Interviews

Ray Wylie Hubbard Talks Songwriting, Growth and Legendary Career

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Near the end of the autobiographical song “Mother Blues,” Ray Wylie Hubbard says, “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well, I have really good days.” That sense of appreciation, it comes across when speaking with the legendary troubadour. There’s an ease in his voice. You almost feel like you’re doing him the favor. Almost.

That humility transcends speaking with him for an extended period too. You hear it in his songs and see it throughout his catalog. While most songwriters tend to rest on their laurels as they age, Hubbard has not. Conversely, Hubbard has continued to adapt and learn. At the age of 41, he began learning various fingerpicking patterns. It soon revolutionized his songwriting method and approach. It didn’t stop there though. Over the years, he picked up various tricks of the trade to accent his songwriting abilities.

While he’s never been one to stop riding a good horse, it’s never been a one trick pony show either. Albums such Eternal & Lowdown, Delirium Tremolos, Snake Farm and others throughout his career feel like cousins that branch off from the same foundational trunk. They’re all rooted within rootsy American storytelling and music, but there’s calculated nuance and different shades of storytelling throughout his 17 album career. He morphs into various bluesmen, gambling ramblers and doubting sinners throughout. There’s a dark humor that adds a clever chuckle to the shadowlands and the haunting daydreams so many of Hubbard’s songs inhabit. Still, there’s a web that connects them all that’s undeniably the voice of Ray Wylie Hubbard.

More so, rather than chide the next generation of songwriters, Hubbard lends a helping and mentoring hand to so many who have come after. For someone who has taken nods and notes from a laundry list of known and unknown bluesmen and folk singers, it comes naturally for Hubbard to give out his own advice to others. Songwriters such as Hayes CarllCharlie Shafter, Dalton Domino, Jonathan Tyler and a bevy of others all look to Hubbard as some kind of songwriting guru.

Wide Open Country caught up with Hubbard earlier this week for a lengthy discussion about his storied career, songwriting and constant progression as an artist and storyteller.

Thomas Mooney: I thought we’d start off on some of your early Red River, N.M. days. You played a few summers out there. You hear stories about that time, but what was it really like out there during those summers?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: I guess that started right after we graduated from high school. Richard Fowler, Wayne Kidd and I went up there and played a little BBQ joint each night. We’d get up there and play for people. There wasn’t really a whole lot of music happening. There was a place called the Black Mountain Playhouse where some of these rock bands from Oklahoma would play. They’d come out and play stuff like “Louie Louie” and “Twist & Shout.”

The summer after that, Rick and I got jobs driving Jeeps and we’d sing in a little restaurant with a banjo and guitar and walk around tables play. Wayne Kidd, he’d gotten a job at Frye’s. Rick and I, we’d do these fake gunfights. It’d be were these inept bank robbers would try to rob the bank and there’d be a shootout. Rick and I took turns being Silly the Kid. There wasn’t a whole lot of music happening though. I think we’d gone up there for about two summers before we said, “Well, let’s open up a little place.” So we opened a little coffee house called The Outpost. There wasn’t a lot for families to do. There was the bar, The Black Mountain Playhouse or old movies. Some square dancing. We opened The Outpost and ended up having some really good crowds. It caught on. So our friends would pass on through. Steven Fromholz, Jerry Jeff Walker, B.W. Stevenson and Michael Martin Murphey, they’d play at our place on the way to Colorado. It became a little bit of a stopping point between there and Austin.

It was—I don’t want to say magical—but it was really fantastic the way these great songwriters would pass on through and play our little club. That kind of got the whole thing going. I guess we ran that for about four or five years. It was cool little mountain town. Bill and Bonnie Hearne came through. Neil Young came through one time and played. It was just a cool vibe.

TM: Sounds like it. There’s something about these small secluded areas that draw in a few artists and then eventually become something special. You kind of saw that happen down in Marfa and other places. They’re just little pockets of time and place.

RWH: Yeah. It’s kind of the same thing that happened with New Braunfels. KNBT, Gruene Hall, Cody Canada, Wade Bowen, and all those guys really got that going. Here in Wimberley too. My neighbor down the street is Kevin Welch. Andrew Hardin, the guitar player, Susan Gibson and many others all live here. It’s a cool little area. It’s nice that those little pockets are out there.

TM: Three Faces West, how many records did you guys end up recording?

