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Hayes Carll: Honky-Tonk Prankster

"KMAG YOYO" is a military slang term that translates approximately to "Kiss My [You-Know-What], Guys — You're On Your Own." That message seems to have inspired country rocker Hayes Carll, a 34-year-old Texan with a reputation for irreverence. Carll's fourth album, out this week, is titled KMAG YOYO and Other American Stories.

Carll makes music in the mold of John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle — singer-songwriters who are steeped in the traditions of country music, but who often stretch the genre's boundaries. On this album, Carll nods to yet another bard: The structure and melody of "KMAG YOYO" are clearly modeled on Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues."

Carll isn't reinventing the wheel here. "KMAG YOYO" uses a country-music convention — the soldier's lament — to tell a very unconventional story of government intrigue. The borrowed music serves his words, which are about the surrealism of modern military life, just as Dylan's song was about the surrealism of being a civilian in mid-'60s America.

Carll's magic, when he pulls it off, is balancing wiseguy wit with emotion. His last record, 2008's Trouble in Mind, parodied songs about finding religion with its bitterly funny closer, "She Left Me for Jesus." The new album continues in that spirit with "Grateful for Christmas," a ballad whose humorous lyrics about a family gathering barely mask the pain behind them.

Like Trouble in Mind, much of KMAG YOYO is voiced by a boozy, hard-luck, honky-tonk narrator who has a lot in common with Carll himself. If that character sounds more empathetic this time, it's because Carll's art is getting sharper — and because, times being what they are, hard luck is growing more and more familiar.

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Will Hermes
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