Did you know a songwriter is like a shark that never sleeps?
When asked to describe the process of creating a song, some writers, as we’ve already seen in this series, talk about their music first appearing to them in dreams. Others feel the act of writing is like tuning into a cosmic radio station, and yet others, perhaps secretly yearning for a chance to fly off into the great musical yonder and never return, claim it is like laying an egg.
So far, so surreal. But perhaps only a writer as steadfastly left-field and adventurous in his half-century of writing as Outlaw Country and Americana stalwart Ray Wylie Hubbard could describe a songwriter’s lot as being like “one of those sharks that never sleep.”
Hubbard even flaps his hand back and forth, Great White fin-like, as he says this, surely to give the unexpected link between jagged-tooth monsters of the deep and musical creativity some (bad pun fully intended) extra bite.
What Hubbard actually means by the shark intrusion, he tells AUK as he sups on a post-lunch cup of coffee and a log fire crackles cheerfully in the background in his home near Austin (it’s the middle of the day when we talk, but at the time the Texas Big February Freeze was fast approaching) is that “there’s no knowing when you’re going a hit on a moment of inspiration, that great ‘A-ha!’ moment songwriters talk about.”
So songwriting has a link to sharks because…”Whenever they [the sharks] see something, they grab it. And equally, you [the writer] should never disregard an inspiration, because you don’t know what’ll happen later on.”
Appropriately enough given the slightly creepy fish imagery floating around the conversation, Ray Wylie then cites a quote by the Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor, one of his favourites, to reinforce his point.
“She once said ‘Never second guess inspiration.’ In other words, don’t doubt it, you can always go back and re-write. But that phone may not ring again.’”
Rather than bring the sharks back into this, Hubbard then moves onto other scary animals and the conception of ‘Snake Farm’ written in 2005 for the album of the same name, and one of his most famous songs, by way of illustration.
“There’s no snake farms down at [the Texas town of] New Braunfels, it’s just an old tourist attraction that has a lot of snakes and it’s on the highway between Austin and San Antonio, probably been there 40 years, I’ve probably driven back and forth past it 10,000 times.”
“So one day I look over and go to myself ‘Wooh, snake farm, just sounds nasty’, and then the next thought comes through ‘well, it pretty much is’. And that was my ‘A-ha!’ moment.” As Hubbard says, he could have just “rolled it off”, but instead,, “I remembered that Flannery O’Connor quote about ‘never second-guessing inspiration’ whenever it hits, but songwriting is inspiration plus craft, so then I thought ‘what’ll I do with that?’”
“It came to me that I should make it a love song, about a man who doesn’t like snakes, who loves a woman who works at that snake farm, so there’s the craft part, describing how she works there, likes malt liquor, dances like little Egypt” – a semi-mythical belly dancer of the 1890s and, while we’re at it, also the central character of a B-movie with 1940s Hollywood star Rhonda Fleming – “has a tattoo of a python eating a mouse, plays music by a band named The Alarm…. that was how it came together.”
Crowning it all, of course, were those initial two lines that first struck Hubbard, now developed (a little) into a chorus with a low-key, laconic, singular charm all of its own:
“Snake Farm, it just sounds nasty
Snake Farm, it pretty much is,
Snake Farm, it’s a reptile house
Snake Farm, Uuuggghhhhh!”
‘Snake Farm’ makes it clear that embracing those A-ha! moments in the least probable of circumstances is something Hubbard is more than willing to do. But there’s an even more famous, zanily humorous, song from way deeper into his back catalogue that was born from an arguably even more unlikely scenario.
We’re talking, of course, about ‘Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother’ and the time in 1973 when Hubbard once chose the wrong bar (for him) in New Mexico to buy beer, thereby causing the first domino to fall in the series of events which, ultimately, melded together to form the song which pretty much set him on his musical career.
