|Ray Wylie Hubbard|
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One legend – two interviews
Usually we’re pretty good at coordinating interviews here at Americana UK, but every now and then some wires get crossed and we end up sending two writers out to talk to the same Americana recording star. When it does happen, we normally just post one of the interviews on the site, but what the heck do you do when the exact for this mix up is none other than one of the biggest names in Americana music? You post both of them. So ladies, gentlemen and redneck mothers, it’s up against the wall as we present to you no less than two interviews with the legendary Texas singer, Ray Wylie Hubbard.
ALAN J TAYLOR SPEAKS TO RAY WYLIE HUBBARD
Hi Ray. Where exactly do you think you fit musically?
Americana and Alt-Country is where I fit, thats what I do. The term Americana came along, my whole foundation is based on folk & blues & roots rock, hillbilly country and the like. I like the term Americana; its a lot cooler than some of the other labels I could be in (laughs)
The sound on the new album, A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint – There Is No C) has a very edgy feel. How has drummer Rick Richards contributed?
I have been very fortunate to have Rick Richards, playing on my last four or five records, in fact we have played together for ten years or more. He played on my favourite records, Slaid Cleaves, Gurf Morlix , Mary Gauthier, Tom Russell – hes just one of those ‘go to guys , when you want one of those cool, in the groove, in the pocket drum sounds that are not conventional drums. He can play straight kit, but he just brings an imagination to the music. Its like ‘hey lets try this two bricks and a board and lets stomp on it - he comes out with some cool creative ideas. I like edgy stuff.
What about Gurf Morlix?
He started out on the album, but Gurf took off on his own song writing project so George Reiff (New York Mud - Chris Robinsons side project, now playing with the Court Yard Hounds) took over. He plays base guitar with me, but we went to his studio and he has such a great recording mind and makes things sound low down and greasy. We recorded some of the tracks straight ahead and live, to give it that real feeling, to get the vibe across. I think people are thirsty for this real kind of sound.
You wrote Drunken Poets Dream with Hayes Carll?
I have know Hayes for six years, he was playing at a club. He opened for me hes a great kid and a great songwriter. I walked into his house one day and he said, ‘I got this idea for a song Ray - I got a woman as wild as Rome – and I replied, ‘and she to likes be naked and gazed upon, and we just went from there. I feel very fortunate to live in Austin; you can call upon so many awesome writers and players.
What about your literary influences?
One of my favourite quotes is by Flannery O Conner ‘Never second-guess inspiration I think whenever you get the inspiration for a song or the ‘aha moment, never doubt it. For instance, I walked on to the back porch and saw a wasps nest and wrote a song, I read Edgar Allen Poes The Raven and thought well, what would happen if this bird landed at the foot of my bed? What would it say? What would this drunken mad poet say? I went into the kitchen and my kid was beating on pots and pans and I wrote Pots and Pans.
The ‘Enlightenment/Endarkenment thing . . . . well I was reading a lot, I do that a lot, I read the biography of Chet Baker and all that heroin stuff, I wrote the song Opium and Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. Ive got songs about dead call girls, drunken poets and anything that comes into my head.
The new CD cover is very distinctive, where did the idea come from?
I was looking at reviews in newspapers and magazines and realised the album cover ends up being a tiny little image in the corner. So I took a piece of paper and drew a stick figure, then I took off the head and put it in the left hand, its a little dark and weird but its distinctive and seems to draw people in.
How did your son Lucas contribute?
Hes 17 years old and hes my full time guitar player, when he is available and not grounded by Mother Hubbard. He has an endorsement from Gibson Guitars, plus hes had the good fortune to have Gurf Morlix, Seth James and Billy Cassis as teachers. He really listens to the songs and he is a great player. He says he will play the music for free but, ‘wants paying to ride in the van with a bunch of old guys.
Tells us about the film The Last Rites of Ransom Pride?
Its a screenplay I worked on with Tyler Russell, its an action-packed Western about a band of badass Texas outlaws. Basically, a bunch of despicable people in 1912, cussing and killing and generally causing mayhem. ‘Nomadic Pictures in Canada signed up Kris Kristofferson, Dwight Yoakam, Scott Speedman and Jason Priestley for the film. It was a treat, but theres good news and bad news. I wrote the screenplay and got it filmed, but they decided they wanted to do the film score. I guess they stumped up 5 to 6 million dollars so its up to them, so they took over the control and did their own thing, but it was a hell of an adventure writing it and getting it done.
What about the Radio show?
I do a show for a station called KNBT, its a New Braunfels Americana station. The young program director asked me to start this little show called ‘Roots and Branches of Americana. There is such an abundance of talent the main criteria is that you have to write your own songs, so Ive had people like, Billy Joe Shaver, James McMurtry, Justin Towns Earle for example its a really popular show. I asked the questions to get the guys to open up, its a great musical community and you can imagine, we get to hear some great things.
