Oklahoma-born but now based in Texas, Ray Wylie Hubbard continues to set the standard for the new boys while continually adding to his already well-stocked legacy of music. His latest album, Tell The Devil I’m Getting There As Fast As I Can (out now on Bordello Records via Thirty Tigers), still clearly ticks all the boxes. Americana-UK’s Maurice Hope chews the fat with the legendary songwriter and gets the lowdown on the new record, his influences, his time growing up as a songwriter and what it’s like to be an independent musician on the Americana scene these days.
What a fine bunch of players you have on the new record?
Thank you very much. This is the first album I have done in a while where I have produced myself. My friend George Reiff and me were going to do it but he passed away. He told me when I asked him about how you do it; he said you know how to do it. You make an album that has the grit, tone and taste and that’s all it takes. So I went ahead and made it. I tried to make a gritty album that had folky blues, good tone, and a deep groove to it. Hopefully, have some taste and not overboard with a lot of licks
That is one of the wonderful features of the record, the subtlety. It gives the musicians and lyrics space, and also allows the listener to use their own imagination?
I feel very fortunate in that I am not writing thinking about the future of the songs. I am not writing because I have a publishing deal. I am not promising twelve songs a year, and not writing songs for them to try and get someone in Nashville to record them. I have the freedom to write whatever I want. I can rewrite, and do my take on the story of Genesis. I can talk about Spider, Snake and Little Sun who are musicians and put my (own) idea about prayer. Maybe we just need to pray. I feel very fortunate to have that freedom.
On the song House Of The White Bouquet, you give a mention to Irish poets. It made me think about Dublin and such Irish poets as Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, and believe you would have fit in with those guys quite well?
Thank you very much. The idea for that song was kind of a cross between House Of The Rising Sun and The Long Black Veil. I have a ghost story set in a brothel, where a brothel used to be. You known Irish raconteurs and libertines, those are my people.
You talk about the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins on the record and Charlie Musselwhite on the song Dead Thumb King. A lot of the older guys didn’t have an easy life but were happy doing what they did.
I feel very fortunate and grateful now that I am now an old cat to be still travelling ’round and still have people come to hear me play. I have not been across the water in a while, but we are trying. We just can’t quite make it work.
He is a fine sideman having played with the likes of Eliza Gilkyson.
He is one of those ‘go to’ guys. He is an incredible musician. He’s also played with Alan Ramsey. Bob Schneider is another he plays with.
Bukka Allen also plays on the record?
Yeah, Bukka and Jeff come in on some special tunes. They would come in after Lucas and Kyle formed the base. It was just wonderful. He was great. After Ian McLagan passed away Bukka Allen is the closest we are going to get (McLagan of course played on my other albums), and when Bukka came in really brought it to life Hubbard enthuses.
On the title track you have not one guest vocalist, but two, in Lucinda Williams and Eric Church?
You know, I did not have to use guilt or shame for that to happen, not that I am above using that. I just asked them and they said yes. I just sent them the songs. It was very special for them to be part of it.
You have Patty Griffin join you on In Times Of Cold, she is undoubtedly one of the most focussed vocalists you have in Austin.
I tell you what, the last song is kind of about pleading your case before the court of heaven. So I figured what better to have the voice of an angel on it. Patty Griffin is that! She graciously accepted my offer to come sing on the song and brought a celestial and beautiful feel to it. No one else could do that. Her voice is so angelic. It is very, very special to have Patty sing on that song.
I don’t think she is always given the credit she deserves. The flame burns for a while and then fades.
It is a shame because she is phenomenal. She was doing that thing with Robert Plant for a while. Her own albums are just great. That Red album and all those records are just brilliant. She is just so sweet. She may be small in stature, but boy I will tell you what she is as powerful as they come.
I love some of the references made on the record like on Tell The Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can where you give mention to The Kinks and The Replacements.
That would be the band as a young guy I wanted to play in. Be a cover band, the material right there alone it would rock! My imagination there is fuelled as I think about them. I would go to see that cover band. It is not just the music, but also the mythology of those rock bands.
