Adam Carroll: Slow Burn
I sat down with Adam Carroll after a weeknight show at Gruene Hall. It had been one of those small acoustic shows in the bar area, and Adam had invited a few guests join him, most notably Mark Jungers. The majority of the forty or so people who were in attendance were there to listen to the music. That's my kind of show.
We did the interview at one of the picnic tables in the dancehall area, Townes Van Zant playing in the background.
Do you have any particular good memories of growing up in Tyler?
When I left [laughing]. Nah, it's a good place to grow up, it's a pretty town, but not much of a music scene unless you're a christian artist, so I left when I was 21 or 22.
Your official bio says that you decided on a career as a songwriter in Junior College. True?
I just started playing open mics about that time. I didn't ever really know that I was going to be able to make a living at this. I entered this contest in Dallas, at this place called Poor David's Pub, I did some songs there, and he started giving me openers. I started feeling that I liked … that it felt good to do it, you know, in a place like that. I'd go see people there that I looked up to, so that's kinda when I got the itch.
You’ve released three studio albums, all produced by Lloyd Maines. How did you meet up with him?
I was playing Larry Joe Taylor's Music Festival in Meridian back in 1997. Lloyd was playing there with Terri Hendrix. These DJs in Dallas had picked some of us to play what was kinda like an Up-and-Coming Songwriter's Night at the festival. It was me, Terri, Owen Temple, and a couple other people, this guy named Scotty Melton, and we all got to do a couple songs. A friend of mine had given Lloyd a tape of me, but when he heard me play live, he really liked it, said he'd help me out.
You usually play solo acoustic shows, right?
Right, or sometimes with a sideman. I've been playing with a few bands here and there, but mostly it's solo.
Do you ever feel the urge to beef up the instrumentation in your music?
I think some people can do that really well. I'd like to, but I can pretty much only do what I can do. That's pretty much it.
I saw you do a show at Casbeers with Susan Gibson. Do you and Susan play together a lot?
We've played together a quite a few times. I used to open up for her old band, The Groobees, you know, back in the day. We've done a few three- and four-show runs, got to be pretty good friends, so we've written some songs. Me, her and Mark Jungers do shows sometimes.
Hanging out in Mark Jungers' garage?
Hanging out in Jungers' garage.
Are there any stories you can tell about that garage?
Not that I can tell in an interview. [Laughs.] We call it "The Garage Majal."
You've been compared with John Prine. Have you ever met him?
Never met John Prine. I met his guitar player one time. I went and saw him play at John T. Floore's, and I went back there, hung out with his guitar player. We all thought he was gonna come and say hello, but he stayed in his trailer.
Slaid Cleaves recorded your song “Race Car Joe” for his album Unsung. How did that come about?
I think he had it in mind to do all those songs. He wasn't sure he was gonna put it on there, and then, at the last minute, he decided to go ahead and do it. I thought he did a real good job with the songs on that record.
Has anyone else recorded your tunes?
Roger Marin up in Canada recorded "Blondie and Dagwood" [on his album High Roads] and The Resentments, you know, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Jon Dee Graham, and those guys, Scrappy put my song "Ricebirds" on a Resentments record [On My Way to See You]. That's pretty much the extent of the covers. [Laughs.] Thus far. It's a big honor when someone else records one of my songs, actually. I've always thought that I was more of a songwriter, first and foremost, so it'd be nice if people did a lot more of them.
Do you ever get the urge to go to Nashville and be a part of that machine?
I don't think so. That kind of style is not really my style. They seem to follow whoever's the big hit at the time. That'd be okay, but I just don't think that's in the cards for me.
Who wrote a song about Odysseus first, you ("Home Again") or Brian Keane ("Odysseus")?
I wrote mine first, but Brian's song is just great. He's a really good songwriter.
I noticed that you only have a few songs on your records that are cowritten. Do you prefer to write alone?
I've been doing more cowriting lately, actually. I kinda like it, but I think it really just depends on what the song calls for. Hayes Carll does a song called "Take Me Away" [on his album Little Rock] and I wrote that with a guy named John Evans. So there's one we wrote together, but not in mind that anyone would cut it, we just kinda wrote it.
Do you ever set out to write a song with someone else, or does it just kinda happen?
Well, I've had a lot of songs lately where I've had half songs, pieces of songs, and usually half a song works best, where I can take it to somebody and say, "Hey, what do you think of this?" Then they take it and put their twist on it.
So, do you find yourself writing the lyrics first, or the melody first, or do they come out together?
Usually with me it's lyrics first. Sometimes I'll play with melodies, but, in general, I'm more of a lyric guy.
Do you have a favorite song you've written?
I think that "Erroll's Song" is probably my favorite. It's pretty close to my heart. Erroll was a big influence on me as a teenager. I went duck hunting with him and stuff. It meant a lot for me to write that song and for him to be able to hear it. It's one of those songs that I never get tired of playing. It's special to me.
Do you have any songs you've recorded that you wish you hadn't?
[Laughs.] I pretty much like all the ones I've recorded. There's a few that, you know, I don't really play much any more, for the sole reason that I just have more songs that I like to play now. Now there are some that I wrote a long time ago that I'm glad I didn't record. That's why it was nice to have someone like Lloyd to go through the songs and be honest about whether he thought they should go on the record or not. That really helped, having a coach like that to help me out. He even helps out with some of the lyrics, like, 'What if you said it this way?" and I'd put that in there. So, he does that really well, and not just because he's trying to be clever, but he's just trying to help.
How special was it to have your grandfather, Ray Davidson, play saxophone on your last record, Far Away Blues?
It was cool. He really liked seeing the studio process, because, you know, the last time he played on a record, the technology was not near what it is now. He was impressed by that. Lloyd, actually, at a Terri Hendrix show, met my grandparents. At the time I having a hard time putting together a new record, because my first two records, I had kinda written all those songs when I was younger, but with Far Away Blues I had the purpose of writing to make a record, so I really had to work at it. Lloyd got to talking with my granddad, and Lloyd — he knew I was having trouble writing — said, "Why don't you just write the record around him?" And that was the impetus I needed to write that record. So there's another thing Lloyd did to help the process.
You recently recorded a new record. Did Lloyd produce that one, too?
No, the producer was a Canadian guy named Scott Nolan. We just got it done. Did it in Mark Jungers' garage. It's a little more lo-fi than the other ones, but it's still basically the same feel. We'll probably release it sometime in 2008. It's a good record. I like the songs and I enjoyed making it.
Why did you decide to go with a different producer?
The only reason was because I really like Scott. He's doing a song on the new Hayes Carll record, "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart," and we were up in Canada, when I was out on tour with Graham Weber, and Scott said, "Hey, man, let's make a record." So we just kinda followed the muse, got inspired. It wasn't really a conscious decision — well, it was a conscious decision — but everything just kind of fell into line. I wasn't looking for another producer, it just happened.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope I'm still playing, but any day above ground's a good one. I'm not even worried about it right now. But, you know, I'd like to ... I've have ambitions to play better rooms, get bigger crowds, but I mean that stuff's just icing on the cake, you can't plan that out. Some people can, depending on how their record's doing, and the timing of it, but I think my deal's more of a slow burn.
A slow burn. I've been to a few Adam Carroll shows now, and there are always people singing along with the songs. Not singing out loud, like fans do at Ragweed shows, but just listening and silently mouthing the words along with Adam as he slowly burns his way to the top.
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