“It’s great to be here at the Astrodome,” Adam Carroll said in a sly Texan drawl. “I’ve always wanted to play here.”
Standing onstage in the cavernous basement of Hill Country Barbecue in Washington DC, Adam Carroll and his wife Chris Carroll must have felt like they were a long way from home. But here in front of picnic tables underneath the city streets of the nation’s capital, it was like being in a safe house for displaced Texans.
This place has a certain aura for me that was confirmed the night I saw the doors of the venue’s elevator open and the metaphysical presence of Ray Wylie Hubbard step out. His dangling graying curls were one with the silver veneer, as if he was caught in a futuristic time warp caught between the future and the ghost of Texas past.
Carroll’s subtle onstage demeanor quickly establishes its own presence. As he strums his acoustic guitar and blows his harmonica, he quickly reaching a fever pitch, the result of a songwriter who long ago found his calling upon hearing John Prine and later Robert Earl Keen. Infused with the rabid energy reminiscent of a young Springsteen, he’s a one man electric band.
The couple came to Washington via the RV they are driving through America. Carroll is one of Texas’ greatest exports with his self-described “pocketful of songs” and stories of characters they’ve seen and imagined along the way, They’re wrapped up in stories from his album I Walked In Them Shoes and Good Farmer, the forthcoming record he made his wife Chris Carroll set to be released in August. There’s homage to Bernadine, the patron saint of gamblers and Iris, an imaginary woman down on her luck who shows up at the Dew Drop Inn, a place the couple had played in California and can’t wait to go back. And, as storytelling goes, the song “Louise” was written after meeting someone at a house concert outside Cleveland who is a connoisseur of songs with the name Louise.
It’s hard to park in city streets when your RV is made for the driveways of house concerts. Tonight the couple parked it in a facility with their three dogs and traveling companions sleeping and waiting for them to come home after showtime. On this night being a traveling musician means fitting your guitars into an Uber when you head to the gig.
Before showtime, Carroll sat at a table top with me in front of famed magazine covers of Willie Nelson. Carroll confirms what is true in song. He has never met Nelson but admits he has run into a lot of strangers wearing red bandannas in his time.
Maybe there should be a place for Carroll’s on these walls. A geneticist might trace Carroll’s bloodlines and seductive drawl and baritone back to Townes Van Zandt. When you’ve been called one of the greatest songwriters Texas, and have been the subject of a tribute album of your songs by the likes of James McMurtry, Slaid Cleaves and Hayes Carll, it seems your picture would rightfully have a place at Hill Country.
It was just five years ago that Jenni Finlay was inspired to put together Highway Prayer: A Tribute To Adam Carroll. She was the daughter of the late Kent Finlay who owned Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, where Carroll and many of his Texan brethren cut their teeth.
Carroll admits he was surprised as anyone about the project. “Some people would say, “‘You’re too young for that,’” Carroll remembers, adding he’d point out that it wasn’t his idea.
“People thought he was sick or we were broke,” his wife adds later. Ultimately Highway Prayer was a gift to the songwriter that helped get the word out, especially outside Texas. Carroll said it provided validation and inspiration for him to “keep on chugging as a folk singer.”
Another Texan, Lloyd Maines, the famed pedal steel guitarist and musical producer, has been with Carroll since his debut album. He is also the inspiration behind Carroll’s tribute on his new album in the song called “My Old Shirt.”
Carroll’s introduction to Maines was somewhat accidental. An old friend from Tyler said he could get Carroll’s demo tape to Joe Ely. That night Carroll met Ely but ended up giving the demo to someone else. It was Lloyd Maines, the renown pedal steel guitarist, who got hooked after hearing “Red Bandana Blues” and soon offered to produce him. Maines is once again at the helm as producer of Carroll’s first record in five years, augmenting Carroll’s stories with scintillating pedal steel in songs like “Caroline.”
When Maines began recording Carroll on reel to reel tape, he’d prompt Carroll to state the name of each song before singing it, presumably so he could have it as a reference. It became somewhat of a signature for Carroll who continues the tradition to this day. “I’d have to go back and check with Lloyd,” he says about its origins, “but I’m not sure he’d remember.” Carroll describes their first meeting as “a while ago.”
