What can I say about Ray Wylie Hubbard that hasn’t been said before? He is a brilliant songwriter, a humble man, a great friend to music, a legend, and with the release of A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment, (Hint There is No C) he’s showing that he’s not even close to resting on his laurels as a writer and performer.
I had a chance to talk with Hubbard over lunch in mid-December. I found him honest, forthcoming, and really, really funny. We talked about the new album, becoming sober in his 40s, the history behind “Redneck Mother”, and his thoughts about Austin and music in general.
Sean Claes: Care to explain the title of the CD?
Ray Wylie Hubbard: The first line that came to me was a line that my Grandmother would say to me when I was a kid “Heaven pours down rain and lightening bolts.” Rain falls on the just and unjust. So that line, I liked it.
Then I remembered the word “Endarkenment” from somewhere, you know reading about the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. I just liked that word and nobody uses it, it’s just so weird. I enjoy words and how they work. So it just came down to A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment and you’ve got to make a choice…there is no C.
I’m at that age now where I’m getting old so I can do what I want. Judy (Hubbard, Ray’s wife) and Tracy Thomas (publicist with Thirty Tigers) told me “That’s a horrible title. It’s too long. It’s too weird.” I kept thinking of other titles for the album and none of the other songs worked. “Enlightenment” per se just didn’t sound right. I had to go with this because it’s what the album is. You’re either mindful or you’re not.
It’s also mighty deep and personal in places.
It kind of says where I am right now. I prefer the term “spiritual awakening” to “religious conversion”. I’m kind of in that area where I’m trying to live on spiritual principals without a lot of dogma in my life.
You’ve got several guitarists playing on the record.
Each song kind of dictated what kind of guitar player it needed. It was one of those things where Gurf (Morlix) was perfect for “Drunken Poets” and “Pots and Pans” but a song like “Down Home Country Blues” was perfect for Derek O’Brian. Then Billy Cassis was just perfect for “Day of the Dead” because he had that Soulhat kind of vibe. A couple of songs my son Lucas played on.
It was really that one guitar player wouldn’t work for all of them because they were such weird strange songs.
That was one of the things I noticed on the CD. All of the songs go well together but they each have a very different feel and vibe.
It’s just really hard to explain how some of it came together. Some of them I wrote with a direct purpose. I had the title and the idea. I worked on this movie (Last Rites of Ransom Pride) for a while and I’d written some songs that I thought were going to be in the movie.
There’s a scene in the movie where there’s a Pentecostal burial so I wrote “Four Horsemen” to kind of have that specific feel. I guess I’ve been doing it long enough that I can take an idea or word and write a song around it.
You’ve got that ability to tackle something very serious but be a little tongue in cheek about it.
Yeah, the writers I like...people like Flannery O'Connor. She was able to take these rural people then all of a sudden they’d say something really profound and they may not even know what they’re saying. Or Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof guy, the guy with the torn t-shirt (Brick). Saying something that’s important, but putting that little bit of humor to it. Where you’re not pointing the finger you’re just saying, “Hey here’s this thought I need to get out”.
Some of the tracks on the album are really deep and meaningful, then you have songs like “Pots and Pans” that is amazingly simple…unless I’m missing a hidden meaning.
No. There is no deeper meaning on that. It’s just pots and pans. It’s one of these things…getting back to O’Connor or Williams or Mark Twain…it’s this ability to write a song to put on that jacket and wear that personality.
“Country Blues” has my personal favorite line in it, comparing Muddy Waters to William Blake.
I just love those down home country blues. I believe that Waters is as important as Blake. All of that stuff is important.
People might not know what black diamond strings on a J-45 is but it’s a good rhyme and it works. People are pretty aware what a Fender amp is. So to be able to kind of be this guy. It leads into “Pots and Pans” and the polecat southern guy with the torn t-shirt sitting on his back porch.
Then there’s “Loose,” which is a very different track on the album.
We had the album done. It was kind of a struggle with timing since Gurf was gone; (co-producer) George (Reiff) went out with Jakob Dylan so that took a while. We kind of had to work when we could. So, we had the record done and George said, “You know what this album is missing?” I said, “It’s not missing anything George…don’t tell me anything.”
And Sundance says, “I don’t want to know don’t tell me”
“Australia. I knew you’d want to know.”
So George said “Do you know what it’s missing?”
I said, “It’s not missing anything. It’s done.”
“It’s missing something.”
“I don’t want to hear anything. It’s done.”
So he sat there and said, “rock anthem.”
“I knew you’d want to know. It’s missing a rock anthem. All your other CDs have one. “Live and Die Rock and Roll.” “Rock and Roll’s A Vicious Game”
It’s a really strange album the more I think about it. Thank you for bringing that up.
Tell me about “Tornado Ripe”.
We lived in Sulfur, Oklahoma. So my earliest memories is where I’d be asleep and all of a sudden my dad would pick me up and we’d be running outside to the storm cellar.
