Ray Wylie Gets Intense

There's a lot of hooey these days about old outlaws and rowdy friends settling down, and Johnny Cash has become an elder statesman of MTV. Ray Wylie Hubbard, however, has taken a different tack. He's decided that middle age is the time to become more intense.

Loco Gringo's Lament, his latest CD, is as slick as they come. The cover art reeks of design -- color saturations just so, artist and title listed in a perfect typeface -- and shows Hubbard scowling into the distance, carefully draped in a buckskin poncho with Levi's clinging to what are damn nice legs for man his age. The back cover photo is a "serious songwriter" shot of the artist seated with guitar, wearing leather and metal jewelry such as is sold at craft fairs, and looking thoughtful. As a production, this package is pretty intense for Ray Wylie Hubbard. And he's happy with the window dressing.

He's satisfied, in fact, with every little aspect of Loco Gringo's Lament. "It wasn't," he says without naming names, "like one of the albums where I wasn't there during the mix and they put rope letters on [the cover], but we won't get into that."

Hubbard is so focused and resolutely positive nowadays that he can trot out such lines as, "This one here was really the best experience I've had," without sounding a bit sappy. "I look at this like the first record that I've really done right. The others were half-baked or done under duress." Speaking, with a softer drawl than his singing voice, Hubbard explains what went into "this one here."

After 25 years in the music business, he had taken stock of his life and career and decided he was satisfied with neither. "I was more of a working musician who just sort of wrote songs on the side," he says. So he set out to transform himself into a serious songwriter, and as part of that transformation took his "first ever guitar lesson," at the age of 43. What he did was call "an old fellah and started taking lessons," he said. "I had this incredible fear of embarrassment, but I needed to learn better technique."

Previously, Hubbard says of a songwriting career that began when he was 16, "I'd get a little line or an idea or something like that and sit down and mess around and then get bored with it and, say, 'Well, that was it.'" Many of his not-"Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" songs are nothing to sneeze at, but his buckling down to refine his knowledge of song structure was an idea that has paid off on Loco Gringo's Lament's 11 tracks, which are all mature, grounded songs.

This is not to say that the subjects are staid, respectable themes. Nope, Hubbard still sings of white trash women ("Little Angel Comes a Walkin'"), lost highways ("I've Seen that Old Highway"), and a simple man with a mission and a code ("The Messenger"). Subject-wise, he's in familiar territory: it's all broken hearts and last-chance salvation. The grace with which he addresses his subjects imbues the songs with a certain heft.

Plus, one song is about Jesus, which makes it, to my lights, a country album. Hubbard begs to differ. "Boy, I tell you what, I don't know -- because I have never, ever thought of myself as a country singer. Not ever, not even back during that progressive-country scare ... back when it looked like that was going to do something." Actually, that portion of the '70s Hubbard dismisses as the "scare" did do something, and one thing it did was jumble music classification to the point that Ray Wylie Hubbard can now be labeled "adult post-modern."

Like anybody with good sense, he's skittish about genre, although he'll go with Woody Guthrie's definition of folk: "It's all folk music, 'cause it's played by folks." The former outlaw admits to starting off as genuine folk. Then, he allows, "I got some bass drum and electric guitar .... That whole thing kind of kicked off there in Austin, which was kind of country and rock." He says this like it was all simple and run-of-the-mill when in plain fact his band, Cowboy Twinkies, played country, played with substance abuse, expanded their minds, expanded their repertoire and tossed off Hendrix and Zeppelin covers along with funky blues. Despite that eclecticism, he got pigeonholed. "Pick up a steel guitar and all of a sudden you're a country band," Hubbard says. "It's kind of guilt by association."

A lot of people come to his shows, he knows, to hear the song about "his wife's name is Betty Lou Thelma Liz." That's okay, as long as they come. "I'm mainly known for 'Redneck Mother,' but the people who only come for that, I'm finding they'll go on and get the idea behind the whole message."

Hubbard's message is as much about the joy of song craft as anything. He does, after all, mix the aforementioned Christ-child with gamblers and, in one song, Mother Maybelle Carter's wildwood flower and Mariane Faithful's broken English. There's a lot of redemption on this recording, but some of the characters are doomed, too. Old white-line outlaws in "I've Seen That Old Highway" have gotten to a place where "your momma can't help you now." That tune is bleak as all get out, and then in "Wanna Rock and Roll" you get what I maintain is a country hallmark -- a woman-killer enjoying a necrophiliac last verse. (As much a country hallmark as a second-to-last necrophiliac verse followed by suicidal last verse.)

'Course, Bruce Springsteen never killed anybody, and Hubbard cites the Boss' work, especially Nebraska, as a favorite and guideline. "Not," he stresses, "that I ripped anybody off, just studied the craft of it, the structures."

The first work by this new and improved Hubbard was a 1993 release, Lost Train of Thought. That, he says, was "practice for this one, really." (Throughout the interview, Hubbard refers to Loco Gringo's Lament as "this one." Just as someone with several good dogs never calls the favorite by name; it's always Tigger and Rusty and Sweetie and "this boy.") Lost Train of Thought is a respectable recording in its own right, but Hubbard thinks of it as "an indie project we just did ourselves, just to show the direction that I hoped my songwriting was taking."

Who's this "we"? He means Terry "Buffalo" Ware, an Okie bud he's worked with 19 out of the last 25 years, and Bugs Henderson, who's finally getting the recognition he deserves. Ware and Henderson also played major roles in the production of Loco Gringo's Lament.

Hubbard responds to most questions in a tone of pleasant surprise, except when he is distracted by Lucas, his 20-month-old son. Hubbard has reason to be pleasantly surprised. Here he is, formerly one of the most likely to burn out or OD, now building a pleasant home with Judy, his wife of six years, and a new son.

Actually, Hubbard is under the strain of double-barreled fatherhood. He has two sons; the other is 16 and from a previous marriage. "They both," he jokes, "became mobile on the same day. One started walking and the other got a driver's license. I have a feeling I'm going to age a lot in the next year." That's what he says. That's not the way he acts.

The new home, in Poetry, Texas, has an old barn in which Hubbard is installing a small studio. Robin Leach is unlikely to present full-color details of the Hubbards at home, and This Old House has no plans to share news of the transformation, so here, for the first and only time, is the deal. Hubbard is doing it himself. "I got a little 8-track that I'm putting together and we're going in this weekend and gluing burlap coffee bean sacks on the wall." Seeing to the acoustic details of the studio isn't a rigorous task. "I don't know how handy I am, but I'm gonna do it. Anyway, it's kind of hard to mess up gluing burlap sacks on wall. Get them crooked, it's art; get them straight and it's symmetrical."

Soon as he gets home, he'll be all set to put together another recording.
Gets home? Yeah, well, he's kind of itching to get on the road. He and Terry Ware will be doing coffee houses and folk clubs with what he calls "the two-man power trio." Hubbard wants to cover the West Coast and Europe, promoting the new CD, but first he and Ware will slide into the Mucky Duck. Hubbard is curious about the club, and I tell him that it's a great place to showcase his latest skill, playing the mandolin.

He kind of wanted to go in for fiddling, but self-improvement plans have their limits. "The mandolin," he explains, "is not that offensive to learn. It's an easier instrument to get people to let you play." Friends, it seems, don't let friends play fiddle badly.

Ray Wylie Hubbard and Terry Ware play McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 9 p.m. Friday, January 13. Tickets are $8. Call 528-5999 for info.

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