Interview: Ray Wylie Hubbard on being an Old Cat and that song

How a group of friends have helped bring Ray Wylie Hubbard’s songs to their biggest audience.

Most songwriters can only dream of writing anything approaching a classic song, but some of those who do are not entirely comfortable with the disproportionate impact a single song can have on their longer-term career. One such writer is a hippie English Major from the University of North Texas who spent some of his time in Red River, New Mexico. The hippie bit is important because parts of Texas and New Mexico were far from safe for any longhairs in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and this particular hippie wrote a song about his experiences with the locals called ‘Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother’. The hippie was Ray Wylie Hubbard, and it was his friend and supporter Jerry Jeff Walker who brought that song to a wider audience with his 1973 album, ‘Viva Terlingua’, which also includes the first recording of Guy Clark’s ‘Desperados Waiting For A Train’. Jerry Jeff’s cover brought instant attention to Ray Wylie Hubbard who struggled to build a successful recording career from it. However, an older and wiser Hubbard re-activated his recording career in 1992 after a break of eight years, and over the last thirty years, he has established himself as a very respected songwriter. How respected is made clear by the variety of guest artists playing on 20220’  ‘Co-Starring’ and 2022’s ‘Co-Starring-Too’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Ray Wylie Hubbard in his home just outside Austin via Zoom to discuss the new record, ‘Co-Starring Too’, the lifelong legacy of ‘Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother’, and what it is like to hit the commercial peak of his career in his ‘70s. The humour that was at the heart of that song and in a lot of other songs he has written over the years was also in evidence in the responses Ray gave to certain questions. Also, Ray Wylie Hubbard expressed genuine modesty at the calibre of guest artists who were more than willing to share in his music.

How are you?

I’m an Old Cat now, but I’m still making some rock, I’m still making some folk, and I’m still making some blues so I’m a happy guy right now.

Why ‘Co-Starring-Too’ and how much of a pandemic record is it?

Because there were still some people and friends I hadn’t used on ‘Co-Starring’, and if you get a good horse you just ride it. It just kind of came about, I had had the Bluebonnets come in on ‘Only a Fool’ and each song told me who should be on it. On ‘Hellbent for Leather’ it just had to be Steve Earle, and if Steve Earle had said no I wouldn’t have put the song on the album because I wouldn’t have looked for anybody else to do it, Steve was the Cat for that song and the song just told me who had to be on it.

Did you make the call on all the guest artists on ‘Co-Starring Too’?

Oh yes, nobody tells me what to do, haha. I’ve said this before, but I sleep with the President of my publishing company, which is my wife, Judy, haha. She is like you write whatever you want to write and make whatever records you want to make, and she will try and sell the damn things. So for a writer, that is a great place to be because I can write about hey there’s a snake farm, haha, so we did the record and I just called these people up to ask if they would be on it, and they said yes. I called Wynonna to see if she would play on this song and she was just like, of course, and I asked if she wanted to hear it and she said no, which made me feel really good. So it just kind of happened, I called these people and they said yes.

How did you record it, I assume it is a pandemic record?

Some of it we did in Dripping Springs, but for most of it, we sent the artists the tracks. The thing with the pandemic is nobody was touring and a lot of them have studios in their house. I think Steve Earle did his in New York, and Wynonna did hers in Nashville, Ann Wilson was in Florida I think, Lzzy Hale was in Nashville and John 5 was in LA, and Willie was in  Pedernales. We weren’t all in the studio at the same time, and I couldn’t have afforded to feed them, haha.

Why do you think the record works because too often guest star albums fail to deliver on expectations?

I think I have very good taste as far as friends and music that I like, and I have a lot of respect for all these people on the album, and that is how it came about and I think it works because of that. All these artists who are on the album, there is a sense of integrity about them which is rare sometimes as far as pop culture and pop music go, but all these artists on the album I have a heap of respect for as artists, and as people. They are all stand-up guys.

Have you learnt anything about your songs by recording them with other artists?

‘Naturally Wild’ took me for a loop because Lzzy Hale and John 5 took it to a place from where it was when I had written it with Jamiee Harris. We wrote it and it was kind of acoustic 13th Floor Elevators kind of stuff, and then they added their stuff to it and it just soared, and that was surprising. When we did ‘Only A Fool’ with the Bluebonnets they just rocked, now I knew they rocked but I didn’t realise they were such an incredible rock band, and that was a very gratifying thing.

How much have Big Machine Records helped in your recent increased commercial profile?

