Ray Wylie Hubbard's Big Machine Records debut Co-Starring, out July 10, allows its co-stars to claim something even bigger than taking part in Hubbard's recent career highs. The likes of Aaron Lee Tasjan, The Cadillac Three, Pam Tillis, Paula Nelson, Elizabeth Cook, Tyler Bryant, Ashley McBryde, Larkin Poe, Peter Rowan and Ronnie Dunn can forever boast that they appeared on the same album as one of The Beatles.
The Fab Four member in question, Ringo Starr, performs on opening track "Bad Trick" alongside a pantheon of rock gods: the Black Crowe's Chris Robinson, award-winning bassist and producer Don Was and Starr's brother-in-law, Joe Walsh.
Starr's appearance on Hubbard's first departure from independent releases since 1975 culminates several years of friendship between a pop culture idol and a renegade poet.
"About six years ago, a friend of mine here in Austin said, 'Ringo Starr's talking about you on his website,'" Hubbard says. "I go to his website, and Ringo's saying, 'This is what I've been listening to. George Martin sent me some mono Beatles tracks, here's Dylan's thing and here's Ray Wylie Hubbard's 'Snake Farm.' Then six or seven years ago, I was playing out in Santa Monica and this fellow came by to the gig there and said, 'My name is Brent Carpenter, and I do all of Ringo's videos. I'm the one that burned him a copy of 'Snake Farm.' Ringo's playing the Greek Theatre tomorrow night, and he'd like to meet you.' So my drummer and I went out there and met Ringo, and he was really gracious and fun. He spent a lot of time with us.
"It's kind of grown from there," Hubbard adds. "We've gone to see him play, and he invited me up to his house for a while. It just all came together. Then about two years ago, we were in Santa Fe, my wife and I, seeing the All-Stars play at the Opera Theater there. He asked me what I was doing, and I said, 'I'm making this record with other people.' He said, 'If you need a drummer, please let me know.' I thought he was just being kind of gracious and everything."
Starr approached his session with Hubbard without a hint of ego.
"He puts you so at ease and he's fun and gracious," Hubbard says. "The thing is, he's a musician and entertainer and songwriter. I think that's why he still does it. That's not only what he does. It's who he is."
Despite a longstanding friendship with Starr, Hubbard still has trouble wrapping his head around who's drumming on "Bad Trick."
"I'm kind of amazed at how it all came about," Hubbard says. "When I was in 11th grade in high school, I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in '64. Here it is over 50 years later. How strange is that?"
Big Machine Records, an independent label distributed by Universal Music Group, might seem like an odd fit for Hubbard. Yet label founder Scott Borschetta convinced Hubbard to join the label home of Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts.
"I said, 'Scott, I'm an old cat. I'm an old folk, blues, roots cat. I don't really sell a lot of records.' He said, 'Well, we're going to see if we can remedy that,'" Hubbard explains. "It was an opportunity we couldn't pass up to be on Big Machine. They've been very gracious and helpful, and their team has been first-class."
Friends' positive experiences with Big Machine eased Hubbard's mind when he signed his first big-time recording contract since an ill-fated run with Reprise in the '70s.
"I looked at their roster, and I'm not commercial country or any of that stuff," he says. "I see they've got Sheryl Crow and Cadillac Three, and that's kind of where I fit."
Hubbard might not consider himself a Nashville-friendly country artist, but he's embraced by that world. Examples of this include Eric Church's Hubbard namedrop in the song "Mr. Misunderstood" and Tillis' role in lining up Hubbard's Opry debut at age 72.
"I was at the Nashville airport getting ready to fly home, and I hear this voice behind me go, 'Ray Wylie!,'" Hubbard says when asked about Tillis. "I turn around and she goes, 'It's Pam Tillis. I recognized the back of your head.' I guess there's a benefit in cutting your own hair."
Hubbard says he's got six songs completed for a Co-Starring sequel, and he teased an appearance by the country music equivalent of a Beatle, Willie Nelson.
Co-Starring Track List
- "Bad Trick" (featuring Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Walsh, Chris Robinson)
- "Rock Gods" (featuring Aaron Lee Tasjan)
- "Fast Left Hand" (featuring The Cadillac Three)
- "Mississippi John Hurt (featuring Pam Tillis)
- "Drink Till I See Double" (featuring Paula Nelson & Elizabeth Cook)
- "R.O.C.K." (featuring Tyler Bryant and The Shakedown)
- "Outlaw Blood" (featuring Ashley McBryde)
- "Rattlesnake Shakin' Woman" (featuring Larkin Poe)
- "Hummingbird" (featuring Peter Rowan)
- "The Messenger" (Ronnie Dunn & Pam Tillis)