Enter Chris Carroll who he met at music festival in her hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario. The couple met at his show and exchanged email addresses and cd’s. They began playing on Skype and when Carroll returned to Canada, he asked her to come to Texas.
“I never heard songwriting like that in real time,” she glows about their first encounter. The couple jokes on stage about their first date over Texas barbecue but her first foray to Texas was met with visa delays. “But I made it,” she says lamenting she left behind her healthcare coverage.
“Sometimes it’s fact, sometimes it’s fiction,” she says of the allure of creating songs. “You don’t know where there lines blur.”
Calling herself “an Adam Carroll fan all the way,’ she encouraged him to make a new album, his first in over five years. He invited her to sing alongside him but she demurred thinking the consummate Adam Carroll fan preferred more stripped down folk songs. The compromise was to make two albums including the duo album Good Farmer.
When a friend married the couple in Oklahoma, she gave them a piece of pottery that looked like a tortilla warmer. Chris Carroll had an idea. Her new husband had a habit of scribbling down ideas on post-it notes and leaving them all over the house. “Let’s put them somewhere,” Chris decided upon the wedding gift. Their friend, the artist Jana Pochop, felt was like a treasure trove and dubbed it “The Precious” because it was full of song ideas. In the music room of a new house, a friend suggested they take all the ideas and put them on a dream board. When Adam wrote something down, he’d put it in “The Precious.” Every morning Carroll said he’d ask the universe or creator (or “whatever it is”) to help him with songwriting. He’d take something out, to help him start writing a song. What the Precious takes, the Precious gives and the songs on both albums literally came out of it.
On the road, Carroll sets up the merch table while her husband starts the show with a few songs. She admits her blood pressure drops when he’s done with “Rice Birds.” Onstage Chris Carroll plays mandolin and acoustic guitar and banters playfully with her husband. She gets involved in a conversation with someone in the front table about the Old Quarter, Rex Bell’s Old place in Galveston. It’s the place a young Hayes Carll got his start. Carroll met Carll when he played at the Mucky Duck in Houston.
“Hey man I’m Hayes Carll,” Carroll remembers him saying as clear as yesterday. He still has some prized early demos Carll recorded before his first album. Carll just took off (“his talent was always there”) and Carroll hasn’t seen him much since. But Carll covered Carroll’s song “Take Me Away” on the Country Strong soundtrack that made Carroll think about talking to some people in Nashville. That didn’t pan out as Carroll admits he’s not good at self-promotion. Carll gave his own testimony about Carroll’s talent when he told No Depression he’d sometimes skip his own gigs just to see Carroll.
On this night Adam told me it was somewhat unsettling setting foot in the nation’s capital. He admitted feeling a little fear given the current political climate. His wife was more direct, saying she made sure to flip off a few helicopters.
“Is that okay?” she asks with a hearty laugh.
“Everybody in the past whether they were Republican or Democrat, we all seemed to come to the middle,” he reflected. “Nowadays it doesn’t look like that’s happening. I’m not a jingo, I’m a patriot. To think we got to the point where there’s one guy who decides everything and speaks for the whole country….shit,” he breaks into a nervous laugh. “I guess we’ve got to do the best we can.”
Carroll was thinking about current events and the environment when he wrote the song “Storms,” referencing the plight of people in Puerto Rico. It was raining a lot on tour and Carroll was thinking about the climate as well as the personal, emotional storms we face in a time of heightened extremism. His understated, wry humor comes with subtly when he sings: “This weather’s not the norm/I don’t care if you’re a democrat/If you save me from this storm.”
“I’m not a great Buddhist but maybe if the earth could talk, it would be signing that song,” Carroll ponders.
The couple is thankful they have music and see it as an antidote during challenging times. There’s wide smiles all around when Adam Carroll pulls out comic one-liners in rapid succession during “Old Milwaukee’s Best” and “AFL-CIO.” Bringing new and old songs to people and slowly building their fan base brings great satisfaction.
“We don’t really draw any hard lines up there or pull any Woody Guthrie moves,” Chris Carroll reflects. “We just go out and play songs.”
Music they would agree is the great unifier.
“You can see it, you can feel it,” she says of the need people have for music, maybe now more than ever. “There was a lady who came to soundcheck just the other day. She put her feet up and said, ‘C’mon. Give me those good vibes.’
“It’s an important job. And it doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion.”