I think it was in 1954 or 1956, I can’t remember for sure, a tornado just wiped out the whole town. There was a big stone bank and all that was left was the marble floor. “Tornado Ripe” was a song that really happened to me. “The clouds are growing a tail.” I remember my granddad saying that from growing up.
How did you train yourself to write such interesting and different songs?
I’ve got to say, I got clean and sober back when I was 41. That helped a lot. When I wasn’t falling into the drums my shows went better (laughs). I’d had all the fun I could stand and I’d kind of dishonored myself as a songwriter. I’d written some songs but I had never made that commitment. It was all beer and electricity and traveling around and having fun and writing songs. Which, when you’re young, that’s OK. But I realized if I wanted to be a songwriter I needed to give it the time and effort it deserves.
How did you go about doing that?
I went back and kind of read and took to heart what I was supposed to read in college. I read James Allen As a Man Thinketh and it talked about fear and doubt. Those are the things that limit us. You remove your fear and doubt and it’s unlimited what you can do. The thing about fear is…I’ll paraphrase…it is like dragons guarding the precious treasure. If you overcome the fear there’s treasure on the other side.
Somewhere along the way I became aware that the writers I liked were just fearless in what they wrote. The early (Bob) Dylan stuff, and guys like Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins just creating this type of music. They’d just step up and do it. They were getting past being human and they were just letting their soul play the music.
Writing songs wasn’t going to be just something I did. It was who I was going to be. I was going to be a songwriter. In order to do that I had to learn about songwriting, learn about guitar and learn about the craft.
So, all the stuff I was reading, my songs kind of absorbed that idea. I probably read more in my 40s than I did in my first 40 years put together.
Well, looking at your life now, you’ve done very well for yourself in the past two decades.
I’m very aware that I have a good life today. There have been some curves, as they say “life on life’s terms” but I’m very aware and grateful. The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations I have really good days. I’m really grateful where I am. But if I start expecting things then I can get off track a little bit.
That’s a pretty good rule of thumb for life…keep your gratitude above your expectations.
I’m very aware where I am. I kind of look back and…meeting Judy and falling in love and getting married and writing songs and recording them, my son Lucas being born and moving to Wimberley. Things are really good. But then my old thinking pattern will come up and go…“Oh man…they’re going to go away.”
You do have a lot of religious or spiritual themes to your music. Do you subscribe to any particular religion?
No…as I mentioned. The spiritual awakening is important to me. It helped me in my sobriety.
I live on certain spiritual principles. Being honest. Not holding onto resentments. Showing courage when I need to…and there’s one other one but I forgot it (laughs). There are four spiritual principals I live by, but I only do three of them (laughs).
Something I’ve always wondered…how’d you end up writing “Snake Farm?”
Inspiration can come from anywhere. In the last 30 years I’ve probably driven past the Snake Farm about 10,000 times.
One day I was driving back and I drove right by it and looked at it and went “God, it just sounds nasty.”
Then I thought, “Well, it is. It’s a Snake Farm. It’s not a hospital. It’s a reptile house. Eww….and it’s a Snake Farm...Ewww.” So I pretty much had the chorus.
I kept on driving and I thought, “What do you do with this?” So I thought…”I’ll make it a love song. Make it about a guy who’s in love with a woman who works at the Snake Farm. What kind of woman would work at the Snake Farm? She’d have a tattoo. She’d drink Malt Liquor. She’d look like Tempest Storm (burlesque star from the 1950’s).”
You see… my dad used to have an autographed picture of Tempest Storm he’d gotten in Chicago or somewhere in the 50s. My mom hated it but it was his prized possession. So that name just popped in my head.
Anyway, probably my favorite line in any song I’ve written is (from “Snake Farm”) “I asked Ramona how come she works there / She says it's got it's charms / Nothing to do in the winter / Now and then some kid gets bit at the snake farm.”
The idea is…in the winter the snakes hibernate so there’s nothing to do. It’s just my own little personal deal. What a great job. Nothing to do!
You’ve kind of become this guru to a bunch of up and coming musicians. How do you feel about that?
Well…Slaid Cleaves was stuck on writing this song and he called me. He came down and we spent the afternoon and finished this song. I showed him some different way to make the chords or something like that. I really just kind of took what he already had and kind of put it together. So he came back and did some interview somewhere and they asked him about the song and he called me the “Wylie Lama.”
Then someone else came up and we wrote a song. Then I asked Hayes Carll if he wanted to come out and open some shows so we did a bunch of tours. Kind of did the same thing with Mary Gauthier. Met her up in Boston and she was working at a restaurant. We did some tours.
Went out to the Steamboat Music Fest. I started writing with these guys. Wrote with Wade Bowen, Bleu Edmonson, Cody Canada, and Seth James. I just started hanging out with these guys and kind of give them a little direction when they’re writing. Some people they should listen to, some folks they weren’t aware of. I told Cody Canada, “You’re from Oklahoma. READ the Grapes of Wrath, don’t just see the movie.”
But to answer your question I really like hanging around with these guys. It does make me feel good when they’ll call me up and ask me a question and I can tell ‘em “Well, here’s some advice I didn’t use (laughs). This is where I went wrong. This is what I did, so don’t do this.” So…the benefit of hindsight.
