Ray Wylie Hubbard: Halos And Horns

Photo by Courtney Chavanell

At his homey log cabin tucked away on a Wimberley, Texas, hilltop, Ray Wylie Hubbard is wrapping up an interview when his cell phone starts playing “Sympathy For The Devil.” It’s Judy, his wife and label president. He asks to keep that ringtone unmentioned, then changes his mind.

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It’s a compliment, I say; it’s not as if she’s the devil. Besides, would she — or we — expect any less from a guy who references heaven, hell and/or the keepers of both domains (or those who tout their existence) in nearly every song — not to mention the Rolling Stones, who also show up repeatedly, along with other influences and admired peers, favorite guitars and amps, assorted sinners and saints, and snakes. And many characters who fit several of those descriptions.

On the title tune of his new release, Tell The Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can, Hubbard, accompanied by Lucinda Williams (his “female Keith Richards”) and country star Eric Church, name-checks the Clash, the Kinks, the Replacements, Son Volt, Strats, Gibson sunbursts and ES-335s, Vox AC30s, Ford Econolines, Austin’s Continental Club, rock and roll believers and drunken poets — a nod to “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” co-written with Hayes Carll, which appears on Hubbard’s 2010 album, A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There is No C). It’s cited again in “Lucifer And The Fallen Angels,” reinforcing Hubbard’s tendency to weave certain threads through so much of his work, it’s almost as if he’s testing listeners to see if they’ll snag ‘em, like website Easter eggs.

“They should be in parentheses that say, ‘see previous album,’” Hubbard jokes. His last two were The Ruffian’s Misfortune and The Grifter’s Hymnal; the new one’s closing track, “In Times Of Cold,” tags both. He also amuses himself — and listeners — with wordplay such as rhyming “snakebite” with “Musselwhite” (in “Dead Thumb King”) or pairing “ecclesiastical” with “ethereal” (in “Prayer”).

Hubbard inherited his love of language from his father, an English teacher and school principal in Soper, Oklahoma, then Dallas.

“Instead of reading The Three Little Pigs [aloud], he’d read The Raven,” Hubbard remembers. Maybe hearing Poe as a child sparked his interest in the dark side, as visited in “House Of The White Rose Bouquet,” an accidental-suicide ghost story he calls his “Long Black Veil.” Like most of the new tracks, it would have been perfect for a True Blood episode, as much for its ominous blues vibe as its subject.

Which brings us to another quirk of Hubbard’s career: He’s often labeled a country artist, though he first thought of himself as a folk singer, then a folk-rocker.

When progressive country hit, the man who wrote “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother” (ranked 90th on Rollingtone.com’s “100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time” list) got churned through the major-label mill, then drank and snorted up a small inheritance before getting sober in his early 40s, aided by Stevie Ray Vaughan. At that point, he claims, “I didn’t have much of a career anyway, so I said, ‘I really want to try to be a real songwriter.’”

At 42, he studied fingerpicking, then open tunings, then slide guitar.

“By learning new things, that gives a song a door to come through that wasn’t there before,” Hubbard explains. He unlocked some gems, including “Snake Farm,” “Chick Singer, Badass Rockin’” and “Mother Blues” — which compresses his life and career into a 5-minute-and-54-second song about a gold-top Les Paul.

The lyrics mention giving the guitar to his son, Lucas, who played it while performing the tune with his dad on Letterman — a few years after both made their network-TV musical debut on Jimmy Fallon’s show. (“That was a long time between The Dating Game and Fallon,” cracks Hubbard, who confesses he was Bachelor No. 2 in a 1970 segment of the show — an experience described in his hilarious, e.e. cummings-styled memoir, a life … well, lived.)

Hubbard’s music is equally informed by his adoration for Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins and other blues greats. “Lightnin’ would just come out, just him; he would just thump that guitar and there was such a groove,” Hubbard recalls. “I said, ‘I want to do that.’ … It was really a good marriage to have that foundation in folk music, where the lyrics are so important, but couple it with a deep groove.”

From producers Lloyd Maines, Gurf Morlix and the late George Reiff, he learned the importance of making a record that captures the sound of  “real guys really playing.”

Reiff was supposed to produce Devil, but cancer stopped him.

“He said, ‘You know how to do it,’” Hubbard recounts. “I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. Grit, groove, tone and taste.’ He said, ‘Just make a record that you’d like to hear.’”

And so Hubbard did, acknowledging artists who, he says, “tattooed my heart,” and bringing it full circle with guests like Church, who mentioned Hubbard in the title track of his 2015 hit, Mr. Misunderstood.

Even for a self-described “old cat,” validation from fellow artists is invaluable, admits Hubbard, whose recordings have featured guests like Willie Nelson and Ringo Starr. “That ‘Hey man, I dug that song.’ That’s important,” he says. “It really is.”

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