by: Thomas D. Mooney
Some three years after The Grifter’s Hymnal, Ray Wylie Hubbard is returning with The Ruffian’s Misfortune–his 14th album for those counting–on April 07. Like most things Ray Wylie Hubbard, Ruffian’s is all about grit, groove, tone and taste. It’s the essential these days.
At this point, Hubbard has found that place that transcends novice music labels. Songs exist in the blues, folk, garage rock, and country worlds simultaneously. They’re here, there, and everywhere without clinging to one for too long.
You’ll find it in press releases every day; that an artist is influenced by many and can’t be put in a box sound wise. It’s what makes them unique–which, if you think about it, isn’t really unique if everybody’s doing precisely that.
Hubbard though, he’s never claimed to this alchemist (Maybe that’ll be in the next album title) who has this recipe for the perfect blend. He’s not ever claiming to be the savior for rock, roots, country, folk–for you or me–for anything. Hell, he’s not even claiming to be the elder statesman of Texas and roots songwriting (Though, he’d have just as much claim as anyone else if that were an actual thing).
I think it has to do with the fact that A) He isn’t ever stretching himself too far into something he doesn’t like and B) The things he likes, they all go back to the grit, groove, tone, and taste. (Hint: There is no C.)
Like the songwriters, guitarists, and singers that he references time and again on Ruffian’s (amongst other albums), Hubbard isn’t looking to be a celebrity rockstar. He’s not interested in it and neither were the ones he learned from over the years.
We caught up with Hubbard to talk about The Ruffian’s Misfortune at length and detail this past week. He’ll be performing at The Cactus Theater in Lubbock on Saturday, March 14. You can still purchase presale tickets here.
New Slang: This new album (The Ruffian’s Misfortune) I feel–and you’ve said it too–is really connected with your last album, The Grifter’s Hymnal. There’s a few things that connect these records in tone and subject. You’ve always been one to write about the subjects of salvation and existentialism. You ever think that’ll get old or run dry for you as a writer?
Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well, you know I’ve never been one to write straight ahead love songs or straight ahead country songs. I feel really fortunate that I got into folk music early on, around high school. You discover Bob Dylan and then get into Woody Guthrie and you start getting into all those cool songwriters. The lyrics have always really important to me. Those guys all had a lot of depth and weight from the lyrical content. Then in forties, I got into the groove–the fingerpicking stuff–Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and Mance Lipscomb stuff. So I’m in a really good place. It’s been a great marriage for me to bond those. You never know where these songs are going to come from. I’ve got three or four written for the next record and they’re kind of in the same vein. They’ve got a groove. They’re a little in the garage band rock. I’m not a blues guy. I’m not a full-on rock guy. Never been a country guy. But, I’ve always kind of been a folk guy. But all those have been an influence on me. Hopefully I’ve got another record in me.
NS: Yeah, of course. On this record, one of the things that really popped out at me was the final two songs, “Barefoot in Heaven” and “Stone Blind Horses.” For me, I kind of paired those together they’re similar in subject, but have these two completely different attitudes. Different takes. “Barefoot in Heaven” is much more happy and upbeat while “Stone Blind Horses” is filled with more despair and looking for some kind of help. Did you have the one in mind while writing the other or anything and want some kind of balance with those two or anything?
RWH: No, not really. For “Stone Blind Horses,” I had that melody for a long time and just never felt like the I could get the words to fit. I really liked that melody. I was up in Nashville with Ronnie Dunn. I showed him the melody and we came up with some lyrics that felt more in the ballpark for it. Then Ronnie said that it didn’t work for it. I came back one night and it was about three in the morning and wrote the thing. It just felt right. It’s hard to explain, but once it came down, it felt like the lyrics fit the melody. Then with “Barefoot in Heaven,” I just got in the groove. I had been listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and The McCrary Sisters–who sang on it and feel so great about–and some of these old gospel groups of the ’50s–but they rock. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, she was just rock n’ roll. So it just set the tone. I wanted to write this gospel tune that still had a little dirt in it. Still had a groove. So they really weren’t connected.
It’s kind of weird. The whole record kind of has this theme to it. This old roots rocker guy. The second song, “Hey Mama, My Time Ain’t Long” and then these are the songs the bluesman sang. Then these are the songs the angels sing. So it’s kind of has this theme to it, but it’s not like a concept album. I didn’t set out with that purpose. Then “Chick Singer, Badass Rockin'” is just hoping God grades on a curve [laughs].
RWH: You know I mean? That’s the best I can hope for [laughs].
NS: Yes. You’ve always been really great about name-dropping your influences in songs. You’ll throw in a name here and there about people you’ve been listening to. I counted four or five female names this time around. I think it’s a cool thing for younger audiences to hear these names and then go discover them later.
RWH: Yeah, I agree. I’ve kind of found that to be true. I appreciate and respect the people I do name–Rosetta Tharpe, Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde. To me, it’s kind of like in “Chick Singer,” these women–and all these songwriters I name–they’re not doing this to be celebrities. Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde, they’re not into it to be a celebrity. They’re doing it because they rock. That’s what I really respect about them. And then hopefully somebody does go, “Who is Sister Rosetta Tharpe?” and they go out and check her out and go, “Oh man. She’s the first badass rock n’ roll guitar player.”
NS: Yeah. Definitely.
RWH: I write about what’s important to me. It’s like I say, I write about amps, guitars, and stuff like that [laughs]. You never know where it comes from, but I really do try and acknowledge the people who have meant a lot to me in music and otherwise.