Could that be some Eastern influences present on the track The Rebellious Son during the opening bars?
Yeah, that was my attempt to do Jimi Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower and that whole psychedelic thing. On that track, I have this young psychedelic band from Texas Bright Lights Social Hour who are kind of like the 13th Elevators and the Black Angels. I had met them and asked them to come play on the record. They took me to a place musically I had never been before. They brought me that Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service thing. That whole vibe, I am grateful to them for taking me to such a place.
Who is currently in your band?
I have a young drummer named Kyle Schneider and my son Lucas on guitar. That is the nucleus of the band. Kyle just lays down the groove on a small drum kit and I play acoustic and Lucas plays all those country blues licks. It is a really good three-piece and I really like doing it like that.
How influential was Lucas’ guitar style on the album?
He grew up here in Austin. Ever since he was a little kid he would run into guys like Charlie Sexton, Jimmy Vaughan, Derek O’Brien or Seth James. Some of those Texas blues guys. I feel most fortunate that he grew up listening to the guys who aren’t playing the ‘look at me look at my licks’, or not guys that just play real fast. He’ll play the song and lets it breathe. There are a great many intellectual guitar players around Austin.
Who have been your greatest influences?
I feel very fortunate. I started off with folk music back in the 1960s and discovered Dylan, Woody Guthrie, all the songwriters including the Cambridge songwriters Eric Anderson and Paul Siebel. Then in my forties I got into the blues. I had seen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb so I really wanted to learn how to play like that. Right now it seems to be a good place for me to be able to put these folk lyrics onto a deep groove. It’s not the kind of stuff where I woke up this morning and have the blues. Hopefully, I can put in a little more depth and humour onto the deep groove. That is where I feel comfortable.
What gives you the energy to not only keep recording but produce full-bodied albums, concept or otherwise. You hold nothing back?
Thank you. I come from that old school I guess that still make albums, like when you used to put on an album and listen to the first track and flip it over and you’d start back over. I have always liked the idea of thinking it is almost like a movie where you go in there and on the first two or three songs you get to know the characters. Then there is love, loss, maybe betrayal and maybe there is some humour in it. Hopefully, I will always go for the sad ending. I feel good that all the songs fall together in sequence.
In country music, there seems to be less and less that have the appetite to go the distance. People like them are becoming less by the day?
There really is. It is like rock’n’roll has lost something. It is not as dangerous as it used to be as far as music is concerned. I am not talking about danger physically, but the dangerous image. It doesn’t have it anymore.
There are not many places musically you haven’t been before. After starting out in folk before being trapped into the country music of the 1970s, and now singer-songwriter music. As far as your involvement with mainstream country music the 1970s was pulling a lot of different ways?
Yeah, you had the progressive thing with Willie and Waylon but here in Austin, you had Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Murphy plus Guy and Billy Joe . It was a magical time. You had Gram Parsons and the Grateful Dead, that whole vibe, and The Byrds going country with their Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album. You had rock’n’roll guys playing country music. Waylon, Jerry Jeff and those guys they were songwriters first. The songs at that time were incredible. Today Nashville doesn’t have this. Hank Williams wrote his own songs, Lefty Frizzell wrote his own songs, and Willie did too! Now it seems like it is a machine. What made it special was all those guys, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe and Rusty Weir and all those guys were writing significant songs.
That was one of the things that attracted me to the music. Like you say, there were so many great songs being written from the late 1960s through the 1970s. You had Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver craft one great song after another. The body of songs written between them is nothing short of phenomenal.
I remember the first time I heard the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band do Mr Bojangles. It just jumped out of the speakers! Then you heard Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain and Tony Joe White doing Polk Salad Annie. The songs were just so incredible, but I really couldn’t name you the songs that do that today.
If it wasn’t for Americana music I don’t know what I would be listening too?
I know the feeling.
It is people like you who are keeping it going.
