An Exclusive Interview with Ray Wylie Hubbard
All music roads, both physical and philosophical, lead to Ray Wylie Hubbard when it comes to the Texas music scene. A self-described grizzled veteran of the road, Hubbard has been linked musically to everyone from Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Michael Martin Murphey to the newest batch of Texas upstarts including Kevin Welch and Matt King. His independent albums released over the course of a near 40-year recording career have blended blues, country and Americana and developed a passionate following of musicians and fans alike. As for those philosophical roads, Hubbard speaks freely and frequently about the spirit of the music. For him, the muse is tangible.
His most recent album, A: Enlightenment B: Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C),was met with near-universal critical acclaim and got him nominated for an Americana Music Award for album and artist of the year.
Hubbard was kind enough to make a little of time for the Engine 145 right before he was heading out to record his newest album (tentatively due in February), and talk about influences and the importance of roots in music.
Ken Morton, Jr.: In doing a little research, I found a quote on Wikipedia that says that you’re the “elder statesman on the Texas music scene.” I wanted to know what your thoughts were on that.
Ray Wylie Hubbard: (laughter) Well, the elder in me can appreciate that. Well, I’ve been doing this awhile and I’ve been very fortunate for that. I went to high school with Michael Martin Murphey and BW Stephenson who got really involved in folk music and the folk music scene. And then the whole thing happened in Austin with Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff [Walker] and I was kind of involved with that. And I guess I’ve just been around for awhile. And I guess that’s just how I got to get that description.
KMJ: What do you see as your mark that you’re leaving along that great music legacy?
RWH: If there’s ever a book written about it, I’ll probably be a smudge rather than a footnote. I’ve never really thought about that. I’ve just been very fortunate to be able to write these gnarly old songs and pay most of my bills. I’ve never had a lot of songs covered by other people. And the people that do are kind of on the edge anyways. I feel really good about where I am right now. I feel really grateful and really fortunate that I’m still writing songs and recording. And I’ve been able to travel the world and play them and produce other people who that I feel strong about their music. I really am in a very good position right now. I’m very happy right now.
KMJ: Your take on life is very philosophical and perhaps a bit more off-of-center than most. Is that the artist in you or some other kind of influence?
RWH: I was first very influenced by the whole folk thing and learned early that the lyrics are very important. I learned through [Bob] Dylan and Eric Henderson and all those guys. For those guys, the lyrics were so very important. And somewhere in there, it kind of moved into a blues vibe that had a grit and a groove. My music has to have a groove and some grit and it has to have its roots in the blues and little rock. Lyrics will hopefully have a little depth and some weight to them. Does that make sense?
KMJ: It certainly does.
RWH: You know, I’ve just been very fortunate to be able to hang and learn from guys like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zant and Billy Joe Shaver. Those types of guys have a quality and a care about their lyrics. And being able to hang around with some country blues legends and watch a little bit with Freddie King and Lightning Hopkins and some of those guys. I just feel really good. I’ve really been able to have a foot in each world a little.
KMJ: As it pertains to your new album’s title, A: Enlightenment B: Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), how does this conversation work into that?
RWH: I think I was able to do that with the songs. I was able to put songs on there like “Whoop and Hollar” that is a pretty full-tilt-get-down-gospel-roll-around-until-you-feel-the-spirit-come-through-you kind of song. And then we were able to put a song on there like “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that gets into the mindset of someone that sees that as fact. Part of it is writing songs like that. But then, you’ve got songs on there like “Drunken Poet’s Dream.” It was kind of the idea of the title. At some point, you either have to make a commitment to either be enlightened or live in the darkness. It just kind of felt right to call it that. All of the songs kind of fall into both sides.
KMJ: How did the album artwork of you holding your own head tie into that as well?
RWH: Well, here’s what happened. I was looking at the different ads for iTunes’ top twenty albums. They have them all listed there and the album covers are the size of a postage stamp, right? They’re about an inch and a half by an inch and a half. I looked at that and thought there wasn’t much space there. So I drew a little stick man in a two-inch square and said, “Yep, that’s what it would look like.” And for some reason, I erased his head and drew a little circle down by his hand. And so it just seemed natural to put a sword in his other hand. And I laughed and said, “You know, you’ll notice that.” (laughter) And you know this is so weird. When the album came out, I think we got somewhere like number 16 on the top country albums for that week. You had Taylor Swift and Brooks & Dunn and Kenny Chesney and all these wonderful album covers. And then down a little ways was this gnarly old guy with his head cut off. I found that very amusing. That’s why I went with it. You get more attention burning down the barn than taking out the trash. You carry out the trash and no one pays attention to you, but you burn down the barn, you get a whole lot of attention. That validated it when all these beautiful album covers with wind in the hair were surrounding this old funky cat with a sword. I just enjoy things like that.
KMJ: Where are you with the process of writing and recording a new album?
