If someone were to try to analyze the different elements of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s sound, it would take a long time. But that person might find the soul of a philosopher, the vocabulary of a poet, the guitar chops of a bluesman, the record collection of a serious Rolling Stones fan, a jazz lover’s groove theory, a scoundrel’s sense of humor and an old preacher’s nose for fire and brimstone. His album titles include Delirium Tremolos, The Grifter’s Hymnal, Loco Gringo’s Lament and Lost Train of Thought, all of which only hint at the keen irony and wry fatalism within.
Ray Wylie Hubbard abides. In 1973, Jerry Jeff Walker cut one of Hubbard’s songs, the anthem-in-waiting “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother”; in 2013, Sammy Hagar cut another one, “Bad On Fords,” which Hubbard co-wrote with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn. That song also appears on Hubbard’s latest album, last year’s The Ruffian’s Misfortune. His songs ask important questions like “When Jesus went to heaven, did he leave a vapor trail?” This Sunday, he will observe his 70th birthday at Houston’s Rockefeller Hall, a show that has been relocated from the Heights Theater, which owner Edwin Cabaniss says only has to clear a few final inspections before opening. But wherever the gig is, Hubbard will be damn glad to be there.
“I’m grateful to be busy,” Hubbard says over the phone from his home in Wimberley. “I mean, there was a lot of, you know, time when I was younger and I’d look at my calendar and there wasn’t anything on it, you know?”, he laughs. “So yeah, I enjoy the working, the process of it. I really enjoy performing and getting out there. Like I say, it’s still fun.”
Sadly, there isn’t time here to run down all the Hubbard lyrics that would make most listeners of sound mind laugh, get choked up, hold a lover close, or ponder which way their soul may be headed in the afterlife. Luckily, he’s written a book, last year’s A Life...Well, Lived, that devotes a significant amount of pages to song lyrics, if they’re not recounting his (only slightly improbable) life story or one of his hair-raising – and totally believable – road stories. The Oklahoma-born, largely Dallas-raised Hubbard attributes his knack for wordplay to his father, an English teacher who taught him to appreciate literature early on. “I went from him reading me "Three Little Pigs" to him reading me [Poe’s] The Raven.”
Folk groups like Peter, Paul & Mary were popular in his high-school, and Hubbard says from there it was a short hop to Bob Dylan and then Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Another favorite is Leonard Cohen, the great Canadian songwriter who sadly passed away Thursday evening at age 82; weeks after releasing his latest album, You Want It Darker. The Houston Press spoke with Hubbard not long after Dylan was announced as this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, although before he finally acknowledged the award. Hubbard was pleased.
“Well, I think he deserves it,” he says. “You know, he’s a great lyricist, and Chronicles as a book, I love that book; it’s pretty much Bob Dylan, you know? You know what you’re getting — well, you really don’t know what you’re getting [laughs]. Let me rephrase that. You really don’t know. So I think it’s nice that the Nobel committee would honor a songwriter and lyricist, so I’m all for it.”
Like Dylan, Hubbard says he is a big “re-writer.”
“One of my favorite quotes is from Flannery O’Connor,” he says. “She said, ‘Never second-guess inspiration. Whenever the great ‘a-ha!’ hits, never doubt it, but it is OK to rewrite. So I do spend a lot of time on rewriting.”
Hubbard decided to write a book, he says, because he was talked into it. His co-author on A Life, Well...Lived is his friend Thom Jurek of the All Music Guide, who told him he should write a book after Hubbard told him about the time he met Muddy Waters as a young man, and the time he was kidnapped by Willie Nelson. Hubbard says Jurek helped him organize his thoughts, coaxed the necessary biographical details out of him, and suggested including the road stories (told in all lowercase) and song lyrics. When Hubbard delivered the book to his publisher’s in Austin, he says they almost didn’t know what to make of it.
“I said, ‘Here’s my book,’ and they said, ‘Where’s your table of contents?’”, he recounts. “I went, ‘Huh?’ And they said, ‘Don’t you have a table of contents?’ I went, ‘You know, I never thought about it.’
“So I went that night and wrote the table of contents and I said, ‘I tell you what, I’ll do a table of contents but I’m not going to do an index,” Hubbard continues. “Because if I do, all my musician buddies will flip it to the back and see if their name is mentioned, go to that page, read about them and put the book back.’”
Hubbard laughed pretty hard after telling that story. He says his book reminds him of another iconic work of 20th-century literature: “It’s like Lord of the Rings — it’s got three different stories going on at the same time.”
One tale from A Life...Well, Lived is too good not to share at least a little bit of it here. Once Hubbard and his band were booked at the Texas Redneck Games, outside of Tyler. The money was good, but Hubbard’s wife and manager Judy announced it to him as “a whore dog gig.” He can take it from there:
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we get to the site of the ‘games’ about nine o’clock and it is like a 1930 oklahoma dust storm. from the earth to the sky there is this horrible brown hazy cloud blocking out the full moon that is created from every off road vehicle sold in the south since 1980 roaring all over this giant dirt field with texas and rebel flags flying from the handlebars and there are more locusts swarming in the air than there ever were because of yahweh’s curse upon pharaoh in the book of exodus.
i am getting sick to my stomach. we pull up backstage and the band opening for us is playing “friends in low places” and throwing condoms with their logo on them to the crowd. the promoter comes up and tells us the redneck comedian from nashville got too drunk to perform but crawled on stage during the wet t shirt contest and started fondling the girls and got a microphone and started making comments so rude even the drunk rednecks in the crowd were offended and threatened to beat the shit out of him. the promoter had to hold a fifth of bourbon in front of him to get him offstage and into a pickup truck to take him to the hotel.
Continue and you’ll read about the butt-crack contest Hubbard and his bandmates witnessed on the midway. A Life…Well, Lived is full of stories like that; some of them are almost as Biblical. But he’s also appeared on David Letterman and sung onstage with Ringo Starr, who became a fan after hearing his 2006 LP Snake Farm; Hubbard later covered Starr’s “Coochy Coochy” on Grifter’s Hymnal. At one show at an old drive-in theater outside Houston, he watched Willie Nelson’s drummer jump offstage and knock out someone who had thrown a beer at the stage (“I don’t know if they were trying to hit Willie or give him a beer”), and remembers how Gilley’s kept a big can of mosquito spray backstage so artists could spray themselves down before going onstage. Hubbard says when he went back and read through A Life…Well, Lived, he felt like Forrest Gump.
“Getting out there and laying down these old songs and having the audience smile and sing along and, you know, groove with me — when we’re all in the same groove, I enjoy that,” he muses. “And then also I’ve got my son [Lucas] playing guitar with me; he’s just really solid. He’s got some really cool chops. He’s worked at it. So there’s a lot that…there’s not like one particular thing I can just nail down as ‘this is better than that.’ It’s all pretty good, being a musician and songwriter.”
Ray Wylie Hubbard and special guests Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams perform Sunday, November 13 at Rockefeller’s, 3620 Washington. Doors open at 7 p.m.