The Americana thing is so nice. We just did a show in Bristol with Amanda Shires and she is writing and performing from the heart. I think that is what it is. Back in the old days, I hate to sound negative but all those guys you mentioned, Kris, John Prine and those guys, they were songwriters. It was their lifestyle. It wasn’t their livelihood. Today in Nashville it is like we have to write this song and we got to get someone to cut it. So it is not so much lifestyle. Like Townes, when he came over to the UK, he would sleep on a pool table, or under a pool table. They were songwriters.
Townes’s connection to blues and folk music is incredibly tight. I tend to find his songs sound better with every play. There is always something new to be found in them. They are so rich lyrically.
One of my favourite records of all-time is Townes Van Zandt’s Live At The Old Quarter. He was in his prime. Later on, he kind of became sloppy but that record there was Townes just peaking. He had the songs and stage banter. He was just playing what he wrote. They made records whether anyone wanted to record them or not. Like I said it wasn’t so much about livelihood but a lifestyle.
Today, one of the only ways for people to come through with records steeped in such earthy quality and write the songs to go with it would be to travel the States and write about what they saw.
The Rolling Stones when they first came over to the States they travelled from Fort Worth to Lubbock (Texas) to be on a couple of radio stations, but that’s who they were. Doug Sahm when he came over to the UK and Europe he just did it, whether he made money at it was another matter.
You never know what might come out of those tours; people you meet and get to know, and possibly connect with as writers?
Oh, yes. Jeff Plankenhorn stayed with us for about three months. There have been others too. I am very proud to have written songs with Slaid Cleaves and Hayes Carll. People will ask me whom do I listen to? Well, actually I listen to my friends James McMurtry, Hayes, Slaid, Gurf Morlix and Sam Baker.
Would it be the fact Texas still had old-fashioned singer-songwriters that help you decide Austin was for you?
Texas has this. Some things about Texas could be improved, but the music is pretty good.
When it comes to writing, do you have to remove yourself somewhere quiet to gain inspiration?
It’s a combination of inspiration and the craft of it. Inspiration is what songwriters will say…the great ‘ah-hah there’s an idea for a song.’ It might be as they see something while they are driving along. Like with Snake Farm you might pass it a thousand times and think that sounds nasty, you never guess inspiration. Okay, I was listening to Spider John Koerner, Dave ‘Snaker’ Ray and Tony ‘Little Sun’ Glover and thought people need to know about these guys. So I got a little groove and wrote this song about them. It probably isn’t going to be a big hit single, but people might hear it and be encouraged to check them out! Writing is a mysterious process. It is an anguish and joy. I will anguish over the lyrics, even a goofy thing like Snake Farm to make it sound well written. It is such a joy shaping the words when it all works out.
Are you at a time in your life where you can set a good example in lots of ways?
You are so right. I feel most fortunate in that I have a son in Lucas who is a stand-up guy. He has his head screwed on straight. He has manners and I feel honoured to be on stage with him. He handles himself well. I think a lot of that is because he has been around musicians like Gurf Morlix and Derek O’Brien, Seth James, Stephen Bruton and Jeff Plankenhorn, who, apart from being great musicians and great guitar players, they are all stand-up guys.
Talking of Gurf, he has produced your music in the past. How do you find doing the job yourself on this record?
Gurf was in Canada and George was ill and couldn’t do it. I wanted it to sound like real guys playing. Those are my favourite records that sound that way. Like the first album by The Beatles, the first by the Stones, the first Buffalo Springfield and the first from Bob Dylan. They went in there and played. They did not have a lot of pedals and effects. It was guys getting in there and playing! So that is what I wanted to do on this record. You may not like the singer or the songs but you will like the way it sounds.
I understand the God Looked Around is influenced by the old field-hollers? Have you ever thought of doing an album of that ilk?
I have thought of making an album doing John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed songs. I start my show with a Lightnin’ Hopkins lick, but I keep writing songs (and need to find a home for them). So I have my own songs.
When did you actually move to Austin?
It is twenty-one years since my wife, Judy, and I moved here. We live in a small town a little south of Austin in a little town called Wimberley.
What is so special about Wimberley?
