one time waylon jennings asked me to write him some songs. i said ''what kind of songs?'' he said ''waylon 'goddam' jennings songs. what else, hoss?'' i regret to this day i was unable to empathize in order to do that.
As Ray Wylie Hubbard wrestles with the idea of turning 70 in less than two years, he's been looking in the rear-view mirror a lot. Yet the nearly septuagenarian Texas singer-songwriter has done more than just reflect on his life. He's also put it down in writing.
Set for release on May 1, Hubbard's lifetime of road trips, various run-ins with ne'er do wells of all descriptions and one eureka moment in his forties that made him into the artist he is today has been squeezed into an 184-page autobiography titled A Life...Well, Lived, keeping in tune with his dry, self-deprecating style of humor. Co-written with Thom Jurek, it will be self-published through Hubbard's music label, Bordello Records.
In between bites of a catfish sandwich before a recent gig in Austin -- he stayed clear of the fried chicken buffet -- Hubbard says it's almost two books in one. After every chapter written in regular prose, the next is written in what he says is "stream of consciousness style," like a form of conversation, with no capitalization as well as lapses in punctuation. Song lyrics are liberally sprinkled throughout.
It's fitting that he took such an off-kilter approach to describing his life, considering how the Oklahoma-born artist has hardly done things by the book, especially when it came to his musical career. He started off as a countrified folksinger in the late 1960s before being signed to a major label in the mid-1970s after he wrote a particular song that Jerry Jeff Walker turned into one mother of a Southern redneck anthem. He was reborn again as an Americana artist in the 1990s.
The book's publication comes less than a month after Hubbard's latest album, The Ruffian's Misfortune, which is out today. He regards it as the middle rung of a trilogy that covers many of his triumphs and transgressions, beginning with the release of his critically acclaimed The Grifter's Hymnal in 2012. The third installment already has a name, The Rogue's Ascension, which Hubbard says reflects how he feels these days, which is ready to give Pinetop Perkins a run for musical longevity.
While in the past Hubbard sometimes tried to squeeze too much imagery into three minutes and 48 seconds, his writing on these ten tracks has more of a crisp edge in on the new release, his third since forming his own label. That sense of economy also matches his recent decision to work only as a trio for most of his touring gigs, including his 21-year-old son Lucas on lead guitar.
Hubbard's songwriting style is born from the fact that the former college English major has always been a voracious reader. The words stick in his craw until, as he puts it, they literally pop out of his head. On the latest disk's lead-off track, "All Loose Things," he was inspired by Aesop's Fables, citing a talking crow that looks down with disdain at humanity. As for his other source material, he has spent the past 25 years re-reading the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke, Charles Dickens and one of his favorites, Joseph Campbell's Transportation of Myth Through Time.
"I love the use of the language," Hubbard says. "The way it was written back then may seem archaic now, but it's really been something that's been part of what I've done, ever since I really learned how to play the blues."
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Perhaps the most important thing Hubbard did to improve his art came in the late 1980s, when, at age 42, Dallas guitarist Sam Swank taught him how to fingerpick. Well, maybe the second most important after getting sober; to achieve that one, he asked Stevie Ray Vaughan for advice. That new-found ability to mimic the blues licks created by musical heroes such as Lightning Hopkins, turned loose Hubbard's muse, in turn giving him the freedom to write words as colorful as the bluesy vibe he could finally explore.
While Hubbard has been known in the past 15 years or so for name-dropping influential blues or gospel artists from yesteryear or hard-to-find musical gear in his songs -- in one new track he mentions a 1965 Fender black-face Vibro Champ amplifier -- it's noticeable that many of the tracks on Misfortune are littered with religious references.
He says he's thought more than once about his own mortality the past couple of years, and not just because he was looking for a cool word to rhyme with coffin.
"I hope God grades on a curve. You got Attila the Hun over here, and then Mother Teresa over there, so hopefully I'm somewhere in the middle," muses Hubbard, who alternately went to church on Sundays as a child to either Baptist or Church of Christ services, where he got a steady diet of Bible-thumping.
The religious themes permeate the two strongest tracks, which close out the album. "Barefoot in Heaven," is sung from the point of view of a recently converted Christian who hopes to find his place among the clouds, already planning to doff his shoes at the Pearly Gates. But on the melancholy final cut, "Stone Blind Horses," which Hubbard says is his favorite on the album, the protagonist cuts a bit closer to the bone. There's an earnest pleading in Hubbard's raspy voice when he asks a friend to say a prayer for a man who hasn't exactly lived an honest life.
The crosses referenced in that song aren't the ones used to ward off vampires; rather, they're the metaphorical kind.
"As I've gotten older I've thought about how the end is eventually coming. I actually prefer the word spiritual awakening to religious conversion," says Hubbard. "I don't follow one dogma but I do try to live by certain spiritual principles, being honest and forgiving the best I can."
The Ruffians Misfortune will be released today. Hubbard performs next Tuesday and Wednesday, April 14 & 15, at Main Street Crossing, 111 W. Main in Tomball. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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