Wimberley, TX — Given that they don’t come around all that often, the announcement of a new collection of Adam Carroll songs is always cause for a certain amount of celebration by discerning aficionados of quality Americana music. Mind, nothing too showy or over-the-top, because that would be at odds with the whole modestly unassuming and quietly impactful nature that’s long been such a key part of Carroll’s charm — but a celebration just the same, as is warranted any time the world is gifted a new album by the artist who, in the estimation of none other than Jon Dee Graham, “may be the best songwriter that Texas ever produced.”
And the announcement of not one but two brand new Adam Carroll albums? Well, that’s really next-level big news, the kind perhaps best parsed out — and celebrated — a little at a time. So for the moment, let’s just focus on the first(!) one: I Walked in Them Shoes, the acclaimed songwriter’s ninth release (counting two live albums and 2010’s Hard Times, a duo project with fellow Texas troubadour Michael O’Connor) and first outing since being honored in his own time by his friends, peers, and heroes with 2016’s all-star Highway Prayer: A Tribute to Adam Carroll (Eight 30 Records). Fan-funded through Kickstarter and set for an April 12 release on his own Gypsy Shuffler Records (with artwork painted by the aforementioned Graham), it’s arguably the most intimate and unvarnished Carroll performance ever captured inside a studio.
“We did it all in one day,” Carroll marvels of the session, which went down in December at the Zone Recording Studio in Dripping Springs, Texas, just a few miles outside of Austin and even closer to his new home in the Hill Country hamlet of Wimberley. And although all of his previous studio albums have utilized a full band, trio or at least one session ringer for a backing, this time around the “we” in question was just a party of two, with Carroll and producer Lloyd Maines playing every note on the record while engineer Pat Manske manned the controls. Carroll notes with a laugh that one point Manske, who also mixed and mastered the album, played harmonium during the tracking of the song “Cordelia,” but Maines ultimately insisted on Carroll playing the part himself during overdubs.
“It was embarrassing, because I really don’t even know how to play that thing,” Carroll admits with a laugh. “Lloyd did the bellows part of it and he had to basically put my hands on the keys to make it work, which was kind of humbling, because I thought I knew something about music! But the cool thing about it that I came away with is, even though a lot of my overdub parts maybe don’t sound as refined as Lloyd Maines’ overdubs might have, it all does sound a little more like me. So that’s good.”
And it of course goes without saying that the 10 new songs on I Walked in Them Shoes all sound very much like quintessential Adam Carroll, too — even the four (title track included) credited as co-writes with others including O’Connor, Dustin Welch, HalleyAnna Finlay, and Chris Carroll, Adam’s wife and go-to touring and duo partner onstage. Carroll has grown a lot as both an artist and a man in the 21 years since the release of his 1998 debut, South of Town, but his songwriting chops were fully formed from the very start of his career. The only real difference between then and now is that rather than “just” sounding like a shy kid from Tyler, Texas, with a precocious gift for casually knocking out songs favorably compared to such masters as John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clark, Carroll at age 44 is now long regarded by many as a master song poet in his own right. Slaid Cleaves, who like Hayes Carll recorded his first Carroll cover years before taking part in the Highway Prayer tribute alongside fellow fans like James McMurtry, Terri Hendrix, Band of Heathens, Walt Wilkins, Tim Easton, and Aaron Lee Tasjan, once aptly pegged Carroll’s craft as “artisanal songwriting”: “Never gonna be sold at Walmart, but it’ll remind the fortunate few that great songwriting can connect you to your neighbors, your fellow humans, even your own jaded heart.”
True to that high-standard form, the songs on I Walked in Them Shoes find Carroll connecting in ways that ring both universal and deeply personal. The title track, co-written with his long-time friend Brian Rung and rising Americana/honky-tonk star Paul Cauthen, ostensibly began as “a song about the Flying Burrito Brothers,” imagining “them as guys about our age, and what it would have been like to be in their situation” — though of course it could just as easily be about any band or artist who’s walked that long walk, Carroll and his own circle of fellow gypsy shufflers included. “Cordelia” is a love song to his wife, enriched by the wisdom and enlightenment Carroll’s gleaned over the last three or four years from reading a book she gave him, Entering the Heart of the Buddha by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “Crescent City Angels,” co-written with his wife and O’Connor, continues Carroll’s hot streak (going back to Hard Times and much of his last album, 2014’s Let It Choose You) in finding inspiration in the fertile thick of Cajun country and the Gulf Coast, and he honors two of his biggest mentors — his producer Maines and the late Kent Finlay, longtime proprietor of the legendary San Marcos, Texas, honky-tonk and songwriter’s den Cheatham Street Warehouse — in “My Only Good Shirt” and “Night at the Show.” The former, first heard as a “bonus track” on the tribute album (the only song featuring Carroll himself), plays like a light-hearted, first-person dad joke befitting Maines’ reputation as one of Texas’ most accomplished but down-to-earth musical luminaries. The latter is as poignant and eloquently rendered a character portrait as any song that Carroll — or for that matter Finlay’s own hero, Kris Kristofferson — has ever written, an instant Adam classic on the level of “Errol’s Song,” from his 2000 sophomore album (and de facto “greatest hits” set), Lookin’ Out the Screen Door.
“Kent was a rock for so many people in the music community of the Texas Hill Country,” says Carroll. “I consider myself lucky to have known him, and I miss him … more than I can put into words.”
But doubtless Finlay, who died on March 2, 2015, would have been deeply moved by Carroll’s tribute, even if he couldn’t resist suggesting a tweak or two. Finlay was such a believer in Carroll from early on that he reportedly came out of early club-running retirement just to give the young songwriter a regular, nurturing venue to play and grow his audience. Two decades later, Carroll is still paying his champion back in kind by writing the best songs of his life — and apparently at a pretty good clip of late, too. Because as teased earlier, I Walked in Them Shoes is just the first new Carroll album of 2019. The day after he and Maines recorded those 10 songs, they went right back to the Zone and knocked out a whole other record of more new songs with Adam’s wife, Chris (a performing singer-songwriter in her own right). That project, a duo album called Good Farmer, is due out later this year.
“At one point we had talked about trying to do a double album, but Chris was pretty insistent on separating them,” Carroll explains. “I guess she didn’t want to ‘disappoint’ the hardcore fans who might like to hear me solo. But we wrote a lot of songs together that I was really excited about, because I thought they sounded different than a lot of things either of us had ever written on our own. So we ultimately settled on doing two records, but having them be companion pieces.”
But, for the moment, pretend you don’t know any of that, because Good Farmer can be unpacked and fully appreciated on its own in just a few month time. But first, walk or drive a few hundred miles breaking in and properly savoring the 10 songs on I Walked in Them Shoes. Because every great Adam Carroll album deserves its own time in the spotlight … and celebration.