RWH: I think we did one with Rick and Wayne and I believe they did another one after I left.

TM: I think it’s really interesting to see how much you’ve shifted and grown since those early days. Granted, that was nearly 50 years ago. But you went from being in a folk trio to being associated with progressive country to doing this mix of country blues and rock & roll.

RWH: I look back on it and I feel really grateful that I started off in folk music. There’s more of a focus on the lyrics. They’re really important. In that time, you find Bob Dylan. Through him, you discover the Cambridge Songwriters like Eric Andersen and Paul Siebel. Of course, down here in Texas, you have Guy Clark and Townes [Van Zandt]. You get that foundation.

In my forties, I got more into the fingerpicking and what I call a dead-thumb groove. Having been influenced by these great folk singers and songwriters—Michael Murphey and Jerry Jeff—it was all just a really good schooling. There’s concern over the lyrics. Now, it’s just a really comfortable jacket for me to wear. It’s not for everybody [laughs].

TM: Right [laughs].

RWH: There are those who are condemned by the gods to do this kind of thing.

TM: You’ve talked about how some folks just don’t understand the irony in some of your songs—the first being “Redneck Mother.” For my count, it’s one of the first songs where you list off a bunch of attributes to tell a story rather than having a linear narrative so to speak. You’ve done it a few other times. Few others have done so too.

RWH: Somebody else told me this. They’d gone back and done some kind of history on it and how it was something like the third song ever to mention the word “redneck.” I guess it was kind of the first to bring that to the forefront at the time. This was way before the whole “You might be a redneck” thing.

It was kind of an answer to “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Our country at the time was very turbulent—kind of like it is today. You had the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, hippies and right-wing rednecks. It was meant to be kind of ironic. During these riots, like Detroit in ’68, the big expression was “Up against the wall! Up against the wall!” when the police were arresting people. It was a phrase that was said during that era. Then it was really ironic when Jerry Jeff recorded it. It was kind of like Willie Nelson at The Armadillo. You had the rednecks and the hippies together because of the music. With “Redneck Mother,” you had the redneck guys singing along to it at The Broken Spoke. It’s still a mystery to me. It was a protest song in a way but done really tongue-in-cheek.

TM: Right. A lot of the great protest songs, that irony is oblivious to the people you’re being critical. “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen for example.

RWH: Yeah. It was really interesting seeing Jerry Jeff play it in these honky tonks. Course, Jerry Jeff was just fearless.

TM: Right. Now, when it comes to creating characters and different perspectives, do you have to go to a specific headspace and really shut most things out or do you kind of think about them in the back of your head at all times until you figure out what their intentions are for the purpose of a song?

RWH: Well, I guess my example would be A Streetcar Named Desire. You had Marlon Brando in this torn up t-shirt and just kind of this regular guy. But what he was saying brilliant. I think what I’m able to do from time to time is put on this persona. Like with “Snake Farm,” he’s just kind of this guy and all of a sudden, he’s just in love with this woman. There’s not really a set thing I do to get into the persona. The song kind of dictates who’s going to sing it. I think that’s kind of the freedom that songwriting has. You can write from a different perspective from who you really are. There really isn’t an easy way to answer your question. Songwriting is just a mystery.

TM: Right. I think sometimes we can forget that songs aren’t necessarily all a first-person account or view from the writer. You mentioned Dylan before. How many versions of Bob Dylan are there? I think you end up with just small slices of the “Real Bob Dylan” in his songs. You can do that with a bunch of songwriters.

RWH: Yeah. It’s all very mysterious, but cool when it works.

TM: Now, I would say that for you specifically, there’s a section of your song catalog that is specifically you. They’re songs that are only ever going to be able to be sung by you. Songs like “Mother Blues.” But even there, do you think you’re presenting “Ray Wylie Hubbard” as something a little different than who you actually are?

RWH: That song there is probably 95% fact. Judy was a door girl. I have that Les Paul. I used to go with a dancer. As you said, no one going to be able to sing that [laughs].

I’ve mentioned this before in other interviews, but I feel very fortunate that I’m sleeping with the President of my record label—which of course is my wife Judy. She says, “You write whatever you want to write about. If you want to write about Spider, Snake and Little Sun, you write about it. You want to write about a funeral of a call girl in Dallas, do it. You write the songs you want to write and make the records you want to make and I’ll try to sell the damn things.” For me as a songwriter, that’s an incredible freedom. I’m not writing for a publishing deal. I don’t have to give them 12 songs a year. I’m not writing to get Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney to cut my songs. I’m not writing thinking about the future of a song. I just write the song. That’s an incredible freedom.

