by: Thomas D. Mooney
1. a person who operates a side show at a circus, fair, etc.,especially a gambling attraction.
2. a swindler, dishonest gambler, or the like.
1. Also called a hymnbook. A book of hymns for use in a religious service.
I’ve been listening to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s newest album, “The Grifter’s Hymnal,” for the better part of the week. Song after song, line after line, you know Hubbard has had something on his mind. As he says, “When you get older, you think more about your mortality.” The 12-track album is filled with these thoughts. And as each track ends, you think to yourself, “Well, this is the best track on the album.” That is until the next track begins.
It sets up perfectly–and it’s probably not just a coincidence–that this album comes out in 2012. Cue the Mayans, the inevitable zombie apocalypse. It can be the soundtrack. Or at least some warning tales and songs of redemption and hope.
As Hubbard has said about the album title, “The grifter kind of came out of the ’20s, kind of like the con man in Paper Moon. He’s not really a bad guy, because usually they would only grift people who maybe had it coming because of their own greed. I just like the idea of it — not that I’m so much of a con man, but … I’m 65 and still scuffling! I didn’t want to peak too soon and I don’t want to be a nostalgia act, so I keep trying to learn new things and make it work. The carrot’s still out there for me.”
In a lot of ways, characters are all about perception and perspective. (Almost) Anyone can be perceived as divine just as easily as evil and cursed. It just depends on where you’re looking at them. And there, at its core, is where the grifter lies. I think, at least.
Throughout “Grifter’s Hymnal,” Hubbard proves he’s both a poet and a rocker. That he can balance them throughout each song. Hubbard says that even if some people don’t like the lyrics or the songwriter, they can at least like the sound. Which, I’m not sure I agree with. Sure, it sounds great. But Hell, everyone should appreciate the words just as much. They’re every bit as great as you’ve grown to expect from Hubbard–maybe even better.
I always think a sign for a great songwriter is that they’re able to write lines that are both simple enough you wish you had thought of it yourself, but so clever and sharp, that you never could have. I could list multiple lines as examples, but won’t. It’d be better if you found them yourself while listening or better yet, to see Hubbard perform them live.
Ray Wylie Hubbard will be playing The Blue Light this Friday (March 23). John David Kent will be opening. Like Ray Wylie Hubbard on Facebook here and follow him on Twitter here. Seriously, he’s great on Twitter.
New Slang: The new album, “The Grifter’s Hymnal” comes out next week (March 27). Can you talk a little about it? What are you expecting will be people’s reactions to it?
Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well, I think the correct people will like it [laughs]. I think the musicians that I’ve let listen to it, musicians that I respect, they’ve been very flattering about it. I think it’s going to go pretty good. I’m really happy with it. Some of it was a struggle, but I’m glad it was. I’m glad it’s not easy. It has more value to me that way, know what I mean? I’m hoping I sell enough to make another one [laughs].
NS: In what ways was it challenging for you?
RWH: Well, we started off recording out at this old chapel, at this old church built in 1888 in La Grange. We took everything out there to record just because we wanted, I know this sounds weird, but because we wanted “divine reverb.” You know, it felt like if we put it in this church, it would sound rich and full. And you can hear the air of the church. So we went out there and recorded the record. And then for some reason, I rewrote four of the songs after we had already recorded them. I added another verse, went back and changed a couple of the vibes. So we went back to George Reid’s studio in Austin and re-tracked those four and mixed it there. And so, I guess it really took some effort to get it right.
NS: On the album, you cut a Ringo Starr song and he even contributes some backing vocals on it.
RWH: Yeah, how weird is that [laughs]?
NS: Yeah. How did all that happen?
RWH: Well, when the album “Snake Farm” came out, I was out in Santa Monica, and a fellow by the name of Brent Carpenter bought my album. He also does videos for Ringo Starr. So he burnt a copy for Ringo and gave it to him and said, “Here. Listen to this guy from Texas. I think you’ll really like it.” And Ringo, on his website mentioned that he liked “Snake Farm.” So the next time we were out in L.A., he invited us to meet him. So me and my drummer, Rick Richards, went out and met Ringo. He’s such a great musician–I mean, he’s a Beatle–but he’s also just a great musician and loves music. So we just kind of hit it off and kept in touch. And we up to his birthday party up at Radio Music Hall and we were just kind of back there talking. He mentions to me that he really likes my songwriting and I say that I really like his. He says, “Well, no body ever really thinks of me as a songwriter.” I say, “Well, one of my favorite songs is ‘Coochy Coochy.'” which was on “Beaucoups of Blues” as a bonus track. And he says really. And I say, “Yeah, it’s one chord. I may cut it.” And he says he’d like to hear it, if you do. So we were out there tracking and I said “Let’s do ‘Coochy Coochy.” I had the lyrics. Audley Freed was on mandolin, I was on my Resonator, Rick Richards was on some sort of drum thing, and George was on a 12-string. So we just started playing it and I all of a sudden I was just “Arrgh yeah! I got everything!” So we kind of put all that garbage at the front. And then we sent it to Ringo. Ringo called me up and said, “I really like it. The drums, I don’t need to play the drums. Rick did such a great job on them. What if I just play a little guitar, sing, and maybe play a little bit of shakers?” We said sure. So he did. I told him we were going to kind of clean up that stuff at the front and he said, “no, I really like that.” So we left all the “I got everything!” on there.
NS: I guess it’s one of those things. You can go ahead and check that off the list, having a Beatle on an album.”