Well, one of my neighbours who lives right down the street is Kevin Welch. Andrew Hardin, who is a great guitarist, lives there and Susan Gibson, who wrote “Wide Open Spaces”. Slaid Cleaves, one of my dear friends, he also lives here. It’s an open community with a lot of my good songwriter friends living close by.
You have, of course, been a great influence on the likes of Slaid, Hayes Carll, and a guy who plays on the record, Jeff Plankenhorn?
Yeah, the first time Jeff moved down here he stayed with us for 3 or 4 months. We are about ready to start a new album, one that I hope to produce and work together with him.
Going back to when you were lived in New Mexico, did it shape your sound any?
Like I said, I started off in folk music and feel very fortunate that I was never really a country singer. Although I did write Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother that was kind of an anti-Fighting Side Of Me. I was more a folk-rock guy and was into that sound, The Band, Gram Parsons, Hearts And Flowers and The Byrds. Like I say, I feel most fortunate to have been in and around the company of Michael Murphy, Jerry Jeff, Guy, Townes, BW Stephenson and Steve Fromholtz who wrote powerful, very significant songs. It was such an inspiration to be around those guys.
What has been the greatest compliment you have been given?
Oh, golly. Having Patty Griffin, Eric Church, Lucinda and Bright Lights Social Hour play on the record for me that is a pretty good compliment right there. In the past, I have had Tony Joe While play on my record. To have these musicians who I respect to much play on my records is an acknowledgement in a way. To have the likes of Eric Church and Hayes Carll name drop me in a song and Blackberry Smoke name drop me in a song, that is a pretty high compliment right there. Slaid also did, but I’ve never been on the Billboard charts.
You tell a lot of stories in your memoir A Life…Well Lived you published in 2015. How is the book doing?
Yeah, we did it ourselves. It is only available on the website. People have paid me a lot of compliments on it. People thank me for telling the truth, coming clean about how I became clean and sober. Musicians come up to me and say, “I really like that bit about the e-chord and about inspiration and craft.” Other people come up and say how they like the bit Judy does at the end. It’s doing well for what it is.
Today, the big labels don’t rule everything in the world of Americana, a lot of the music is released by people themselves or on small labels. Do you think it takes the pressure off an artist giving them more freedom and control of their destiny?
A long time ago in order to make a record you had to have a record label say yes. They would give you the music to do it and would promote it. Or they might not. Today, you can make a record yourself. I believe Jason Isbell has his own label and its distributed by Thirty Tigers otherwise he is doing it all himself. So because of the use of the web with Twitter, YouTube and Facebook people aren’t just limited to listening to radio stations – the corporate conglomerate cesspool that is radio. That sounded strong, didn’t it? I think you are right because the artist isn’t depending upon the record label. Now, you don’t make a lot of money but make more on touring. To answer your question, it does give you this dependent spirit.
Doing it this way an artist isn’t left in limbo, twiddling their thumbs waiting for the big label to move.
Like I mentioned before, I don’t have to write my twelve songs a year because of a publishing deal and try to get the likes of Kenny Chesney to cover my song. I am writing what and when I want. I decided to write about Genesis, a ghost in a brothel and a band I would like to be in. I think it comes back to lifestyle and it being your livelihood. There are great songwriters all over the world playing in clubs and not travelling on tour buses but are writing songs, and consumed by the gods to do so. It gives you an independent spirit to write and depending on someone to say yes to make a record.
What is next on your agenda apart from touring?
A lot of people ask about my finger-picking style and dead thumb groove, so I am going to do some instructional videos, podcasts or YouTube videos They should be out sometime next year.
As for your style of playing, where did you pick that up?
I thought, ‘man I want to play like John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, and Mance Lipscomb’ and wanted to learn how to do that. So I got into that. Since I become older, I like to learn new things. At 42, I learned finger-picking, then open tuning, then slide and then I got a mandolin. So, by me learning new things, even as an old guy, it gave the songs something that wasn’t there before. If it weren’t for open d tuning I would not have written God Looked Around and In Times Of Cold. If I had not learnt open G I would not have got the song Open G.