They have been great to me, especially as I’m an Old Cat now. We made the record, ‘Co-Starring’, and Julian Raymond played it for Scott Borchetta and said I’d like to talk to you about putting this record out. My wife Judy and I went up there and they said we’d like to put this record out, and Judy said we’ll lease it to you, and they said, sure. They have done everything possible, as I said I’m an Old Cat and I’m not a mainstream country act at all, but they have let me do the record and make it how I wanted. They weren’t looking over my shoulder and going you can’t say that haha. They may have thought it, but they never once said it, haha. As I said, it comes down to that freedom to make the records I want to put out. They have been great to work with, and it has been a very mutual thing to work the record, as they say, they have been very, very nice to me.

Why do you think you have got some commercial recognition recently given you are, as you say, an Old Cat and you are not mainstream country?

To be honest, I don’t know, but I think it comes back to the songs. I am very proud of the songs on this record, and I definitely think that has something to do with it, they are just some pretty badass cool songs, you know. I don’t mean to sound egotistical, but those songs are cool and badass, and you can’t deny that. You may not like the singer or the songs, but you can’t not like the way it sounds, it sounds like a real record with real guys really playing. I suppose I’m selling more records now than I ever had. Judy does all that sort of stuff, and I know this sounds really strange, but having these artists play on this record means more to me than being on a chart somewhere. Judy pays attention to royalties and stuff like that, but I have no idea, haha. She is like you go over there and write your little songs, I’m can I go buy a Porsche and she is like no, haha. I think because of the Americana Charts in America and the association, that has opened up some doors that weren’t there ten years ago. I mean, ten years ago americana was pretty much Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, and Joe Ely, and now you have Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and it has really opened it up to where if it is a good record, that is what it comes down to. I don’t know, but I think the fact that a lot more people are aware of music that isn’t mainstream has a lot to do with it. It opens the door to other genres, the whole americana thing, and yes, I’m happy about it.

Going back to the start of your career, how influenced were you by Jerry Jeff Walker?

It was a great relationship. I was in a little folk music club in Dallas and he came in and walked from the kitchen to the stage strumming, he took his hat off and threw it across the room, and singing ‘Driftin Way Of Life’ and I was just whoa, and I fell in love with that nobody is going to tell me what to write or what to sing. It comes down to that freedom, and Jerry Jeff was like one of the most fearless songwriters, he always was but at that time nobody was writing like that. He meant the world to me, and he was very gracious to me. He was a rounder when he was younger, we were in Red River, New Mexico, and he had just written ‘Mr Bojangles’,  and this little town had a little folk club and Jerry Jeff was coming through, and the whole town was so excited.  Jerry Jeff Walker is in our town, it is going to be so good, the Chamber Of Commerce can tell everyone this famous songwriter is here in Red River, and two days later these people were coming and asking when do you think he is going to leave, haha. That whole ‘Viva Terlingua’ album, that ‘Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother’ was on, and had all those other great songs is still the definitive country record for me. I may have got off a bit on Jerry Jeff there, but he was a real special Cat to me.

What is your own relationship with your classic ‘Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother’?

It fits in the arsenal real well right now because I have all these other songs, ‘Drunken Poet’s Dream’, and ‘Rabbit’, so it fits but when Jerry Jeff said this is a song by Ray Wylie Hubbard it was the only song I was known for. So, I would do these old honky-tonks and they would be going “Play Redneck Mother.”, and I’d play ’Redneck Mother’ and go “Here’s another song I wrote.”, and they were “Play Redneck Mother again.”. It was the only thing I was known for a while, and all the records I made at that time had excuses duct-taped to them. We mixed all of them in a night, we ran out of money. So for a while it was like an albatross but I pull it out, I don’t do it every night but it is fun, you know, I have fun with it and I think as an Old Cat it is still a joy to play, it is still a joy to walk out on stage and see people singalong, dance and groove.

How do you categorise your music, and how do you see it?

I like it, haha. If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t do it, haha. I like the way it sounds sonically. Hopefully, they are valid songs, and they are kind of funny in a way like ‘Fancy Boys’ which has a bit of sarcasm and irony in it, but I’m happy with them, and I like them. If I didn’t like a song I wouldn’t record it, there is no reason to do that, I will just write another one that I do like, haha.

How did you develop your guitar style?

