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Despite his skills, Carroll would seem to be a man of modest goals. He has released two albums on his own Down Hole label, South of Town and Lookin' Out the Screen Door, and he journeys the Lone Star State and beyond plying his wares in almost classic troubadour fashion. "I think it's kinda cool to be a merchant and sell your shit and all that stuff," he says.
Such unpretentious pursuits can't conceal the artistic influences heard in Carroll's music. His raspy pipes, aw-shucks delivery and talent for divining gushers of poetry from characters who would seem to be dry holes have invited deserved comparisons to John Prine, as well as evocations of Van Zandt, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. That heady praise has yet to go to Carroll's head. Although he admits the Prine citations are "a good comparison," he feels they stem mainly from the fact that "people are gonna compare you to somebody," he says. "I'm a little bit intimidated by that sometimes, because I wonder if they really think I'm just who I am. But on the other hand, I've listened to a lot of Prine, so it makes sense. I take it as a compliment. It's better than being compared to Britney Spears, although it wouldn't be so bad if I looked like her."
Carroll was raised in Tyler, Texas, the son of a lawyer father and a music teacher mother, who both imparted their love of song to him. "The way I got into singer-songwriter music was because of my dad. He'd have these big parties, and they'd be playing John Prine and Willie Nelson and people like that. My mom liked James Taylor," Carroll recalls. "I remember I used to go in the car and listen to all that stuff, so it's in my subconscious. Later, I got back into it on my own."
Carroll spent seven years in junior college searching for a direction while also dealing with the effects of his palsy-induced learning disabilities. "But I knew that I liked poetry and storytelling. I just never really knew it until I started doing it," he explains. "I took piano lessons when I was a kid and played saxophone when I was in the high school band, but I never did stick with it. I always liked music a lot. My granddad was a jazz musician in the '50s. He played with Gene Krupa for a while. He played alto sax. One time he was on a bill in Tyler with Hank Williams. I got [exposed to] Charlie Parker with him one time; he turned me on to that. It's kinda neat to hear his take on stuff. He never did like the kind of music I play."
In his late teens, Carroll taught himself to play guitar. "I wanted to be like Joe Walsh or something, but I only knew two chords," he says. "Then I went to junior college and started taking classical guitar and started teaching myself, listening to Bob Dylan and John Prine, people like that. I first started playing gigs at coffee shops. I tried to play like Dylan and Robert Earl Keen and Guy Clark. And finally I started writing my own songs and mixing those in."
At the same time, Carroll also was playing shows as a classical guitarist. "I started really liking the classical, but I was never very good at reading music. I took a lot of lessons, but I wasn't any good at musical theory because the math part of my brain sucks."
After winning a songwriter contest in a Dallas club, Carroll was invited to open shows there. At an annual spring songwriter gathering, he met producer and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, who was impressed enough with Carroll's talents (Maines now refers to him as "a genius") to offer to make an album with the aspiring composer. Although the resulting South of Town was a limited pressing -- Carroll plans to rerelease it soon with a wider distribution -- it did contribute to his burgeoning buzz.
What captured the ears of astute listeners was Carroll's ability to evoke meaning in his characters' lives. These could be real people like the Louisiana rice farmer in "Errol's Song" or his favorite comic strip characters, "Blondie and Dagwood," all of whom populate Screen Door. "That's the only songs I ever write: story songs," he notes. "There's a couple songs I really know about, but the rest of them come from older people or friends, and that I've shaped my own way."