NS: That song “Chick Singer, Badass Rockin’,” the beginning of that really reminds me of some Black Angels stuff. The music is so good. Rick Richards and George Reiff played on this with you and I think that’s just one of the major highlights of the album. Not just their playing, but the music overall is on point. You can really hear it on “Badass Rockin’.”
RHW: Yeah, you know they went out with Joe Walsh for about a year. I got this phone call [imitates Joe Walsh], “Ray, this is Joe Walsh and I don’t want to steal your band, but I think I’m going to have to steal that Snake Farm band. I really like that groove.” So George and Rick went out with Joe for about a year. They were great before, but now they’re just untouchable. It’s great working with those guys. Being an old cat, I’ve been influenced by a lot.
You know, garage bands like Mouse & The Traps, 13th Floor Elevators, and all these great ’60s gnarly garage bands. But then of course, the blues like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Charlie Musselwhite. Then the gospel with Rosetta Tharpe. “Stone Blind Horses” is more of my folk influence, the early Michael Martin Murphey and Neil Young stuff. There’s a lot of influences on the record that I’ve tried to show and honor by, you know, not being crappy [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. There’s this line on the song (“Chick Singer, Badass Rockin'”) that I’m sure is going to be focused on. That “Nashville country is pissants” line. I imagine people are going to be focusing on that line and you’ll probably be at home just laughing about it.
RWH: Yeah well, I did laugh about it [laughs]. I’m still laughing about it. I think, why did I do that? I’ve tried to be nice. If someone in Nashville were to cut one of my songs, so I think, why would I say that? I have no explanation. With that Rolling Stone Country, that’s the song they wanted to stream. I’d never gone there, but I went to have a look. There’s all this stuff on Toby Keith and Garth Brooks. Lady Antebellum. Then all of a sudden, there’s this “Texas Rebel Ray Wylie Hubbard” headline. Then they actually pointed out that line. I said, “No wonder. This explains my whole career [laughs].” I’ll never learn.
But it really to the song, the whole attitude of it. It has that Joan Jett attitude. What do you have to lose? It’s not about this star celebrity, but about making the best rock music you can and it seems like that’s what this singer would think. “Believes rock n’ roll is old leather pants, Nashville country is pissants.” I was able to empathize [laughs]. If I was this young female roots rocker, I think I’d have that attitude. So I through it on there. Why not? I did “Conversation with the Devil” with Nashville record executives burning in hell so I’m kind of at that age where it’s not going to make a difference one way or the other [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. There’s also two songs on here written with some young guys. Dirty River Boys with “Down by the River” and “Hey Mama, My Time Ain’t Long” with Jonathan Tyler. Now “Down by the River” was recorded for the Dirty River Boys album and I’m pretty sure Jonathan is putting “Hey Mama,” on his upcoming album. I think it’s cool when both artists cut the song.
RWH: I do too.
NS: I think it at least feels like both parties involved were really invested in the song and really connected to it. It feels like both actually care about the song.
RWH: I agree. Like you weren’t doing a co-write to just get a cut. That’s kind of publishing company deal. We wrote these songs because we believed in them. That’s the thing about the Jonathan Tylers and the Dirty River guys of the world. Maybe they started out to get free beer and girls. But I think with them, it’s more than that. That’s not the reason they’re doing it now. They have this incredible integrity to songwriting and who they are. It really was a treat to write with those guys. Such great guys. Jonathan is really intense about what he’s doing. I was really impressed with all of them.
NS: Yeah. I think with Jonathan, he’s really in this great spot. He’s really wanting to get this album out (Holy Smokes) and been working hard on it. I think these past couple years have been a little hard on him because he’s been trying desperately to release new material, but hasn’t been able to. I can’t wait for the album–not just because it’s great music, but also because I know how much work has been put in by those guys, and he’s a good guy.
RHW: Yeah. You hit it on point; he is a good guy. His heart is in the right place. He’s doing it for the right reasons. He’s got this thing where he writes from the place where the true poet comes. I love Jonathan. I hope the record just explodes.
NS: Yeah. Also something I noticed on the album is there’s a bunch of bird imagery. Black bird, crows, sparrows, rooster–I’m sure there’s more than what I jotted down. I imagine it’s just one of those things that sticks out once you’ve put all the songs together.
RWH: Yeah. All the birds. Somewhere in there, it goes back to Edgar Allan Poe and The Raven for me. Course, that raven only said “nevermore.” I’ve got my raven saying a bunch of stuff. I love the image. Crows and ravens, they give off that darkness feeling. I tend to go more with those guys than robins or cardinals [laughs]. It puts the song in a certain frame of mind. Even the old cartoon Heckle and Jeckle, you ever see those guys?
NS: Oh yeah. I’m familiar.
RWH: Yeah. That’s probably my favorite cartoon. I love that more than Tom & Jerry or any of those others. They were these crows and they were these pranksters. That kind of comes through in my writing. And it’s on album cover too. We’ve got a crow sitting on Judy’s chair when she’s doing the fortune-teller thing. I’m very sympathetic to black birds and crows.
NS: This record is also really tight. It’s 10 songs and probably about 35 minutes long. Was that something you guys wanted to do, want to make it where the songs weren’t filled with a bunch of intros, outros, and long solos?
RWH: Yeah, we went in there with the idea of cutting it like some of the albums we really like. If you really think about it, The Beatles first record, The Stones first record, The Black Crowes first record, Buffalo Springfield’s first, those guys just went in there. They were on a time limit. They didn’t have a bunch of pedals and they just played. You can hear that they didn’t compress the drums. They didn’t have autotune. That was kind of the idea when George and I got together. We want to go in and make it where you can hear us play. You can hear the string noises, the pedal squeaks. You can hear a 60 cycle hum. No frills.