As he explains: “There was a real redneck bar where they had said if you have long hair” – as was the case at the time for Ray Wylie, given he was, as he once said, “living the life of a New Mexico mountain hippie” – “don’t go in there.”
“But I went in anyway and there was a little confrontation…. and afterwards I go back to the place where a bunch of us musicians were having a jam and I said ‘I almost got beat up’ and somebody said ‘well it’s your turn to sing, did you get the beer?’”
Placed like that both on the spot and under the metaphorical spotlight to perform what became the first version of ‘Redneck Mother’, (not to mention produce the beer he’d bought) Hubbard recalls that “When I had walked out the bar, though, there was a pickup with Oklahoma plates and a gunrack and a sticker that said ‘Goat ropers need love too,’” – three of the other ingredients that feature in the song – “so I just kind of made it up there and then.”
It probably doesn’t need pointing out that a huge number of other factors, rather than nearly getting the crap kicked out of him by a bunch of rednecks, can also influence the Hubbard songwriting machine.
Overall, though, “It’s about the inspiration plus craft and the craft can trigger an inspiration, like you get a groove or a lick or a chord progression, they work hand in hand,” Hubbard says. “But you never know when you’re going to hit that great A-ha!! moment.”
To go back to ‘Redneck Mother’ a moment, after first reaching the general public when it was covered by Jerry Jeff Walker in his live album ‘¡Viva Terlingua!’ (1973), ‘Redneck Mother’ had some curious unintentional side effects on Hubbard’s career, like gaining him an extended artistic name. This was all because at the insistence of a mutual friend and fellow Texan musician Bob Livingston and as the outcome of a longstanding joke between the two of them over their middle names, Livingston made sure Hubbard was namechecked by Jerry Jeff Walker on ‘¡Viva Terlingua!’ as RayWylie Hubbard, rather than plain Ray Hubbard, as everybody had called him up to then).
But for quite a while, the song itself easily outstripped its writer in terms of fame, to the point whereas Hubbard says in his own concert introduction to ‘Redneck Mother’, “right after you’ve written a song, the first thing you’ve gotta ask yourself is ‘am I willing to play it for the next – what is it now – 38 years?’”
While he makes it clear that’s just a way of presenting the song, rather than a real concern, it’s fair to ask if he ever regretted writing ‘Redneck Mother’, given how much it overshadowed a hefty chunk of his early career.
Hubbard takes a broad perspective on that issue, arguing, “When it first came out and I wrote it and Jerry Jeff recorded it and said on the album ‘this song is by Ray Wylie Hubbard’, that was the only thing I was known for and that was the case for a long period of time.”
“So I’d go into the honkytonks and they’d say ‘play ‘Redneck Mother’’ and I’d play ‘Redneck Mother’ and then I’d say ‘here’s another song I wrote’ and they’d say ‘play ‘Redneck Mother’ again!’”
“But now ‘Redneck Mother’ fits in the arsenal, and I have a whole bunch of cool songs – ‘Drunken Poets Dream’, ‘Wanna Rock’n’Roll’, ‘Tell The Devil’…. Now, I enjoy it, playing it again, people singing it out of key…it doesn’t bother me like it did a long time ago.”
As the backstories of ‘Snake Farm’ and ‘Redneck Mother’ strongly suggest, it’s usually the words that are pulled first out of Hubbard’s ‘A-ha!’ hat, rather than a tune. “I could take a groove or chord progression and put lyrics to it, but a lot of the time the idea comes first and I make them fit.”
And fast forward nearly 20 years, you’ll find there’s no lack of nuggets about the songwriting process itself in Hubbard’s latest work, too. On the song ‘Bad Trick’ on Hubbard’s latest album, ‘Co-Starring’ (2020), for instance, one line runs “You got to have some scars if you want to be a poet.”
Asked to explain that, he says “I enjoy writers that have been through something, because if you haven’t had any experiences, or only had good ones, you don’t have any scars, and what are you going to write is not going to be entertaining to me. You got to have a few scars.”
