by: Thomas D. Mooney
Sometimes, I really get to speak with someone as great as Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Alright, I get to speak with a bunch of interesting, great songwriters and musicians, but I’ll always think speaking with Hubbard is the best. More than being a great songwriter, a blues historian by all means, a storyteller, or a knowledgeable guitar and amplifier person, he’s just a great conversationalist–course, it’s not bad that he’s all those things as well.
For somebody who’s done as much for the state of music–specifically for the state of Texas and Southern blues-country-folk–you’d expect a much larger ego. But you never encounter that with Hubbard.
He doesn’t just make roots music; he is roots music through and through.
Usually when I’ve interviewed someone such as Hubbard, I just like to get out of the way and onto the actual interview part, so I’ll do that now.
Just a couple of notes though. This interview with Hubbard is an updated version one that we did this past April 28. Keep that in mind when reading. Ray Wylie Hubbard is playing The Blue Light tonight, Friday Sept. 12. Watch Hubbard play “Mother Blues” from The Grifter’s Hymnal on David Letterman last year below.
New Slang: So when do you think you’ll be starting up a new album?
Ray Wylie Hubbard: Matter of fact, we’re going in next week. This week, I’ll be up in New York. We’ll be recording throughout May and June for a new record. I’d say it’ll probably come out January of next year. You never know though. It’s always hard to put a time frame on it.
NS: What’re you wanting to do and say on this record? What are you wanting to do on here that you haven’t done before?
RWH: Well, my guitar player is Lucas (Hubbard’s son). He’s on it for the whole record. I may call in a few guests, but it’s going to pretty much him. It’s still very much roots and blues foundation. The lyrics hopefully have some depth and weight. Have a little fun in there writing stuff. It’ll be cool. It’ll sound good. You may not like the singer of the songs, but it’ll sound good.
RWH: We’re going to go in and cut it on analog. When we did Grifter’s, we didn’t use a lot of pedals. We used a bunch of old tube amps. We might have used just one pedal on one song, but we went all old school on there.
NS: Right before you’re actually in the studio recording the album, when you’re collecting your songs for it, how many songs do you typically like to have at hand? They may not all make it, but is there a “golden number” that makes you feel comfortable?
RWH: Just enough [laughs]. When I get 11, I record it. I don’t really have a lot of stashed away songs. I pretty much go in knowing what and how the songs are going to work and go in and try and make them sound as good as I can. I’ve got 11new ones so we’re going to go with that. We may recut “Wanna Rock & Roll” (from Loco Gringo’s Lament) because it really seems to work well like we’re doing right now. Haven’t done that in a while. I think it’s kind of time to bring it back since Ragweed broke up and they’re not doing it anymore.
NS: Do you find yourself in those last couple of weeks before you’re actually about to start recording, that you end up writing more new things in that short amount of time than you did the months or year you had between records? Like some kind of home stretch thing.
RWH: Well you know, songwriting is a very mysterious process. I don’t write to make a record. I don’t write thinking about the future of the song. I’ll do an album, but then you really don’t know if you’re going to do another one. That doesn’t stop me from writing though. I don’t write a song thinking about it being on a record. You just don’t know if it’ll be recorded for an album or not. It’s really one of those things where I’m condemned to write [laughs]. It’s a mysterious process. I guess I’ve been writing since Grifter’s and have some songs that I feel really good about.
NS: What’s the most recent song you’ve finished? What’s it about?
RWH: It’s called “Charlie Musselwhite’s Blues.” I ran into Charlie Musselwhite, he’s this great harmonica player out in California, and we just it off. He’s a great cat. He’s got such a great history. Just blues royalty as a matter of fact. We got together and came up with a song about him. So we’ve been working on that. That’s probably the last one I wrote. It feels really good. It just kind of tells his story. Being more in Mississippi and going to Chicago and running around with all those great blues cats.
NS: When do you know a song is “finished?” Maybe not totally finished, but at least to the point in which you’ll play it in front of an audience or at least show it to someone?
RWH: It’s one of those things where it’s like a song will tell me when it’s done. I’ll work on it and work on it and I’ll sing it through and say “Yeah, that feels really good.” I’ll sing it again and if nothing really bothers me about it, I’ll feel like it’s done. It’s something that I just intuitively know.
NS: Do you ever overwrite? How often does it happen where you’ll play it through and realize you need to start cutting things out?
RWH: Oh yeah, man. That’s one of my favorite deals. Never second guess inspiration, but it is OK to rewrite. Another thing I’ve learned is that I don’t edit while I am writing. Like I won’t write a line and then go “OK, I need to fix this.” I’ll write the song and then I’ll go back and edit. Otherwise, maybe I won’t ever finish it.
NS: Do those lines that you take out or don’t use, do they ever find their way into other songs or spark an idea for another song?
RWH: Yeah. I don’t waste a lot. I really try not to. I’ll go back and one line of one song will trigger something where I’ll go “OK, this is a completely different song.” You’re always really grateful when they’re done. Then you kind of wait for the ring for the next one.
NS: A lot of your songs, they’re from a first-person perspective. There’s references to yourself. A lot of times, it’s songs that really only Ray Wylie Hubbard could do. Was there ever a moment when you kind of realized that you were writing from that first-person view or was there a moment when you decided you were going to start going more in that direction and experiment with it more?
RWH: You know, I write about what I know about. I look at things from my perspective and write about guitars, amps, and blues guys, and strippers, and Les Pauls, snake farms. I look around and see that. Sometimes you can adopt a personality for a song that’s maybe not just me. I’ll maybe say something in a song that’s profound, but you’re thinking “Why would this guy say it [laughs?]?” It’s kind of like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. You’ve got this sloppy guy and all of a sudden, his words, what he’s saying aren’t. Well, they were coming from Tennessee Williams. You know what I’m saying?
NS: Yeah, I do.
RWH: So sometimes you’re able to put on this persona and say these things that may have a little depth and weight, but they’re coming from this old cat who maybe just has a different perspective. I never really consciously say “I’m going to write a song about this.” It just kind of happens.