble critic) is a straight white male, the very demographic that’s high-risk for fragility. But God bless him, he’s doing what he can to stop the virus from spreading, using all the tools endowed to him by the folk tradition to put his privilege in its place: satire, storytelling, whimsy, historicity, some good old-fashioned protest tunes and some even better love songs. Does it need to be said that this is the richest Hayes Carll album yet?

He’s not the only member of his genus to inoculate against entitlement and apathy. Todd Snider— roughly the same level of straight, white, and male— draws from a similar battery of folk-tradition tools  on his casually brilliant Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. (Naturally, it’s the first entry in the series, a catalog joke borrowed from the Traveling Wilburys.) Together, these persuasive albums offer a welcome reassurance: There’s still plenty that dudes-with-guitars can do to speak a prophetic word into a world short on sanity. Long live folk singers.

For Carll, What it Is feels like a full flourishing; the snark and wiseassery of his early records are very much present, but they’re tempered with more empathy than ever before. It follows on the heels of Lovers and Leavers, a downcast and introspective divorce album that Carll made with Joe Henry, taken by some fans as a sign that Carll had gone soft; he hadn’t, but you know how people talk. Since then he’s married the singer and songwriter Allison Morrer, who co-wrote many of these new songs and co-produced the album with Brad Jones. It seems like a grounding partnership for Carll, who opens the record with a fiddle-led tune called “None’ya,” where two lovers take cheerful little digs at each other, their gentle jabs betraying obvious affection. It’s not performative happiness, but rather the natural glow of a couple who’ve found at long last a domesticity that suits them. It’s not a red herring, either; “Be There” is even more earnest in its devotion, a country love song that builds into orchestral elation.

There are tributaries of humility and empathy that flow through even the shit-talkingest songs on the album. “Fragile Men,” with its eerie backdrop of junkyard percussion, is Carll’s most strident note of moral witness-beating, and surely it’s no coincidence that it’s followed immediately by a swampy blues called “Wild Pointy Finger,” where the singer deflates his own knack for sanctimony. Elsewhere, on “Times Like These,” Carll rides a driving Chuck Berry groove and tries his best to downplay swiftly-escalating temperatures– maybe literal, maybe symbolic (“it’s sure gettin’ hot around here in times like these”). 

Pitched somewhere between the romantic songs and the topical ones are a couple of bona fide Hayes Carll classics; songs that speak to the times from a place of weary wisdom and battle-tested compassion. In “Jesus and Elvis”– a song way too good for Carll to leave it all for Kenny Chesney– the Lord and the King strike a truce in behalf of all who are heavy-laden, offering sweet salvation in multiple flavors (“so if you need a shot of Dickel or redemption…”). And in “American Dream,” written with Moorer, Carll remembers that beneath all the outrage and all the issues there are people who are just looking to find their slice of heaven, often getting trampled in the process. Carll, like so many dudes-with-guitars before him, sings for them.

Snider doesn’t have a guru like Allison Moorer in his corner, though on at least one of his new songs he gets a supernatural assist from “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.” It’s not as surprising as you might think. After all, Snider recorded Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 in Cash’s old bungalow, and it’s mostly just him singing and plucking at a guitar or a banjo. (Jason Isbell, who recently produced a fine Josh Ritter album, shows up to sing and play on “Like a Force of Nature,” and he and Amanda Shires roll into the hootenanny spirit of the album-closing “A Timeless Response to Current Events.”) The songs crackle with live immediacy, and the set flows with the easeful grace of an impromptu open-mic set, right down to a brief spoken-word “Dedication” for one song and what sounds like an unscripted “Explanation” for another.

The economy of these recordings leaves Snider nowhere to hide: The charm of Cash Cabin Sessions is purely in his formal command, his rich imagination, and his impish humor. You can hear a little of all three on “Talking Reality Television Blues,” a historic survey of how the entertainment industry’s been slowly eroding our ideals and our norms at least since Milton Berle. Snider has it both ways by ratifying a familiar form and also breaking the fourth wall to comment on it; go along with his art-as-criticism and criticism-as-art and you’ll be rewarded with a devastatingly pithy summation of the rise and fall of Michael Jackson (“reality killed that video star”). And if you like that one, just wait til he gets to the part about the 45th President.

Not every song is so barbed; “Like a Force of Nature” ennobles the aging process, and the harmonica-puffin’ “Watering Flowers in the Rain” empathizes with an Elvis roadie who dreams of seeing his own name in marquee lights. But the songs that define the album are the ones where Snider brings his wit to bear on the state of our fracture, which happen to be the album’s most formally sophisticated. He plucks away at “The Blues on Banjo” to trace dark money’s influence from the French Revolution through the Iraq War, but also to comment on an American minstrelsy tradition that responds to real evil with artificial sanguinity (“so zippity-doodah, motherfucker, zippity-ay”). “A Timeless Response to Current Events” is a bravura showcase for free-associative rhymes and dense allusions, but it turns out the most eloquent protests are often the simplest: “Ain’t that some bullshit?” goes the sing-along chorus.

These sharp Snider songs may put you right back in Carll’s headspace, and particularly the state of mind he conjures in What it Is standout “If I May Be So Bold.” The title portends bloviation and the jostling rhythm suggests a con man’s hubristic hustle, but actually it’s a straightforwardly aspirational rallying cry for troubadours everywhere. “There’s a whole world out there waitin’/ Full of stories to be told/ And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all/ If I may be so bold.” It’s a statement of purpose that both he and Snider live up to, and it’s never seemed more badly needed than in times like these.

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