Ray Wylie Hubbard has traveled a long hard road, to borrow from fellow Texan Rodney Crowell’s lyrics, and it may have taken him a little longer than most to find the specific road he was to follow.
With the release of 1997’s Dangerous Spirits and his most recent Crusades of the Restless Knights, there’s no doubt that his compass is taking him where he needs to be.
Hubbard’s personality is one of quick wit and intense insight. His concerts are entertaining, with his wit providing a constant barrage of one-liners and quirky remarks. But it is his music and the intensity of his lyrics that draw the crowd into his performance.
Those lyrics are not written in some high-rise office building between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., with a two-hour break for lunch. They aren’t hook heavy and heart light, like many songs heard on radio today. Instead, they may be written in any variety of places, from the singer’s bus to a lonely hotel room or even on a plane heading for that next performance. And though they are well crafted, the lyrics pull and tug and bring out emotions, while at the same time giving you food for thought that makes you want to share them with a friend so you can converse about their deeper meaning.
“I agonize over them (lyrics),” Hubbard says of writing a song. “I really take my songwriting seriously but I really try to have fun when I get onstage to play. I don’t want to go out on stage and have this whole dark cloud. I try to get the audience sucked into my psychosis the first 10 minutes of the show, and then we’re all on the same level.
“We were getting ready to go in and record in September and I only had six songs done and three I was nibbling on. So I do agonize but I do respect and understand how hard it is to write these songs.”
“Songwriting is inspiration plus craft, knowing when to do what. So a lot of times the inspiration will trigger and then you make it fit into the song. I learned that the craft can trigger the inspiration – I learned it could work that way when I was doing my last album, so that was good to know. It validated for me that they worked together. But as for my writing, hopefully I know enough about it so that I can make it work for me.”
Hubbard is among that ever-expanding group of singer/songwriters who are often listed on the Americana charts. He offers insight into why that genre of music continues to grow.
“I think there is an integrity there that perhaps is not in your other formats of music,” he says. “I think the people are doing it because they love it – it’s more of a lifestyle than a livelihood. I think they are doing it for the love of music rather than to make a living. When I listen to that type of music, I really appreciate what it does for me. I’m very grateful for it to be growing.”
Hubbard went on to say that many of the artists who record for the independent labels and are aiming for the Americana market don’t have record executives looking over their shoulders, which means that they have total freedom when they go into the studio. Hubbard has experienced that freedom. “The stuff I have done for Rounder/Philo, they just say give us the masters; they aren’t dictating what we do.”
With that freedom comes a certain responsibility to make the best music possible, and Hubbard says that “the people who are in Americana, they accept that responsibility – I think with that freedom there is responsibility to do the best music that they can. If they don’t have the integrity to do that, they are not gonna be Americana artists. I hope I won’t abuse the privilege.”
When asked about the difference in songs written by Americana artists, Hubbard went on to say, “Without getting too deep or spiritual, the artists that I like, which happen to be Americana artists, they seem to tear off little fragments of their soul and put it into their music, more so than commercial top 40 country or whatever. I don’t mean to be pretentious, because I really honor that, I can just tell that the people I listen to, the CDs I go buy are like that and I really appreciate the fact that they are willing to do that. People like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Patti Griffin, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, they are willing to do that with their songs and I respect that.”
Hubbard said that he had talked with some of the other Americana artists and they determined that the folks who write and record in that format started writing songs because they had no choice.
“I like the idea that there was this inner need to write and create whether they got a deal or not. The reason I think they started writing is this inner creative spirit – I like to think it’s a divine creative spark – and I like this idea. As for myself, I wrote ‘Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother’ 30 years ago; Jerry Jeff cut it and I never did any recording, never could get the business part together, but I continued to write not knowing if I’d ever do another record or get another song cut. Then I was fortunate to do ‘Loco Gringos,’ and kept writing; next I did ‘Dangerous Spirits,’ then with the last album I got the record deal and was in a situation where I knew the songs were going to be so I had to write the songs.”
It seems that songwriters are always aware of what is going on around them so when a song idea presents itself, they jump on it. Hubbard calls it a songwriter consciousness. “I’ll see if there’s something I can hear or feel or see that can go into a song. I’ll be watching TV or the news, and I’ll hear a phrase, a word or a feeling and I’ll go ‘O.K., there it is.’ Sometimes I am conscious of it, I am looking for something to write a song about, and other times I’m not. I’ll write it down if I can and if not I’ll try to remember it until I can write it down.”
Another way to be inspired is to do something different, learn new things. Hubbard said he bought a mandolin and learned to play it, so if he’s writing on his guitar and not making any progress, he’ll pick up the mandolin and try something different on it. He learned different tuning on his guitar and wrote a few songs out of that.
One of the greatest things for a songwriter is knowing he’s made a difference with one of his songs. “I’ve had people come up to me and tell me how much my song ‘The Messenger’ means to them and how they’ve been helped by it. It validates when I’m up there (writing) tearing off pieces of my soul trying to make it fit the laws of music – it validates that what we are doing is worthwhile.”