By Max Stewart
Ray Wylie Hubbard is about as real as real gets. While countless veteran Country musicians make a career singing to arenas about their rugged, honky tonk lifestyle before heading back to their five star hotels for caviar & champagne, Hubbard still hits the road at intimate venues with the same esoteric Texas singer-songwriter charm that he has had for years. And he even sticks around after the gig till the wee hours of the night to chat and take photos with fans. The real deal.
Hubbard flirted with mainstream success after penning the song “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” which was released and performed by Jerry Jeff Walker, but he is best-suited as a progressive country storyteller. The 70-year-old singer’s gravelly voice tells tales that range from god to cocktail waitresses to guitar tunings, with songs anchored by primal yet twangy grooves. When I sat down with him before his show at Hill Country in Washington, D.C., Hubbard could not have been more genuine and accommodating. In fact, when I mentioned to him that I was a guitarist who was struggling to master finger picking, he immediately spent 25 minutes with a guitar and two sheets of paper charting out a lesson and exercises for me to practice (still working on it, Ray!). That is just the kind of guy he is. The real damn deal.
His latest record, Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast as I Can, is deeply existential but still easy to chew on. Pick it up today, and check out some of my personal favorites “Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast as I Can” (with Eric Church and Lucinda Williams), “Old Wolf,” “Prayer,” and “Lucifer, and the Fallen Angels.”
I think these days there is a real thirst for authentic music, which is evident in the success of musicians such as Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. Lyrics seem to be a focal point of these loosely-defined, ‘Americana’ acts. You have been called a musical poet and I hear your influence in a lot of modern songwriting.
Do you find you are getting exposure to younger listeners in the wake of this songwriter renaissance? Do you have any thoughts on the state of the genre now?
If you really think back, Americana like 10 years ago was pretty much Lucinda Williams, the Jayhawks, Kevin Welch, Joe Ely. And now because of the web and satellite radio it has really opened up. It’s been really nice to see songs and songwriters that have some depth and weight to them. And guys like Jason [Isbell], I have done some shows with him. It’s pretty solid that foundation of guys picking up a guitar and writing songs for the right reasons.
I agree. And a lot of people discover music in so many different ways these days. A fan of Isbell or someone more modern could then discover you ‘through the back door.’
It really is cool, Hayes Carll name dropped me in a song and Blackberry Smoke mentioned me in “Good One Comin’ On,” and Eric Church mentioned me in “Mr. Misunderstood.” And I’m going, ‘That’s weird, why me?’ And the Cadillac Three called me up and asked if I would open some shows for them and I said yeah. And we did three shows with them. We did Houston, Dallas, and New Orleans. They called me up and wanted me to do this tour with them, and I looked at schedule and said, ‘I’m not going to Detroit in February (laughs), I will do New Orleans.’
It has been really very fortunate that these guys are mentioning me and throwing me a bone, whatever it is (laughs).
It is great that you are hip to social media too, specifically on Twitter which can be a great medium for promoting music as well as interacting with fans.
I feel very fortunate because I have never been a mainstream writer, you know? And people are finding me on that, I have never had radio hits or anything like that. I wrote “Redneck Mother” 45 years ago that’s about it (laughs). But because of all of this, kids are finding me.
You just released a new record, Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast as I Can. You talk about spirituality a lot in your music, but it has seemed to be a recurring theme particularly in your recent releases. All of it feels very heartfelt, but with a fair share of clever playfulness.
Why do you gravitate towards spiritual and after-life driven lyrics, is it a conscious decision or just the inspired place that occupies your mind as a songwriter?
Well, I prefer spiritual awakening to religious conversion. And I do not follow any one dogma or go to church, I kind of a spiritual mongrel I suppose. I follow certain spiritual principles no matter what religion they’re from. It’s not something I am conscious of. I read a lot. Everything from mythology to hinduism to buddhism to Native America to the history of church. It’s because I really enjoy that and I enjoy reading. I am not really conscious of it when it happens when I am writing.
On the new record, I started off with “God Looked Around,” where I tell the story of Genesis and the fall of man and why snakes don’t talk any more (laughs). And then I kind of go into some of my influences, like ya know, Spider John Koerner, Dave “Snaker” Ray, and Tony “Little Sun” Glover. And “Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast as I Can” is kind of my rock ‘n’ roll fable. It’s about the idea of a rock ‘n’ roll cat throwing an amp in a car and going and playing. And then falling in love with a tattooed woman who really knows how to cuss.
And I kind of end out the record the idea of prayer. So you get these ideas. And I love throwing little digs in there.
Sure, it keeps it earnest but also lighthearted.
And in that one song “Prayer,” I put a little diss in there and circle around and kind of cover myself. You know as you get older, you start thinking about your mortality more. And I mention this on stage, but I kind of hope god grades on a curve (laughs).
That’s a great a line (laughs).
