Interview: Ray Wylie Hubbard on storytelling and second chances

Ray Wylie Hubbard

The Mill — Sunday, Sept. 18 at 7 p.m.

Ray Wylie Hubbard -- photo by Courtney Chavanell
Ray Wylie Hubbard — photo by Courtney Chavanell
Ray Wylie Hubbard is a Texas singer and songwriter probably best known for penning the song “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother,” made famous by Jerry Jeff Walker. That song represents a different time for Hubbard — one before he reclaimed his music, his career and his sobriety, before starting a family. Hubbard reinvented himself and, slowly, a new generation of music fans and critics alike have embraced him.

Last year, Hubbard released his latest album, The Ruffian’s Misfortune, an album that continues the gritty, blues-inspired rock and folk he started with 2006’s Snake Farm. He also published his autobiography, A Life … Well, Lived, which is a collection of stories from his life and career along with tips and advice structured loosely, like his Facebook posts. Hubbard still ends every show performing “… Redneck Mother,” both because it is a crowd favorite and because it’s an integral part of his journey — how he got here. On this tour he brings his 23-year-old son Lucas, who is a gifted guitarist and is mentioned in the song “Mother Blues.”

I talked to Hubbard on Labor Day following a busy weekend, in advance of his visit to The Mill on Sept. 18 (tickets are $22). He was full of funny stories and a real passion for his career. He is someone who doesn’t take for granted what he has. In “Mother Blues” he also says, “and the days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well, I have really good days.”

So how’s your weekend?

Pretty good, pretty good. We played up in McKinney (Texas) at kind of a roadhouse thing Friday night, then last night we played the Kerrville Folk Festival, which is an old folk festival here in Texas that’s been here for thirty, forty years and I used to play it a long time ago and I hadn’t played it in a while, so it was nice to go back down there and, you know, touch base with your beginnings and your roots every time. So, it was a good weekend.

And today you are doing an interview.

Yes, you bet.

Your holiday is full, anyway.

It is, it is. You know, the thing is it’s not really a regular holiday, because even though it is Labor Day, I’m working on songs — I’m getting ready to record, I think, in October.

I was going to ask you about what you had coming up. So you’re going to be in the studio in October?

I think so. We’ve got some stuff that I already recorded that I’m going to mix. I went back and re-cut some of my older stuff that I had done, you know, twenty years ago. I went back and had re-cut them with a little different groove and a little different grit. And so we’re going to mix those.

I just got into your music starting with A. Enlightenment … so I really wasn’t versed in your extensive previous career. So, for me, you start at the country/blues tunes shuffle you have going on now, which I really dig. So it’s cool to hear you’re going to try to reinvent a few of the earlier ones that didn’t sound that way.

I started out in folk music back in high school. Of course, back then there was the Dylan thing and then you know all the Cambridge folk singers: Eric Anderson, Paul Siebel — all those cool guys. And of course I’ve known Guy [Clark] and Townes [Van Zandt] down here which were incredible writers. And then you know I’ve seen Lightning Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb play and perform and I feel very fortunate about that. But I never got into that guitar playing. I thought that was way beyond me — that fingerpicking — the Lightning and Mance stuff. In my forties, I just said, “Well, you know, now’s the time to do it.” I didn’t really have a career anyway so why not? So, I got into that Lightning Hopkins, dead-thumb groove and really listened John Lee Hooker and really got into the blues that I listened to as a kid and never really knew how to play it. So, I got into fingerpicking. So, I feel really fortunate — it’s a good marriage having that background in folk music where the lyrics are so important. But then trying to lay that onto a low down dirty groove — I just thrive on that. So that’s kind of where I am right now.

There seems to be a kind of honesty to that style of music anyway — your lyrics always had it, but the music is kind of timeless I think.

You know, like I said, I feel very fortunate to have seen Lightning Hopkins and Mance and those cats. It was pretty mesmerizing. Right now there is that whole kind of Americana thing going on. It’s really great that you get a bunch of young kids going back into, really, the roots of it. You know, going back into that folk and in the blues thing but then as far as country going back beyond — you know — going back into the Jimmy Rogers and Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. And, the lyrics are so important.

I feel really fortunate as an old cat — I’m not writing because I have a publishing deal. You know I’m not writing because I have to give 12 songs a year to some publishing company. I’m not writing songs to try to get someone to record them. I’m just writing songs that I think are kind of gnarly and cool. That’s a good place for me to be. I’m not writing thinking about the future of the songs. I’m just writing whatever the hell I want to write about — which is really a good place to be. You know that my wife kind of runs the record label and says, “Here, you write whatever you want to write and make the greasy record, and I’ll try to sell the damn thing.” (laughs) So, that’s a good a good place for me to be as a writer.

It’s kind of a renaissance thing right. I mean, at the same time you’re kind of reinventing your own music, you’re also kind of taking over your whole career.

