by: Thomas D. Mooney
“The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”
–Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Mother Blues”
You know the thing about Ray Wylie Hubbard that makes him the most interesting? It’s that outside of Willie Nelson, he’s probably the most adaptable Texan singer-songwriter going.
He’s virtually able to be on a bill with anyone and you’d not be surprised. You find out some Texas psychedelic rock band is a fan of Hubbard and you’re not surprised. You find that some throwback country musician is as well, you’re not surprised. He can go out on the West Coast and play some folk festival doing acoustic renditions of his songs one week. The next, he’s playing full band with Cody Canada and Band of Heathens.
Hell, take the last two music festivals he played. At SXSW, he played a show with Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver, and The Black Lillies. At his Grit-n-Groove Festival, he played with Hayes Carll, Ben Kweller, Dirty River Boys, Uncle Lucius, Sons of Fathers, Wheeler Brothers, The Trishas, and Dustin Welch. As Hubbard would say, a bunch of young cats.
But even saying Hubbard is the one of the most adaptive in Texas is probably misleading. Hubbard’s music isn’t adaptive at all. He’s not catering to who he’s playing with. It doesn’t change. Rather, his songwriting and style lends itself bring out the best in others. It’s one of those things where no matter who you are, you at the very least appreciate Hubbard’s music.
Sit down and listen to Ray. You just may learn something.
That’s what’s has gone through my mind each time I’ve spoke with Mr. Ray Wylie Hubbard and every time I’ve thrown one of his records on. It should be the same thing that you tell yourself as well. It’s inevitable though. You’re going to learn something about something.
I spoke with Hubbard this past week and came away convinced A) I’ll never know more about music than him, and B) He should write a book (maybe of memoirs, maybe ‘The Tao of Ray Wylie Hubbard,’ maybe about music, or all of the above.).
Something that stuck out that Hubbard said this past time was that all songs should have “grit, groove, tone, and taste (Hell, maybe that’s the book title).” Now if only everyone wrote with that in mind. But that doesn’t just describe Hubbard’s songs of the last twenty or thirty years; it describes Hubbard.
And that ties into why he’s such a great representative of what’s great about Texas Music (Note: Texas Music, not just Texas Country, alternative country, folk, or what have you.).
Ray Wylie Hubbard and Sam Riggs are playing The Office this Friday (May 10).
New Slang: Well first off, congratulations on winning some awards recently (Hubbard recently won three awards at the Lone Star Music Awards: Album of the Year- Singer-Songwriter/Folk- “The Grifter’s Hymnal,” Songwriter of the Year, and Producer of the Year with George Reiff).
Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah, that was quite a surprise. You know, because I’m kind of an old cat and it’s kind of a young man’s game down in Texas right now. So I was very, as they would say, honored to be nominated and really surprised to win. It was quite a night.
NS: Speaking of these young guys, since the last time we spoke, I’ve interviewed a handful of guys you’ve either produced records for or worked with in some fashion–guys like Charlie [Shafter], Lincoln Durham, Band of Heathens, Hayes [Carll]–and something we’d talk a little about is your producing skills and style. For me, something that I really like and appreciate in your production is that you’d probably not know it was produced by you unless you read it in the liner notes. You’re never trying to change the artist into sounding like you. Can you talk a little about producing and how it is working with these guys?
RWH: Well, it’s like they say, I don’t have a “Wall of Sound [laughs].” Like when I did the Band of Heathens, Lincoln, and Charlie, I just tried to let them do what they do best. I don’t try and put anything on them that doesn’t fit them. That’s the thing. Like with Lincoln, it was pretty sparse. Just Rick [Richards on drums] and him. Let’s just make that sound sonically great. And the same thing with Charlie. He had these incredible songs that are almost like movies. Let’s not try and put anything on there that doesn’t need to be there. And same way with the Heathens–just letting those guys play. Just trying to make each guy sound like them.
NS: Yeah. So when you’re going into the studio to produce someone else, I’m assuming you’re going in there with a different mindset than when you’re going into the studio to record yourself. What are some of those things you’re doing that are different going in as producer? What are you thinking about that’s different?
RWH: Well if it’s somebody else, I want to make sure that they’re playing the right guitar, that they’re playing the right drums. Making sure what they’re playing doesn’t sound like anything else. Tone is very important. And it kind of comes down to grit, groove, tone, and taste. That’s what I go in with, with every song. Does it have enough grit? It’s not sugar-coated. It’s not fake. It’s this guy singing this song. It’s got to have groove. It’s got to have–even if it’s a waltz–it’s got to have some groove. It has to have the right tone. And it’s got to be done with taste. You know, it’s not the number of notes you play, it’s where you put them [laughs]. That’s kind of my whole idea going in for music: Grit, groove, tone, and taste.