I’m not Mother Teresa but I’m not Atilla the Hun. I feel very fortunate to be able to write and not think about the future of what I am writing. I am not writing because I have a publishing deal because I have a publishing deal and need to give a publisher 12 songs a year. I am not trying to get Tim McGraw to cut one of my songs. I feel very fortunate to have the freedom to write and not have to worry about mainstream country or record companies for a source of revenue. I write whatever the hell I want to write.
That is a great position to be in, and enviable among many musicians I am sure.
Well it is great and I love that freedom. Removing fear and doubt and just writing. Not worried about what a Southern Baptist is thinking. I don’t have to worry about it, I just write.
It is lucky that you can do that and maintain the spiritual part of the songs, so it doesn’t feel taboo.
It is kind of like what you were saying with those guys Sturgill SImpson and Jason Isbell who write without fear, they’re fearless. There are certain writers that also come to mind like Slaid Cleaves and Hayes Carll and they just write fearlessly and that is what I try to do.
So I went to school Texas, so the state has a special place in my heart. I know you sing about your home state a lot (see “Texas is a State of Mind” and “Screw You We’re From Texas”). I have told people it is nearly impossible to define the vibe of Texas unless you go there.
To you, what makes Texas so unique not only as Texan but also as a Texas songwriter?
Well, Texas has a big ego. But it can back it up with its history. The Alamo and that whole Texas Rangers history.
Really, Texas has a lot of pride. As far as songwriting, that song “Screw You We’re From Texas” was actually written against Nashville because it was about the music. The song was originally “Screw You Nashville, We’re From Texas,” but I was told to just make it bland, so I did.
The songwriters there, you have Blind Lemon Jefferson, and you know the old guys coming up there in Deep Ellum. And Lightnin’ Hopkins. And of course Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Billy Joe Shaver are kind of the holy trinity of anybody now in Texas or Oklahoma. They have to be aware of those guys, they set the bar pretty high. You don’t see a lot of guys in Texas or Oklahoma picking up a guitar and saying, ‘Well I want to write like those guys in Nashville writing for publishing companies.’ You know what I mean?
You mean those people in cubicles in Nashville writing songs? I guess it feels less like a business in Texas maybe…
Oh yeah, they’ll have like four guys write a song for somebody. And somebody asked me about the difference between Nashville and Austin, and it is kind of the difference between livelihood and lifestyle.
In Nashville, it’s livelihood, you try to get a cut. A songwriter trying to get someone to cut his or her song. And in Austin, it’s lifestyle: ‘Well, I’m a songwriter. Whether I get a cut or not I will be writing songs, playing in funky places.’
So it is kind of that sort of vibe. Texas having a sense of songwriting history.
And there are so many authentic venues down there where bands cut their teeth, and you honor the old Dallas club Mother Blues in “Mother Blues”. Wish I could have seen that place!
[At this point, Hubbard’s son and touring guitarist Lucas is in the room as well].
[Points to Lucas] His mother worked there when she was 16, ran away from home (laughs). I didn’t really know her there, but it was an incredible club. It was just a funky house there but it was great because, you know, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Buffett played there for first time, and all the Rock guys would go there after their concerts. Led Zeppelin showed up.
And there would be poker games upstairs. My favorite picture is of me and Freddie King. It was a good learning place in Texas for a young band. Not to name drop or anything but when we went up to Levon Helm’s place in New York and we were talking to Levon and he had this theory that the reason that these young guys that just don’t have the chops is because they didn’t play four, 40-minute sets a night. You know when Levon would play he would have to play “Corrina” and “There Stands the Glass.” And you get your chops.
And so a lot of these guys get a guitar and get their song on the charts, and they have a 75 minute set and that’s it. And you ask them to sit down and play “Johnny B. Goode” and they really can’t.
It’s kind of that deal going up to play the blues in these great folk clubs, like seeing Townes Van Zandt play to a few hundred people back in the Seventies. Live at the Old Quarter by Van Zandt is a great, great record and captures the feeling in Texas with all the folks clubs in the Seventies.
As a guitarist, I love that you always mention unique gear and alternative tunings in your songs. Sort of nuances of the guitar world.
What would be your most coveted guitar rig you would want to play if stranded on a deserted island?
Oh gosh.. I got an old Gibson. It’s hard to explain. It’s a 1949 J-45 neck but a 1958 Southern Jumbo body.
I found that neck when I was driving through Arkansas and in some gas station, and I pull in this gas station in the corner they got this guitar neck and this bucket with a little vine going up it. And I go, ‘What’s that?’ and the attendant says, ‘That’s my planter.’ I went over and looked at it, and he says, ‘You wanna buy it? Whole thing one hundred dollars.’ But it was a 1949 neck and my friend Tony Nobles got an old body and a 1958 Southern Jumbo body. So there it is.
I got a full page picture of that guitar in my book (“A Life… Well, Lived”). [Hubbard proceeds to get me a copy of the book and show the picture of the guitar].
There it is, a full page! So that kind of shows you what is really important to me!