How old were you when you wrote “Redneck Mother”
21 or 22 somewhere out there in New Mexico. Wayne Kidd and Rick Fowler right out of high school went up to Red River and we’d continue going there over the summer and we opened up a little club there called The Outpost.
What’s the story behind the song?
Which story do you want? It’s changed over the years.
We’d get together and have these, I believe the term was hootenanny back then, but they were just jam sessions. There was this bar up there called D Bar D Bar. This was very “Okie From Muskogee” love it or leave it place.
In Red River there was one safe hippie bar called the Alpine Bar. That’s the place where you could go in and it was for the ski bum, college guy kind of deal. We were having this jam session. We were out of beer and it was cold. And I was going to drive down to The Alpine a mile away to get the beer, but right there was the D Bar D…and I said, “How bad could it really be.” The truth of the matter is I walked in there and there was about 4 or 5 guys and one old woman…just pretty much lifers. They’d been there since 7 that morning.
I went in there and I said, “I’d like to get a case of beer.” And the guy just looked at me. So I said “I’d like to get a case of beer.” And this ‘ol woman just said something. I said something and then the guy just went and got the case of beer.
Her son was just sitting next to her. She was probably fifty-sixty something and he was…well…34 I guess. And they were talking about me like I wasn’t there.
So I went back to the jam session. And I said, “Whew…I went over there.” B.W. Stevenson was there that night and so was Bob Livingston. So I just got my guitar and said, “He was born in Oklahoma…” Everyone kind of laughed and we sang the chorus and then we all kind of forgot about it.
So we came back the next week and I said “Somebody else go get the beer. I’m not going over there again. They said, “Do that thing again.” I remembered the first verse and the chorus and that was just about it.
Didn’t really think much about it. Then at some point I was back home in Oak Cliff and Livingston called me up and said, “Ray, we’re down here in Luckenbach with Jerry Jeff (Walker) and we want to record that redneck mother song.” I went “What redneck mother song?”
“The Redneck Mother song”. So he said, “I’ve got the first verse and the chorus and then I just spell “Mother.” We need the second verse.
So I sat there on the phone and said, “Well, he sure does like Budweiser beer. And he chases it down with Wild Turkey liquor. He’s got a “Goat Ropers Need Love Too” bumper sticker.
So they recorded it. The story I heard was Jerry Jeff was playing at the Broken Spoke and had broke a string and asked Bob to sing a song. So he sang “Redneck Mother”. They went “what the hell was that…sing it again.” So he sang it again and the crowd loved it.
Anyway, they were in Luckenbach and Bob introduced it as “This is a song by Ray Wylie Hubbard.”
I’d always been Ray Hubbard up until then. But Bob knew my middle name…for some reason they left that on there.
And then things got really weird. I’d been a folk singer and an acoustic guy and that whole progressive country thing happened in Austin… outlaw country. So I got a band together, a folk rock band and so Jerry Jeff came out with that.
At the time it was kind of awkward because we’d go to these places and they’d go “play Redneck Mother!” and I’d say, “Well, I’ve got this other song… a love song. They’d say, “Play “Redneck Mother.” And I’d say, “I’ve got this song about a car.” They’d say, “Play Redneck Mother!” So I’d play it and when I was done they’d say, “Play Redneck Mother again!”
Ever get tired of playing it?
It’s good to have in the arsenal. Now I’ve got other songs. I’ve got “Snake Farm” and “Rock and Roll” and I’ve got a bunch of songs that are good and interesting. Not one of them dominates the other.
I’ve got “Redneck Mother” if I need it. But if I’m playing acoustic like at the Cactus Cafe I may not do it. It’s not expected of me I guess. I don’t have to do it. It’s not just the one jacket I own. But I’ll tell you, there have been times that I’m really grateful I have it. Just to have it.
You were in the thick of things during Austin’s Outlaw Country movement in the 70s.
The thing about Austin…that whole progressive country outlaw music thing…it really was progressive. The incredible thing about it was all of those people were writing great songs. Songs that today are classics. “Five O’clock in the Texas Morning” and “My Maria” …all of those Willie Nelson songs… Jerry Jeff with “Driftin’ Way of Life.”
It was such a magical place for everybody, but especially the musicians. The audience was almost another member of the band. The Austin vibe. There was such knowledge and awareness. There still is today.
How would you describe today’s Austin songwriters?
It’s more lifestyle over livelihood as a musician. It’s more about who you are, not just what you do. You are a musician, a songwriter.
It’s a lifestyle, it’s a vibe. It’s not just about writing a song and getting it cut by somebody and making some money. It’s about “I’m writing a song about…since James McMurtry and Patty Griffin and Slaid Cleaves are here I better write some pretty good songs.
The thing about having such quality writers and musicians in Austin you can’t slough it off. You have to be pretty damn good.
A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment, (Hint There is No C) was released January 12 on Hubbard’s label, Bordello Records. Find out more about him at raywylie.com.