MANCHESTER, Tenn. — Growing up a tiny blue dot in the very red political environment of suburban Houston taught Hayes Carll an important lesson: Keep politics to yourself.
"I remember when they took the class poll in fourth grade, 'Are you voting for Reagan or Mondale?' I was the only kid in the school who voted for Mondale," Carll said. "So because of that you kinda build up this me-against-them attitude. So whatever beliefs I had picked up from my parents or on my own I guarded pretty viciously."
After years of writing "degenerate love songs" and others about beer, Carll is stepping out into political discourse on his latest album, "KMAG YOYO." It's a significant step in the career of one of country music's most talented songwriters. But it's one he takes in his own special way, as he'll show during two sets at Bonnaroo on Thursday and Friday.
Things aren't so much blowing in the wind in these new songs as they are hanging out and acting ambiguous. New single "Another Like You," a saucy duet with Cary Ann Hearst that features a new video with the ultimate political odd couple, James Carville and Mary Matalin, is a gloriously off-kilter call-and-response drunken love song that perfectly encapsulates fractured times.
The album's title song is a scorching psychedelic rocker with a theme of how soldiers pay the ultimate price in war — something everyone can agree on. Carll sees little black and white in the world and his songs note tough times are hard on everyone, not just those who belong to the other party.
"So I think conservatives, country guys in some way feel like I'm one of their own," Hayes said. "I wear boots and have an accent and am from Texas and all that. And lefties and liberals maybe feel the same because I'm a long-haired, ex-dope smoker who plays guitar and travels around for a living."
Getting both sides of the debate eventually began to have its effect. Over time he began to see value in the feelings and beliefs of everyone. Initially resistant to the tea party, for instance, he grew to appreciate some of the maverick movement's concepts.
"I'm not out trying to convert people one at a time," Carll said. "I'm a songwriter just trying to get a sense of the pulse of the country, and it just came. I don't know if it's because I'm older or because I pay more taxes now or because I have a son or that it was just hearing the story every night for so long that it found its way into my music more."
Carll's good friend Rhett Miller of The Old 97's thinks "KMAG YOYO" marks a songwriter at the height of his powers and is an impressive document not for what it says, but what it says about Carll.
Long considered one of Americana-leaning country's rising stars — he joked after winning breakthrough artist of the year at the Americana Music Awards last year that it came five years after he was first nominated in the category — he's taken several steps forward and suffered career-threatening setbacks since the release of his breakthrough album, 2008's "Trouble in Mind."
His work — and maybe a little bit of his shabby-chic cool — was tapped for Garrett Hedlund's country outsider character in the Gwyneth Paltrow film "Country Strong." And he won the 2008 Americana song of the year for subversively funny "She Left Me For Jesus," helping build anticipation for his next album.
Shortly after the release of "Trouble in Mind," a strep infection, combined with poor health and overwork, left him with a damaged voice that's yet to fully return.
"It was a pretty big issue where fans were not only starting to notice but were taking me to task for it," Carll said. "It was frustrating because when my career was doing its best, my talent was at an all-time low."
Miller watched Carll battle first to regain a semblance of his former sound, then work to reinvent his voice in a way that could keep him on stage.
"He'd dip down for notes, he'd climb for notes," Miller said. "You could hear him working so hard as it was recovering. It's just crazy, man, and it sounds great. I really feel something very honest and blue collar and real about the way he approaches music and I admire that a lot. So many people act like music is just magic and we're sort of a lightning rod and God shoots songs down through us or something. But it's not. It's a job."