TM: A lot of the great songwriters, they’re influenced by other mediums in art. You typically find that they’re well-read individuals. Have you ever tried your hand at writing things other than songs?

RWH: Well, I wrote my book (His memoir, A Life Well…Lived). That was an interesting exercise. I’ve written a screenplay, which kind of broke my heart when it was done. You familiar with that—The Last Rites of Ransom Pride?

TM: Actually, I’m not.

RWH: I wrote a screenplay with a guy named Tiller Russell. You ought to check it out. I was originally going to do the music. I did some of the music but had to walk away when they brought in another music director who I butted heads with. But I wrote the screenplay and they filmed it. It was really—if you can look past the editing and the score—it’s not really a bad movie. The editing and score kind of didn’t work for it. But that was a really good exercise.

I’ve written some short stories but I’ve never published them though because I didn’t feel like I wanted to get my heart broken in that field too [laughs]. The movie though, it started out really well. It’s really cool though when you write something and then folks like Kris Kristofferson, Dwight Yoakam, Lizzy Caplan and Peter Dinklage say the lines you wrote in a movie. That’s pretty cool.

TM: One of the big themes in your songwriting, is the gambling motif. The song “Dust of the Chase,” it has one of my favorite lines ever. I’ve probably thought about this line more than most. “Patience is a virtue that I don’t possess” is so damn good. I think it’s incredible insight and commentary on humanity.

RWH: It’s kind of like that saying, “Don’t ask God for an opportunity to learn about patience or you’ll have that opportunity [laughs].” When I was younger, I played a lot of cards. I played poker with Freddie King a couple times in Dallas upstairs at Mother Blues. Freddie King and all these old rock guys. It wasn’t so much the winning or losing, but it was for the loving of the game. The term wasn’t fellowship since it was so cutthroat, but it there was something about it. My dad played cards too.

Life is a gamble though. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you walk out the door. I’ve always like that image of the old Maverick from the TV show. It’s The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in The Hustler.

TM: Right. I’ve always thought there was an aspect of gambling being the temptations in life—trying to steer clear of your vices but succumbing to them every once in a while.

RWH: Yeah, it’s kind of like the whole mindset of the gambler is trying to defy the Gods of fate. You’re trying to create your destiny by trying to defy fate. You just never know.

TM: Right. That’s an interesting point. Also with “Dust of the Chase,” you recut it. What made you want to re-record it?

RWH: That first version is kind of folky and kind of early on. When I was working with Gurf [Morlix], we kind of put a little more of a darker spin on it. That was the one they used in Hell or High Water. That was really nice of them. That soundtrack is a hell of a soundtrack too. Anyways though, we’d put more of a darker spin to it since I’d gotten into more of a groove thing at the time.

TM: You mentioned earlier how learning to fingerpick really revived your songwriting. Did it also kind of reinvigorate your drive?

RWH: It really did. I’m an old cat now, but it’s a thing I’ve learned. I keep trying to learn new things. My twenties and thirties, I just kind of strumming the guitar and half-ass wrote songs. I did a bunch of drugs, drank beer and peed. That’s pretty much it when I look back on it. When I got clean and sober, I wanted to be a real songwriter. I learned to fingerpick. Then it was open tunings. Then I learned slide. After that, I got a mandolin. So by learning new things, it gives a song a door that wasn’t there before.

If I hadn’t learned Open D tunings, I wouldn’t have got “God Looked Around” or “In Time of Cold.” If I hadn’t learned Open G, I wouldn’t have got the song “Open G [laughs].” I wrote the song “Without Love” on the mandolin. So learning new things, it gives a song a door that wasn’t even there before. I try to learn different tunings and fingerpicking patterns.

TM: Do you remember what the first song you wrote after getting into fingerpicking? One where you went “Oh, OK.” A light bulb moment.

RWH: I think it was the song “Just to Hold You.” Then they all kind of followed. “The Messenger,” “Dust of the Chase” and so on.

TM: You’ve really been involved with a lot of up-and-coming bands and songwriters too. You’ve collaborated with a lot of folks. Does that also keep you tapped into what’s new and fresh?