Well I had an audience for folk music, and then I wanted to learn how to fingerpick for real, and I got into bringing in my third finger and learning all these patterns, and at 43 or something, I got into trying to be like Lightnin’ Hopkins, and like I say I’m an Old Cat and I feel really fortunate to have seen Lightnin’ Hopkins, and somewhere in there, I got into what I refer to as a dead thumb groove, where you just keep that old thumb here while I do other stuff. It was a good marriage because in folk music the lyrics were so important, and then I got into the blues, and then to take these folk lyrics and lay them on a dirty groove is a really good jacket, it is a really good place to be and it just works for me. I don’t know if it works for anybody else, but I enjoy it and as you say, I’m having some commercial success for a change, haha.

Not everyone is aware that Texas has its own blues tradition.

Yes, you have Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and it kind of got into Freddie King and the blues rock thing with ZZ Top. There is a tradition of blues here, and there is the country thing, and I feel very fortunate to have seen Freddie King, and I got to open a show for Ernest Tubb in Oklahoma City, how cool is that, and I got to hang out with Gary Stewart and Waylon and his Cats. So right now, I think the americana thing is good country, and good roots rock, and folk music, it is a good mash of music and I think it is the whole americana vibe, it is not limited, hey it’s blues, it is everything with integrity at its heart. To go from Robert Plant to the Black Pumas and Hayes Carll, that ought to tell you something right there. What the hell is americana, haha. Really thinking about it that is pretty amazing, a great place to be.

And you’ve stayed with Texas for almost your whole career as well.

Well, I lived up in New Mexico for a while, and in Red River and Santa Fe, but we are now just south of Austin and it is home, it really is home. In Texas, the holy trinity of songwriters is Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, and Townes Van Zandt, and with Willie and Jerry Jeff, there is just such a history to it that you have to be pretty good to make a living here.

How does that Texas artistry, craft, and integrity fit with some of the Texas politics we hear on the news?

Well, it is a separate ballgame. It is very difficult, I get to throw stuff in my songs, little digs, and in ‘Screw You, We’re From Texas’ I got to put our corporations are corrupt and our politicians are loco. It is very, very strange, it has turned into, to be honest, I don’t know what it has turned into, but it is very, very different from when I was growing up. The politics weren’t as extreme as they are now.

What are your plans for 2022, I looked at your tour schedule and for an old cat you are pretty busy?

Well yeah, I’m going to work the record, as they say, for a while. Like I said it is still a joy to play and see people smile, the travelling is not all limousines, in fact, I can’t ever remember being in a limousine, haha. To go out and continue to write and record when I’m touring, it is still a joy to get out there and play to more people. So yeah, we are going to play as long as my knees hold out, haha, and keep on doing it.

You are playing Cain’s Ballroom, I think.

Yeah, we are playing Cain’s and it is an incredible venue. I used to play there when I was young and wild, and we are going up to Nashville, and just all over really. I don’t go out on long tours for like a month at a time, I will go out for Thursday through Sunday and then home. I kind of prefer a low-hanging fruit tour, Dallas, Austin, Houston, haha. We’ve been trying to get back over to the UK but we just haven’t been able to arrange it. I used to come over quite a bit, and we’d play various venues, and we did the Midlands Folk Festival, but we haven’t been able to get over in a while. The pandemic obviously caused problems, but even before travelling was hard to break even on, you know, I mean the guitar player and drummer actually want to get paid, it is terrible really, haha. Hopefully, things will smooth out and we will manage to get back over, I mean, I had a great time over there I got a pair of Beatle Boots on Carnaby Street, haha, and I still wear them now and then.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

People ask me who I listen to and I say I listen to my friends. Haze Carll has a great new record out, and Gurf Morlix has an incredible record out, James McMurtry has been out for a while, but I still listen to that, the Whitmore Sisters’ new record has just come out. As I said, I listen to albums of friends of mine, so I feel very fortunate because a lot of them I get free, but some of them I don’t, I mean Haze won’t give me a promo copy, haha. Yes, that’s who I’ve been listening to. It is like ‘Co-Starring Too’, I feel very fortunate to have been part of that album and call all of them artists my friends.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I miss coming over there, I’ve always had a great time when we’ve been over there. I did a tour with Lloyd Maines and Terri Hendrix, and I remember walking all around London because she wanted some Doc Martin’s with flowers on, we walked and walked and walked until we finally found some. Hopefully it that will be soon that we will do a tour over there. When we come over, I will wear my Beatle Boots, haha. Finally, I just want to say I’m proud to be part of the americana family, it has been really, really good to me.

Ray Wylie Hubbard’s ‘Co-Starring Too’ is out now on Big Machine Records.

About Martin Johnson 414 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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