Well, yeah, you know, I say I’ve had kind of had a checkered career. I was a folk singer, and … the whole Kris [Kristofferson], Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff [Walker] playing that Outlaw … everyone down here [in Texas] kind of got into that. At the time I was in like a folk rock group but we got it kind of caught into that. And I’ve never been a country singer or, you know, really in the music business. (laughs) You know? I was never like a Nashville cat at all. I don’t know, I just feel grateful that I’m able to pay most of my bills and have the freedom to write and play what I want to, you know?

It’s interesting: I did an interview with Iris DeMent, and she spent some time in Nashville and it was good for her, but it’s kind of a double edged sword and some people feel like they’ve gotten their breaks from it but at the same time the whole industry machine is still sitting there.

Yeah, yeah. That’s something I agree with. The other day someone asked me who I listened to, and I go, “Well, actually I listen to my friends.” (Laughs.) Musicians that I know. I have no idea what is going as far as record sales for country music or award shows. I listen to folks like James McMurtry or Hayes Carll and Gurf Morlix, The Black Angels — all my friends here in Austin.

Ray Wylie Hubbard -- photo by Courtney Chavanell
Ray Wylie Hubbard — photo by Courtney Chavanell
You mention Gurf Morlix. The first time I heard your music, I thought, “Well this sounds like recent Lucinda Williams stuff and then I noticed that Gurf Morlix worked with her and worked with you. Is how you ended up coming to this kind of sound?

Pretty much. Like I say, I’ve known Gurf through Lucinda back when she was living here in Austin. And I met Gurf, gosh, actually when he was playing with Blaze Foley. But after he and Lucinda kind of parted ways, we ran in each other and just started working together. It was just a great, great combination with my songs and his ability to usually bring them to that place where there’s a cool rawness about it. The thing I learned from Gurf is that it’s about “grit, groove, tone and taste.” You gotta have some grit to it, the right tone, a deep groove and taste — where you’re not just playing wild. So yeah, Gurf’s kind of got his own thing where he’s a singer-songwriter. He’s been flying around the world doing that and we haven’t had a chance to work together in a while.

Speaking of tone … the thing I’ve noticed in quite a few of your songs is that you like to call out music gear in it. As somebody who owns more gear than my ability justifies, I certainly appreciate hearing stuff about Vibrochamps and Silvertones and Tremoluxes.

Yeah, well, you know — that goes back to being able to write about the things I enjoy. I can write about guitars and tone. I’m not trying to write a top 10 country hit. I can write about Jesse Mae Hemphill and Charlie Musselwhite. I can give a shout-out to people that are there that I’m aware of that … mean so much to me … So, I can write about gear and tone and throw in some off-kilter God reference. I know there’s a few people out there get it, and if some people don’t, then that’s OK, too.

Then it just has to rhyme, right?

(Laughs) Yeah, yeah.

Last year was busy for you; you had your your most recent album, The Ruffian’s Misfortune, and then you did your book, A Life … Well, Lived. Obviously, your songs are storytelling and you do a bit of storytelling on stage. So it seems to make sense that you tried your hand at writing a book. How did the process for writing a book compare to songwriting?

Well, you know, the book didn’t have to rhyme. (Laughs.) That was an advantage! But, I put on the book “with Thom Jurek,” because I wrote everything, but Thom kept poking me with a stick. He said, “You need to do this.” I’d send him an email with an old story, and he’d say, “You need to tell this; what happened here?” So, he’s the one that kept me going. Writing to me was kind of a joy and an anguish. You anguish over it, you want to make it right and make it cool and it’s a joy when it works. One of the hardest parts was going through all of the pictures — you know, “the wreckage of the past.” I’d find a picture of me and Willie Nelson, and I’d be like, “How cool is that?” But, then, it would be from the 80s, and then: “Oh, wait a minute! We both have MULLETS.” So, maybe you couldn’t use that — so there was some anguish over the pictures.

I talk about how Stevie Ray [Vaughan] was really instrumental in helping me get clean and sober. And, after I got clean and sober that was when I wanted to be a real songwriter and I started learning how to fingerpick — like Lightning, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt. So, I talk about that and I talk about how at 41, 42 I was all washed up. In my late thirties, I was pretty much just a bar band. Playing bars, getting drunk and doing all that shit. So then I kind of made a conscious thing: I will be a real songwriter and I thought, I need to learn to write songs and I’m not going to compromise. So, I talk about the inspiration and the craft of writing songs.

So, I enjoyed the process, but I also enjoyed it when it was done! (Laughs.) I’d never done a book, so we took it to a book printer in Austin, and I said, “Here’s my book,” and they said, “Where’s your table of contents?” So, I had to go back and write a table of contents that night. So, I said, “Here’s what I’m going to do: I’ll give you a table of contents, but I’m not going to give you an index, because all of my buddies are going to go to the bookstore and look themselves up in the back and that’s all they’re going to read!” (Laughs.) They’re only going to do an ego scan! But, I’m really glad I did it. I’ve had a number of people come up and tell me they really appreciate it, the honesty.

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