RWH: Well, I’m not new and fresh. I’m old and about half-ass rotten [laughs]. But yes, it does. It’s kind of like a free song—because it’s usually something that I wouldn’t have thought to have written. Getting together with Slaid Cleaves when we wrote “Wishbone.” You know, I went up and wrote a song with Eric Church. How weird is that? It was really cool though. Course, he mentioned me in that song “Mr. Misunderstood” and then called me up in Dallas and we did “Screw You, We’re From Texas” up at the American Airlines Center for 20,000 people. Then when they inducted me for the Heritage Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, he came down and performed with me. He’s really a standup guy. He said he had an idea for a song so I went up there and we wrote a song. I think he ended up recording it and maybe on his next record. He’d said he had this idea about this desperate man. We wrote it. Then I wrote with Liz Rose and Ronnie Dunn. They’re songs that I may not have come to the table with. It was their ideas and I just kind of did my little thing with them. I really enjoy that.

TM: I remember when Eric name-dropped you, I think my first thought was A) that’s really cool, but soon after B) did he do that for some kind of indie street cred or was he a superfan?

RWH: I asked him that—how I ended up in that song. He said when he was writing it, they looked over on his turntable and there Jeff Tweedy, me, and Elvis Costello. So we said, “why not?” He said he’d been a fan of mine for a long, long time. He was very familiar with a bunch of my songs. I don’t think he needs me to give him any street credit [laughs]. I felt very honored and flattered. You know, for an old cat like me, it’s cool when you’re namedropped. Hayes [Carll] did it, Blackberry Smoke did it and now Eric Church.

TM: You know though, you do it a lot in your songs. You talk about a bunch of old blues players and folk writes. It’s pretty apt that you’d find your way into someone’s songs.

RWH: Oh yeah. It’s like with Spider, Snake and Little Sun. When I was growing up, that was my record (Blues, Rags and Holler by Koerner, Ray & Glover). I’m not a great singer, but those guys basically told me I didn’t have to be Peter, Paul & Mary or Tom Paxton with these great voices. It also does mean a lot to me when someone comes up and says they’d never heard of Charlie Musslewhite or whoever until they heard me sing about them. It’s great when some young kid gets turned on to them. I enjoy paying it forward by paying it back.

TM: Another one of those collaborations was with Jack Ingram for “Dallas After Midnight.” Did you have that in mind to be a duet from the get-go or was it originally just a solo idea?

RWH: It first started out as a solo song. It was just this badass robbing a liquor store. But when we were cutting it, it just kind of dawned on me that it’d be cool if there was this old bank robber with this young bank robber guy. So then who better than Jack? I called him up and he came over and did it. It’s kind of one of these “Racing in the Streets” type of stories. It made sense that’d it be where one guy runs in to rob the liquor store and the other was the getaway driver. It just kind of dawned on me, of all the people I knew, if something went wrong, Jack would probably still be there. Hayes would’ve driven off and left me [laughs].

TM: I’ve always really liked that song. There’s that whole being poor in Dallas thing. Those characters always felt really grounded in reality. You mentioned Gurf Morlix and that change in tone earlier. That was really around the Eternal And Lowdown album. What went into that shift and transition into those real dark tones?

RWH: I think somewhere in there, once I got into the fingerpicking and started writing songs like “Dust of the Chase” and “Without Love,” I started learning slide. With slide, you’re going to go right to early Muddy Waters. I got into that and then found this old Lightnin’ Hopkins record that really wowed me. I remember seeing him perform and it just being so powerful. It’d be just him and guitar. He’d have on sunglasses and a suit. White socks. He’d plug into his Fender Blackface Twin Amp. It was just incredibly powerful. From there, it was onto John Lee Hooker. Then, of course, Jesse Mae Hemphill and that dead thumb groove. I’d found a DeArmond pickup and put it on my acoustic guitar and BAM, there you go! That’s the Lightnin’ tone. So now I have these old DeArmond pickups on about eight guitars because I just love that tone. I don’t know if it’s evolving or devolving, but it all just felt so comfortable. This is where I should be.