RWH: This is kind of cool. We’re going in this month of August—I’ve got all the songs written—to the Festival Hill Music Conservatory in Round Top, Texas. We’re going to the Edythe Bates Old Chapel. You can Google it and see it at Edythe Bates Old Chapel. It’s this church that was built in La Grange, Texas in the 1800’s and they moved it to this music conservatory. They have all these conductors and students from all over the world come and study classic music here. They’ll have a string quartet or someone from the Philadelphia Philharmonic Symphony come down and teach. We’re going to go over there and record with George Reiff who has played bass forever and worked with Jakob Dylan. He produced the last record and has played bass on the last three records. And of course we’ll have Rick Richards who has played drums on all of my records plus all the cool records coming out of Austin. Slaid Cleaves. Gurf Morlix. Kevin Welch. The list is endless. He’s just a great drummer for that crazy Austin Americana sound. And we’re going in with Audley Freed who has worked with the Black Crowes and the Dixie Chicks. He’s going to do some guitar-work and that will be kind of the foundation of the group. We’re going to go in with those guys and record. I’m hoping the spirit of that place will allow that. So we’ll be recording all August and hopefully have something out in February, I believe.
I’ve got some guests that I’m not above using guilt and shame to have them come play on this record. But I haven’t gotten a full commitment from some of them yet. But that’s the basic core of the band that’s going to go in there and record with. Some other people are going to come in and contribute to it. I can’t say just who they are because it’s kind of a process to try and get everyone lined up. It should be really good, though.
And then my friend Brent Carpenter—he does all the music videos for Ringo Starr—is going to come in and film all of this. It seems like it needs to be recorded. We’re going to include a 30 minute DVD of going in and setting up all the equipment, creating this shamble and then recording for eight days. He’s going to come in and film the process of doing this record. I’m beyond excited about it. I’ve got all the songs written and am feeling pretty good about it.
KMJ: Where has your muse taken you on these songs that you’ve written thus far?
RWH: Golly. That’s a really good question. They’re non-conformist low-down breathe deep type of songs. That’s a really good question. I’m not really sure how to answer that this time. All I know is that I have this good group of songs and each time I finish one I have to say, “Thanks.” I’m not sure that’s thanking the muse, but I do have to tell somebody, “Thanks.” And I’m very grateful that they all showed up. The foundation is kind of a Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer thing combined with the acoustic stuff on Led Zeppelin’s III. I’ve been listening to that a lot. That’s kind of the thought going in. It’s not any one of Muddy Waters’ songs, but more that sound. I don’t know how to really describe it past that. We just want it to sound open and cool. That’s kind of the foundation and starting point. I suppose. The sound on that Muddy Waters album is so cool. There should be some good tone on this record. I’m concentrating on grit, groove, tone and taste. That’s what I’ve learned from Gurf Morlix and George Reiff and the way they produce. It’s got to have grit, groove, tone and taste.
KMJ: Talk to me about your Tuesday radio show, Roots and Branches.
RWH: This radio show is about fifteen miles from where I live. I was talking about roots music and how no one is talking about roots music. I always say, “The deeper the roots, the stronger the branch.” We have to go back and listen to Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie. And they said, “Why don’t you come and do a show?” So one night I came over and talked a lot and played all of these funky old records. And the next week, Kevin Welch and Jimmy LaFave showed up and played some songs. And the next week Joe Ely came by. The only requirement is that you have to write your own songs. That’s the basis of it. You have to be a songwriter. We’ve been doing it for six or seven years, now, I guess. We do it three times a month. My honey wants me out of the house on Tuesday nights, so that’s the real reason I do it, I guess. (laughter) No, I do it because I really enjoy doing it. It’s really a lot of fun. We’ve had everyone on there from Billy Joe Shaver to a bunch of young guys around here. I really enjoy it. When I get these other songwriters in the room, there’s really an openness there. There’s not much they won’t talk about. It’s fun.
KMJ: One last question for you, and this one’s pretty open-ended. What’s country music to Ray Wylie Hubbard?
RWH: It’s important. It really is. We have to have a history of country as your influences. It comes down to the old guys. Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers and guys like that are important. Country music is a very important part of music. There are other forms of music that bring it together. But country music to me means a great deal. People don’t necessarily think of me as a strictly country music songwriter or performer, but country music has been very important to me and my development as an artist. Especially the roots of it. It all goes back to those guys.
- Leeann Ward: Thanks, NM. I like a good pop hook, to be honest. So, maybe I need to try it again.
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim Z. That changes everything. I surrender.
- Jim Z: to call the Dirty River Boys an "Austin area band" is still incorrect. They are based in El Paso.
- nm: Leeann, you and I often have similar tastes in more-traditional country. And, to my ears, Sam Hunt's voice and lyrics …
- Barry Mazor: Matter of fact, as always--I did. The notes say the album was recorded & mixed by and at "The …
- Roger: Looking forward to picking up the Jamey Johnson Christmas EP - love all of those songs and can't wait for …
- Jim Z: that record was recorded in El Paso. (you could look it up) and other than appearing in Austin once in …
- Leeann Ward: Yes, I can always use more dobro in my life! Thanks for the Phil Leadbetter tip! I haven't been able to …
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim. The record's more or less out of Austin. But I'm sure they're also good in El Paso...
- Jim Z: Dirty River Boys are from El Paso, Texas.