NS: [Laughs] Yeah. I’d imagine you really use that to write your own music as well.
RWH: Yeah. I’ve been really fortunate to have worked with Lloyd Maines, Gurf Morlix, and George Reiff. Those are the three guys–I just think they’re the best there is. I’d rather work with those three, any of those guys than some hot-shot producer guy [laughs]. I learned that you just don’t listen to a song with your ears. You listen to it with your heart and your soul. And that’s what I’ve learned from Lloyd, Gurf, and George. Like I said, I feel very fortunate to have worked with those cats.
NS: Yeah. You never hear a bad record done by those guys–and you can go as far as to say, you never hear a bad song.
RWH: No, you don’t.
NS: How structured is songwriting for you these days? Are you sitting down every day and at least trying to work on something?
RWH: Yeah, I’m pretty much always writing no matter what I’m doing. It’s kind of one of those things I’ve learned is that [it’s] inspiration plus craft. You get the inspiration. It’s what they call the “great a-ha” moment. A-ha! That’s a great idea for a song. And then the craft is taking that inspiration and putting it in the laws of music. So I don’t sit down everyday at like 10 o’clock and start writing. And something I’ve learned too is that the craft will trigger the inspiration. Finding a groove. So I kind of know how to do it and I’m always doing it.
NS: What’s been the easiest song you’ve written? Has there been one where it’s just come so quickly–not that you’re ever really thinking of this when writing–but what’s been your personal best when it comes to writing [laughs]?
RWH: Oh gosh. Well, I don’t really keep a record of that [laughs]. It’s hard to say, but for instance, the song “Snake Farm,” I’d driven by that snake farm probably 10,000 times in 30 years. And one day I drove by and went “Eww, just sounds nasty.” And then I went, “Well, it is. It’s a snake farm. It’s a reptile house.” And I didn’t second guess it. Didn’t second guess the inspiration and so I had the chorus. What do I do with this? So the craft of it that I’ll make it about a man who doesn’t like snakes and in love with a woman who is working at the snake farm. So probably about the time I got from New Braunfels to Wimberly, I had it mostly written. I spent, I don’t know, another three or four hours tweaking it a little bit. It wasn’t fast. None of them come fast, you know? It’s one of my quotes: Never second guess inspiration, but it is OK to rewrite. So I do a lot of rewriting. So even on a song like ‘Snake Farm,” which is a goofy song, but if you look at it, it’s really well written [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. That really relates to my next question. As of late, I’ve been asking different songwriters this question. I read this interview Bob Dylan had done back in the early ’90s and the interviewer asked him about something he had said about songwriting. Paraphrasing here, he said that for him, the most difficult part of songwriting is getting that initial idea, or thought, or inspiration into the final draft of a song. Making sure that what inspired him initially made it into that final song. How true is that for you?
RWH: You know, like I say, rewriting, I’m a big believer in rewriting. So very rarely does a song come to me completely done where it’s “A-ha, the doors came open and the song was done.” I don’t think that’s ever happened to me. I’d have to agree with that. I think Bob knows what he’s talking about.
NS: Something that’s always stuck out in your songwriting has been your sense of humor. You can go through your catalog and just pick out songs that have a bunch of sarcasm, irony, or just straight humor. There are choices such as “Up Against the Wall” and “Screw You, We’re From Texas” that just are obvious. But, you’ve got plenty of songs where there’s just a few lines here or there. Is that one of your favorite things about songwriter? Letting your sense of humor come through?
RWH: I think the favorite part of songwriting for me is having the freedom to write whatever I want to write without fear. That’s a great, great place to be. I’m not a mainstream Nashville songwriter. I don’t write songs to be covered by others. I write them because, primarily I have no choice [laughs]. I feel very fortunate. Like I say, I write these songs without thinking about the future of them. I can write about whatever I want. Like a song like “Conversation With the Devil” and “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell,” they’re kind of dark, but they have some humor in it. But it all comes back to having the freedom to write whatever I want to write without worrying if it’s ever going to be recorded. I have songs now and I don’t know if I’ll do another record or not. You just never know. I write without ever thinking about the future of them. Like if anyone will get mad about me saying this. That’s a great place to be.
NS: “Conversation With the Devil.” That’s a great song. Like you said, it’s pretty dark, but there’s all these great lines in it that are humorous. Can you talk a little more about that song?