Gurf was just the perfect guy to take that and not polish it up. I remember we were recording some song with slide. It may have been “Three Days Straight.” Anyways, my slide hit the wood and made a big clunk so I stopped. Gurf came over my headphones asking why I stopped. I said told him why and there was this long pause and he said, “Lightnin’ Hopkins wouldn’t have stopped [laughs].” All of a sudden I realized. You never know what may happen after that clunk. You may do some incredible lick you may never be able to redo ever again. That was a good thing to learn. You keep playing. It’s performance over perfection. I’m thinking about getting that tattooed somewhere—maybe on Lucas [laughs].

TM: I think that shift in tone, that’s kind of what you think of when you think of your songs. It’s the dark tones and the dark songwriting. I think it’s one of those things that really amplifies your lyricism—especially those themes of good vs. evil, light vs. the dark, you contemplating and questioning mortality and what not.

RWH: I appreciate that. Like with a song like “Lucifer and The Fallen Angels,” there’s a lot of jokes that are a lot of fun. There’s some humor in there. I don’t feel restricted in being just a “dark material guy.” Look at Townes. He wrote some of the most incredible and dark songs. On stages, he was fun and witty. He had this personality that you fell in love with. I think he told the same joke for 40 years, but you didn’t mind.

TM: Right. I’m not sure many songwriters are comfortable in adding humor to dark subjects. One of the things you’ve done time and again is humanizing the monsters. It’s the whole sympathy of the devil thing.

RWH: Yeah, right. Had The Rolling Stones not written “Sympathy For the Devil,” I’d have written it. It kind of comes down to where these old myths—Greek and Viking mythology especially—the gods had some personality. They were vain and self-absorbed. They’d come done and mess with humans. Putting a real personality to the devil and whatnot is fun. Like the line about having Lucifer say to call him Lou. I thought, “no one’s ever said this. That’s kind of funky.” It’s not like anyone is going to cut that song and put it on the radio. But in the record format, it works. I’m still an old cat who wants to make albums. I try and make them where it’s a movie. The first song is the intro and the last is where the credits are rolling.

TM: Right. I think you can take it even further than that. I don’t think it’s necessarily where all your records are telling the same linear story or anything, but when you take a step back, they all work in unison. You see these themes pop out. You do bring up mortality a lot. Wondering if sins from the past are going to have consequence.

RWH: Right. It’s like the song “Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can,” hopefully that’s being taken metaphorically [laughs]. Hopefully, that’s not seen as a prophecy. But I don’t mind writing about certain subjects that maybe others won’t write about.

TM: I think some of those have a dreamlike state quality. “Conversation with the Devil,” “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell” and “Stone Blind Horses” for example. They have that aspect to them.

RWH: In a way, yeah. I think that’s a good way to put it. They’re not songs completely literal. It’s not cut and dry. Sometimes songwriting is like this ethereal experience. If you’re really doing it right, you’re just in the present of writing it. I think they’re kind of spacey in a way.

TM: I think most think of you as a songwriter first, but you’ve done your fair share of covers as well. “Choctaw Bingo” is probably the most famous, but you’ve done “Torn in Two,” “The Beauty Way,” “Coochy Coochy” among others. What does a song have to have for you to want to cut a version?

RWH: Well, they’re songs I wish I’d written [laughs]. That’s pretty much the sole reason. I have songs that I’ve written that I think are pretty good, but will never record. The whole basis is really wishing I’d had written it.

TM: “Choctaw Bingo” is really the modern Texas-Oklahoma epic.

RWH: Yeah, it pretty much is a deranged version of The Grapes of Wrath. When I heard [James] McMurtry do it, I just loved it. When I got with Gurf to do it though, we really greased it up. And on the album version, that’s actually McMurtry playing guitar. I felt pretty honored by that. I have to agree with you though, it’s the definitive Texhoma song.

TM: I’m sure you felt the very much the same way when you first heard it, it reminded you of some old crazy uncle or something.

RWH: Right. And all those places are true too. Club 69, the Will Rogers Turnpike, that McDonald’s. It just captured that kind of feeling. I do it and get to that specific verse about Ruth Ann and Lynn and say “I can’t sing this” and then the crowd sings it. I enjoy doing that.

TM: You know, I’m still surprised there isn’t a band out there called The Bois d’Arc Fence Posts.

RWH: [Laughs]. The Bois d’Arc Fence Posts, I’d go see that band. I may have to start spreading that around. Maybe see if Lucas wants to start a band called that.

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Ray Wylie Hubbard Talks Songwriting, Growth and Legendary Career