Texas songwriter Hayes Carll had a mantra in mind when recording "What It Is," his sixth studio album.
It ended up as the anthemic chorus for the title track, "What it was, is gone forever, what it could be, God only knows, what it is, is right here in front of me, and I'm not letting go."
He wrote it to remind himself "about being in the moment and appreciating what I've got," he said in a phone interview.
"Ray Wylie Hubbard said once, 'The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations are good days," he said. "And that really resonated with me and was something that I was trying to apply to my own life."
The album, released earlier this year, was recorded in Nashville with longtime producer Brad Jones and his fiancee (now wife) Allison Moorer, a singer-songwriter who helped pen many of the tracks.
He focused on connecting with his material and writing about things that had meaning for him. Those include tunes like "What It Is," an uptempo country track, break-up songs like "Be There," and more topical lyrics, which were new ground for Carll.
One of the earliest songs they recorded was the downtempo "Fragile Men," written with songwriter Lolo. In an essay for No Depression, he said that it originally was born of her frustrations as a female artist, but grew in scope after the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended in the death of a counter-protester when a man deliberately drove his car into the crowd.
Lolo made a video with images of neo-Nazis and Klansmen to back the lyrics, with lines like "the whole world is exploding/and I know it feels so strange/it must make you so damn angry/they're expecting you to change."
Carll posted the video on social media and soon found himself at odds with his own fans.
"That got a really surprisingly negative reaction — surprising to me," he said. Unexpectedly, "a lot of people kind of came out to tell me to keep my mouth shut, or that I was discussing a problem that doesn't exist, or that I needed to just … shut up and sing, that they didn't come to me for my politics."
Subsequently, he wrote a number of songs, "If I May Be So Bold," "Times Like These," and "Wild Pointy Finger," that explore that very issue.
"Do I want to listen to those voices or not, and ultimately I decided I do not. I want to speak my mind where I see fit, and I think to some degree that is my job description," he said.
(One line is something like a statement of purpose: "There's a whole world out there/waiting full of stories to be told/I'll heed the call and tell 'em all/If I may be so bold.")
Carll is aware that, unlike an underground punk band with mostly progressive fans, he has a broad base of listeners, and he's not setting out to alienate anyone. ("I hope they're happy. I want people to dig my stuff," he said.)
"My audience is probably in a large part conservative and doesn't agree with my political views, and I don't need them to, or expect them to. What I would like, in art or in society in general, is for us to be able to express our views and debate them respectfully without denigrating each other or lumping each other into the 'other' category. I feel like that loses our humanity and respect for each other," he said.
"Times Like These" specifically addresses his "frustration with the vitriol, the labeling, and the lack of respect for each other," he said. He added that he "wants and expects" politicians, including those at the highest levels, to unite the country instead of trying to divide it.
Carll has been lauded for his wordplay and storytelling, both of which are in full view regardless of the subject.
"Jesus and Elvis," written with Moorer and Matraca Berg, is based on a story that may not be true. He said there's a bar in Austin where they leave up the Christmas lights year-round. They were told the owner promised her son that she would keep them up until he came from Vietnam. Their lyrics set a vivid scene through details like the velvet paintings alluded to in the title.
Not long after they wrote it, it caught the ear of country superstar Kenny Chesney.
"He liked it, and wanted to cut it, and I didn't want to get in the way of that," he said. It was released on his 2016 album, "Cosmic Hallelujah."
He admires Chesney's version, and for "What It Is" they tried to cultivate a different sound. For instance, there's a brief, shuffling interlude with horns that conjure images of a half-empty dance floor.
"To me, it feels like you're in the bar and there's these different chapters to the story."
Moorer brought ideas like horns, and the tasteful use of strings on "Be There."
Lyrically, "What It Is," stays true to his prior work. It's stocked with lyrics that feel like they could be old aphorisms or sayings.
"I'm always looking for that in language, those things that feel universal. And sometimes they're just out there. People say things in conversation or you hear stuff that is close to that, and you kind of tweak it and make it something that feels like it's been around forever, and there's some times where I just make s--- up," he said.
As an example, "If I May Be So Bold" has a line that goes, "Some men do the conquering and some men do the wheel."
"It doesn't mean anything, but it felt like it did, and sometimes that's more important than the actual meaning," he said. What matters is that the listener searches for one.
"I like that trick as a writer. I've got a line on a song from years ago that is, 'She's pretty as a plate,' and I don't remember why I wrote that, it just felt right to me. I don't think I've ever heard anybody say that, but it's a line that I have people constantly coming up to me and quoting because they connect with it," he said.
If he was pressed to pick the phrase apart for a literal meaning, it wouldn't go anywhere.
"In song, there's a freedom to do that, and to write things that just feel like they're in the air," he said.
And if pressed to describe his work, Carll said he calls himself a songwriter, with roots in country, folk and rock.
That's a songwriter first. The tunes on "What It Is" are notably airtight and compact, with only one edging toward the 4-minute mark.
"If there's anything I'm constantly trying to do, it's figure out how to pack the same emotional punch into a shorter form and get better at that, and being able to tell the same thing, and express the same emotion in 10 words that I could in a hundred," he said.
"I think that there's a real skill in being able to minimize that. It's like Picasso had the series of drawings where he never took his pen off the paper, and it's the three lines, and in the songwriting form, I think brevity is a good thing," he said.
Farther down the line, he's thinking of an acoustic EP, and perhaps a full honky-tonk record.
"I'm having fun exploring different styles and different subjects to write about, and I'm just kind of going where that leads me right now," he said.