By Jim Beal Jr.
(LSM May/June 2014/vol. 7 – issue 3)
He’s 39, but from a distance — and not a long distance — Tyler-bred, San Marcos-based Adam Carroll could pass for half that age. Carroll has a full head of perpetually tousled hair, an air of innocence and an “aw shucks” kind of demeanor that’s refreshing but deceiving.
Below that hair are twinkling eyes that don’t miss much, and a sly smile that intimates he’s either up to something or is well aware that you’re up to something, and he’s not likely to turn his back on you. Those attributes help make Carroll a first-rate Texas troubadour; a storyteller who still looks like a kid while writing and sing- ing stark yet sympathetic songs about gamblers, ramblers, ex-cons, drunks, cab drivers, fishermen, thieves, washed- up musicians, heartbreak and, now and then, love gone right.
Carroll’s new album, his eighth, Let It Choose You, is packed with all of the above plus a South Louisiana accent here and there to augment his Texas storytell- ing proclivities.
“I studied classical guitar at Tyler Junior College, but I wasn’t very good at competing in the guitar program,” Carroll says. “I discovered a creative writing teacher, Candace Schaefer (now the associate director of the University Writing Center at Texas A&M University), at the college, and it just blew me away. I loved the writing, but I had a hard time with short stories. I had trouble making something that long be interesting.”
Inspired and influenced by the likes of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen and other wordsmiths in his lawyer dad’s record collection — and equally influenced by the players on his musician/ choir-director mom’s side of the family — Carroll turned his talents to the three-minute song form. He worked coffee houses and open-mic nights and started rambling around Texas working places such as Poor David’s Pub in Dallas, Flipnotics in Austin, and Cibolo Creek Country Club and Casbeers in San Antonio.
Carroll’s 2000 debut, South of Town, produced by Lloyd Maines, served notice there was a new kid around who had something to say. Maines has since produced several Carroll projects, including Let It Choose You.
“The first two albums, South of Town and Looking Out the Screen Door, most of the songs came out in this huge writing spurt I had in a year, year-and-a-half,” Carroll says. “Some of the songs, if they stumped me, I’d get frustrated. But I read an interview with Neil Young where he said you sometimes have to go away from the song and come back to it. If it doesn’t come out right away, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.”
From the start, the fresh-faced Tyler kid was writing about the nitty and the gritty.
“A lot of the songs I wrote were like a pair of jeans, a shirt or a suit that were given to me at a certain age,” Carroll explains. “They were too big for me. When I wrote them, some came from experiences I had. But being lonely, having ex- wives, being in jail — at 21 I didn’t have those experiences. But I wrote about them. And I grew into them. The songs on this album, some certainly come from experiences I didn’t have at 21. Now I could have been a character in a song I wrote when I was 21.”
Carroll also has fallen under the spell of South Louisiana, captivated by the music, the food and the culture of Acadiana. Let It Choose You songs including “Bernadine,” “Tears in My Gumbo,” and “Good Behav- ior” are directly attributable to that spell. “I’ve always loved that music,” he says. “I don’t see how you can’t. I love the timing of the songs, the beauty of the language, and the sound of accordion and fiddle.”
And that dovetails with the experience Carroll has had singing his songs in places as far from home as Italy and Holland. “The world is different, but whatever appeals to people is the same,” he says.
As is the case with a lot of singing songwriters, Carroll’s early songs were straight-up solitary efforts. Over the past few years, though, he’s done a considerable amount of co-writing with fellow travelers, includ- ing Owen Temple, Brian Rung, Jeff Plankenhorn, Susan Gibson, Mark Jungers, and Michael O’Connor. It was with O’Connor that Carroll recorded the 2010 duo album, Hard Times, and Let It Choose You finds Carroll revisiting some of the songs from that set that co-writer O’Connor sang the first time around.
Carroll’s songs have been covered by Slaid Cleaves, Hayes Carll, the Band of Heathens, and Canadian troubadour Roger Marin. Carroll, in turn, has been known to cover a few songs himself, albeit mostly from one somewhat questionable source. For a number of years now, he and Owen Temple have balanced their own work with work that’s either a labor of love or borderline insanity. They’ve been collecting and recording the songs of Gary Floater, an elusive — some would say mythical — genre-hopping singer-songwriter from Miami, Mo. Floater’s music admittedly isn’t for all tastes; if H. P. Lovecraft had lived long enough to hear him, Floater’s songs (not to mention his harrowing tall-tales from the road) probably could have given him nightmares. Carroll and Temple’s recently released third Floater “tribute” album, Who Cares, features such obscure gems as “Let’s Get This Over With,” “I’m an Alcoholic,” “Two Boring Losers in Love,” and “Hello Diabetes.”
“There’s a small circle of Floater fans around Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, and they come out and support him even though he never shows,” Carroll explains. “As many times as he’s been beat up, he ought to have a metal cowboy hat. It’s hard to get kicked out of Cheatham Street, but Gary’s been banned for life. He’s an asshole, but, just when I’ve heard about enough out of him, he brings a smile to my face.”
Fortunately, Carroll’s got a more reliable and sensible reason to smile these day: his new wife, Canadian singer-songwriter Christian (Chris) Marie Carroll. The couple met in 2012 north of the border at Roger Marin’s Cicada Fest, and got married last year. Chris, who is at work on an album of her own with Robert Earl Keen’s bassist Bill Whitbeck, sang harmony on her husband’s Let It Choose You. In the liner notes, Carroll writes: “To my wife Christian, thank you for helping me find the courage to make this record. I love you.”
“I quit drinking three years ago. I was learning to be sober,” Carroll says. “I also went through a divorce. I had the songs, but I thought, ‘What do I do? How do I make the record? How much work is it gonna take? Why should I make a record at all? How do I square the new stuff with the old stuff? And Chris said, ‘Shut your mouth and go to your gig.’ She told me the songs were important and so was I. Then she said, ‘Go up to your music room and get your ass to work.’”