RWH: Well I the last line first. I heard my wife Judy say “Some people get spiritual because they see the light and some because they feel the heat.” I carried that around with me for a long time. And I was reading The Divine Comedy again. I read that quite often. I really appreciate that idea of Dante goes to hell and he gets to say whatever he wants–in a dream, you get to say whatever you want. You know? And so in that book, he says whatever he wants. There’s irony, sarcasm. And so that little song there, like I say, it’s a dream and you can say whatever you want. And you get back to having that freedom as a writer. So I kind of threw it together. Took me about three days to really get that nailed down.
NS: Some of these songs, they remind me of some old talking blues songs. Like some talking blues Townes [Van Zandt] would do (Go listen to “Talking KKK Blues” or “Fraternity Blues.”). Do you sort of see that parallel or connection?
RWH: Well it’s not something that’s obvious to me. Of course, Townes and Woody Guthrie was king of the talking blues. And of course Woody, in his songs, would have this social commentary. He was talking about the condition. It’s not something that I’m conscious of. I’m not saying “OK, let’s sit down and write a talking blues song.” It’s just these songs, kind of lend themselves to that format even though, “New Year’s Eve [at the Gates of Hell]” is a completely different chord progression than anything that’s in the set formula for a talking blues even though it does have the same kind of thought and ideas behind it. Just being able to talk and tell this story, but still having some teeth to it.
NS: Something else about you that’s probably underrated or maybe not talked about enough is that you’re really like a Texas blues guy. You’ve got some blues in you and have some connections to Ft. Worth blues since you lived in that area and everything. Talk a little about those old days seeing these great Texas blues guys around Ft. Worth and Dallas.
RWH: Mhmm. Like I said, I’m in a very fortunate position. I started off in folk music back in high school. Discovered, you know, Dylan, Pete Seeger, Eric Andersen. Sort of all these Cambridge folk guys where the lyrics had depth and weight. I was very fortunate that I was influenced by the folk scene. But then, very fortunate to have seen Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Freddie King all play. So that’s kind of where I really am right now. Kind of this hybrid where you’ve got this Lightning Hopkins groove, but you’ve got lyrics that are more Guy Clark–lyrics that have some depth and weight to it. That make sense?
NS: Definitely does.
RWH: So once I got up into my forties, I really wanted to learn how to play and to fingerpick like Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and all those guys, I just jumped into that. So these songs have a blues-sound base while they’re not really full-blown blues songs. But the lyrics are more influenced by the folk scene and era.
NS: Yeah. There’s guys out there who have the blues sound, but aren’t writing lyrics that are quite as cerebral and vice versa. There’s not really anyone who’s doing it quite exactly like you are–and really, just thinking out loud here, anyone ever really. There’s guys who great songwriters, but aren’t as bluesy, they’re more country or whatever (Which, while writing this article, I’ve thought of Justin Townes Earle–though his is more Memphis blues than Texas blues. Great regardless. Another would be James McMurtry. You can probably add more yourself). You’ve been able to marry these two sounds, these two principles of music together.
RWH: Well thank you very much for that. That means a great deal. I think you kind of hit. Getting these two principles together. Lyrics are very important to me, but also the groove and the grit is important. And like I said, I feel very fortunate to have seeing Lighting Hopkins play. And Mance Lipscomb. They were just powerful. Which, in my songwriting, I name drop these guys. I mention Lighting, Freddie, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy. Guitars and amps that I like. Goes back to writing what I want to write about. Making a record like “The Grifter’s Hynmal” is just–Since “Loco Gringo’s Lament,” I’ve not made any record that I didn’t want to make. It just comes down to freedom. Judy says, “Go make your record and then I’ll try to sell them.” So that’s what we do [laughs].
NS: Well that’s been a pretty good formula so far.
RWH: Yeah. Like I said, the other night at the Lone Star Music Awards, I really was surprised and honored by it. You know, we don’t have big promotion budgets or anything like that. We just kind of have to put them out there and hope people find them.
NS: After that, you posted on Facebook this acceptance speech type status. In there, you mentioned a bunch of different writers who have influenced you over the years. You’re a well-read guy. Who’s someone that’s one of your favorites?
RWH: I keep going back to Joseph Campbell and mythology. He wrote “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” “Transformations of Myth Through Time,” “The Mythic Image.” I keep going back and rereading those. I’ll read some of the new guys, the new poets. But it seems like I can get into mythology and that can trigger the inspiration, a line, or a thought. Joseph Campbell and all those guys I had mentioned. I’m still trying to get through [Rainer Maria] Rilke. I read it, but it’s so deep. It’s way over my head. I keep trying though.