But if that observation is about other writers, Hubbard is at pains to emphasise too, that he appreciates how much his personal situation gives him room for creative manoeuvre – or margin for error, see it how you will.
“I always tell people I feel very fortunate to sleep with the president of my publishing company, which is my wife Judy,” he says. “ Because she said, ‘you write whatever you want to write about, if its wasps or Mississippi John Hurt or a conversation with the devil, you make the records you want to make and I’ll try to sell the damn things.’”
“For me, as a writer that’s a great place to be: it means I can write about wasps or a torn screen door and having that freedom…I’ve never been a mainstream writer with a Nashville publishing company and I have never written songs trying to get other people to record them.“
Interestingly, writing songs exclusively for himself is not something that Hubbard says he always wishes he hadn’t done, it’s more about having the choice. Because as he recollects, “Somewhere a long time ago I was doing a show with Waylon Jennings and he said ‘why don’t you write me some songs?’ and I said ‘What kind of songs?’ and he said ‘Waylon goddam Jennings songs, what do you think?’ And I really regret that at the time I didn’t.”
“But then there’s a quote from [German early 20th century poet Rainer Maria] Rilke which is “write it, not thinking about its future”, meaning – do the song, right here right now, not thinking about if I can publish this or get it in a movie.”
With that priority established, his songs can take on a life of their own, he says, that in the case of ‘Snake Farm’ or ‘Redneck Mother’ he never imagined would be possible. “And there’s ‘Wanna Rock’n’Roll’, a song with a nasty E groove which is all about jealousy and [sadly defunct Oklahoma Red Dirt band] Cross Canadian Ragweed covered it and I love what they did. But I didn’t write it for Ragweed to play it, they just said ‘hey man we want to do it.’”
Looked at from the other side of the fence, as it were, when it comes to which writers have influenced his own songwriting, it’s not just their music that can have an effect on Hubbard, it can be their life story and, even, how it’s told. For example, in Hubbard’s (highly readable) autobiography ‘A Life, Well, Lived’ , he mentions ‘I’m Your Man’ the Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen as one such example. As he explains to AUK, “as far as being a great songwriter, he’s among many – Dylan, Cohen, Townes, Guy Clark, I love those guys. But it’s the book itself that is really inspirational – I’ve got a signed copy over there and some of the pages are dog-eared. I would say it means as much to me or maybe even more to me than some songs.”
As for the early 20th century German writer Rilke he mentioned, it’s a similar story, partly because “his poems, they go way over my head. But that book he wrote, ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ – which contains ample advice about creativity – there are certain lines that jump out.”
“On ‘The Messenger’ – first recorded on ‘Crusades of the Restless Nights’ (1999) and re-versioned on ‘Co-Starring’ – I paraphrase one of his lines about “our deepest fears being dragons that guard our most precious treasures” because it meant a great deal to me.
Then there’s what he said about critics, how they “drone on and drool” , which to me means if someone gives me a bad review, I’m not going to let it affect me. Because I’m not writing to get good reviews. I really don’t write for any other purpose except to write.”
If the means and the end result of Hubbard’s writing are one and the same, as that last observation would seem to suggest, that makes songwriting sounds almost like a spiritual experience for Hubbard, rather than a material one. And you can maybe see elements of that same spiritual angle, too, when Hubbard argues, “Songwriting is a very mysterious business, it’s an anguish and a joy.”
“There’s an anguish over it to get it right. Even if it’s a goofy song like ‘Snake Farm’ I feel it’s valid because it’s well-written. I feel I didn’t slide over anything, it fits the metre and everything’s right for that.”
“So I care about it even if it was a kind of fun song. And songwriting’s a joy, because when it works, you can go ‘ah that line works!’ That joy: it counter-balances any anguish.” As for what the creative tension between those two elements can produce, in Hubbard’s case, there’s a whole half-century of songs to listen to, appreciate and enjoy – time and again.