RWH: Yeah, considering a lot of people have no idea who I am [laughs]. And they’re going “Why would Ringo Starr do all this?” Like I said though, he’s a musician. That’s why he does the whole All-Star thing. He loves playing. He loves playing the drums and singing and hanging around musicians, you know? So yeah, it’s pretty cool. You know, we’re not putting a sticker on it that says, “With Ringo Starr.” We’re just letting it go. Kind of low-key.
NS: Yeah. What’s been your “favorite” song on the album?
RWH: Well, you know, it’s kind of hard to do favorites. Since I wrote them, they’re kind of like your kids. They’re each different. “Mother Blues” is one that tells the story of who I am. “When I was a young man, around 21-years-old ya’ll, all I wanted was a stripper girlfriend and a gold top Les Paul.” Well, I got it [laughs]. And then in that song, the reason I got it, you play like that, you get girls. And you know, by the end there, I did marry Judy. She was the door girl when she was 16 at that night club in Dallas. And I didn’t know her because I always came in the backdoor. I was 23, 24–somewhere in there. But I never met her since I’d go through the backdoor, go up stairs, and hang out. And then we ran into each other 23 years ago, and hit it off, got married. So I’d say that song “Mother Blues,” that’s probably the closest to me because it is my story I suppose. You know, we had Lucas (Hubbard’s son), he’s 18 and he’s my full-time guitar player…So it’s one that is more personal to me. Like I say though, this album, you put it on, and it starts off with the saying my prayers to the old black gods, just as kind of honoring all the cats like Lightning Hopkins–guys who mean a lot to me. You go through all this stuff and it kind of ends with when death comes knocking and asking God to open the door. You know, when you get older, you start thinking more about your mortality and stuff. So, kind of getting back to your first question, I really hope people appreciate it.
NS: When you first start out, you have these songwriters who influence you. And if you’re making music long enough, you begin to influence that next generation of songwriters. How does that feel, knowing your music has helped shape people and songwriters? And at what point, do you know that you’re worthy of being influential? Know what I mean?
RWH: Yeah, I do. I really–you know, I’ve done some stuff with Hayes Carll. Written some stuff with him, shown him some fingerpicking patterns. Done the same thing with Slaid Cleaves. Kind of gotten with The Band of Heathens. I produced their first record. Working with these young guys, I feel honored that they want to write with me and work with me. That kind of validates this long period of time that you’ve been doing it. It really does validate it when I guy like Hayes calls me up and says “Hey, let’s write a song.” It feels good because–like the other day, I did a show with Hayes and he’s on stage. He was going on first, I was going on second. You know, he’s very gracious, a real stand up guy and he says, “Next up here is my very good friend and mentor, Ray Wylie Hubbard.” So, after he got off, I said, “Hayes, if you call me your mentor, I would have to call you my protegé. But, I’m going to wait till you get good to call you that [laughs].” You know, just jacking with him. He really is a stand up guy and a great songwriter. And that really means a lot to me when guys like Hayes, Slaid, and Charlie Shafter. And Liz Foster who is in this band called The Trishas. All these guys that I’ve written with, they keep me current. I got to keep looking over my shoulder because they’re such great writers. And it keeps me hopefully–I don’t want to do nostalgia. I don’t want to go back and do that. I don’t want to end up in Branson. Even though I grimace when I lift stuff, I still rock [laughs]. I like being around them because I can’t rest. I can’t slack off. I’ve got to write the best song that I can, and then make the best record that I can.
NS: Yeah. When I started listening to Hayes, one of the first things I thought of was that he wrote songs like you. You could tell you had been an influence on him.
RWH: Well thank you. You know, one of the things I really like about Hayes, is that in his writing, he’s fearless. When writing, say what you want to say and be fearless. And I think he’s done that. He’s taken some chances with some of his lyrics. That’s what I admire about him. He’s not worried about trying to make a Top 40 country hit. He’s writing about some scars.
NS: I think something that’s really great right now in music, is that we have all these young songwriters making great music, but the older guys are still making music that’s relevant to the times. Guys like Guy Clark, Steve Earle, and yourself, you’re still making music that’s listened to.
RWH: Yeah, I think so. I think what it is, is that it’s what we do. That’s who we are. We are these songwriters. It’s just something that you keep doing. And like I said about these young guys, you have to keep looking over your shoulder. They’re good [laughs]. And they rock. Are you familiar with The Band of Heathens and The Black Angels?
NS: Oh yeah. Definitely.
RWH: Yeah, that’s why I name drop them in “South of the River” (Second track on “The Grifter’s Hymnal”) because I have so much respect for them. But you know, guys like that. We just finished South By Southwest and it was really cool because we did a show with Shooter Jennings and Lukas Nelson, and Billy Joe [Shaver]. So it was kind of like me and Billy Joe and these new guys. But there’s still this thread that is in all of us. You know, we’re all trying to write good songs.
NS: I think it’s also great that you can all be on the same bill and keep that same audience.
RWH: Oh yeah. You always see young kids, college kids at my shows. Doing festivals with young kids. I enjoy it. You’ve kind of got to do the Springsteen thing where you prove it every night. You got to go up on that stage and you got guys who say,” My dad is a big fan of yours. He says your great.” So you can’t just phone it in. You have to prove it. It keeps you edgy. You got to strap that guitar on and turn up the amp. But also, I do folk festivals where it’s just me and my guitar. And there, you have to prove it.