The new album seems full of darkness – Four Horsemen in particular is immense and sounds like something Ralph Stanley would do?
Yes, Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, is a well-known story, I feel fortunate that I can put on the glasses of that person without trying to judge them. It would be great if Ralph Stanley did that song. I would be intrigued how someone from the Appalachians would interpret the song, how would they get the message across?
Whoop and Holler is a straight gospel song, I dont really know where that Idea came from, I just picked up the phrase ‘Gods empyrean heaven, I didnt know the word empyrean so I looked it up and I just had to lever it into a song. I majored in English literature when I went to college. I love to read, Edgar Allan Poe and Dylan Thomas, I love to get into the mind of the reader so I tried to imagine someone reading the Book of Revelation, trying to capture the pure reality of the reader.
‘I holler, my baby moans, its one hellacious sound - where did that line come from?
Thank you for your language (English) its a fantastic thing (laughing heartily). I love words and how they work together. I love slang and being able to do all that stuff. Maggie Walters did the moaning, she was working at George Reiffs studio. Im really into the south and that whole rural idea, the kind of Tennessee Williams place, you know the torn t-shirt, rural hillbilly scene. Then I just came up with this family band playing bare foot and knocking and banging on pots and pans. I just got Maggie to do the moaning and she really played the part well and I think you can feel that in the song . . . beautiful . . . just beautiful!
MAURICE HOPE SPEAKS TO RAY WYLIE HUBBARD
One of the many things that attracts me to your work is the rough-hewn feel to your writing, there are aspects and hooks that attract the listener and are strong enough to stay stuck in ones memory. Like when we talked there about old, imperfect buildings it is those things in life rather than the precision built ones like in the big cities that are rich with real character?
Yeah, the whole thing about the Americana thing has that feel to it. You know I started out in folk music. I was a folk bard, where the lyrics were so important. With Americana there is this cool groove that runs beneath it also, I am fortunate in that most of the people I listen to are friends of mine and are people that I like.
I feel you are in many ways you are like the godfather of Americana in Austin. Since you have helped so many musicians; Jeff Plankenhorn, Hayes Carll and Slaid Cleaves and the multi-faceted Gurf Morlix who has been greatly inspired from working with you?
Ah, well. I really appreciate that. I just love working with those guys because they care about lyrics, and you know what. In Texas right now there are a lot of songwriting nerds who arent real songwriters, although they sell out places and do well. That brings to mind one of my favourite quotes; ‘the deeper the roots the stronger the branches. A lot of young songwriters will ask me about writing and I will tell them to go back and listen to Lightnin Hopkins and Jimmie Rodgers, Mance Lipscomb and Ernest Tubb. Go listen to those guys because it didnt all start with Garth Brooks and Clint Black.
That is the great thing about here in Texas where you have (had) Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver— it is a level of writing the really good writers are aware of and, though those guys are unlikely to surpass them it is a nice bar to aspire to.
Billy Joe is such an amazing songwriter. He is up there with Hank Williams and such is the poetic beauty of such songs as ‘Restless Wind, ‘Ride Me Down Easy among a host of others they could have been written in one go. So easy do his lyrics flow I think of Billy Joe as a true genius?
Billy Joe is one of those guys where it is like the human part of him gets out of the way as divine creativity comes through without being hindered by the mortal core, whatever. He can reach this consciousness and, like with Townes and Guy it is this level these people are listening too. Gurf, Slaid, Jeff and Hayes that you just mentioned are aware of the roots of and foundation Americana music (the future of the music).
I once heard Guy Clark say of Townes that to him all music was the ‘blues?
Yeah, with Townes there were two kinds of music; zipiddy doo-dah and the blues, he laughs.
Who would you listen to when you were growing up; were your family music orientated?
No, not really. Out in East Oklahoma there was a lot of gospel music. My grandparents were very involved in the Church Of Christ and the Baptist church. So every Sunday we would listen to a lot of gospel music and we had a little radio and listened to country music. Music from Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams and people of the time. It wasnt a musical family but there was music there. I also had an aunt who would play in church on a Sunday and during the week it would be the St. Louis blues.
Was that the kind of music did you listen to when you were went out as a young man?
Well, no. I really got involved in high school near Dallas where there was Michael Murphy a great songwriter later known as Michael Martin Murphy. He was a Snr and I was a Jnr and there was another kid, B. W Stevenson who wrote ‘My Maria. With Murphy being an Snr he was kind of the first guy who I came across who was writing his own songs. Even in high school he was a great writer. For me it opened doors, it was through him I discovered the whole folk community and hear Ramblin Jack Elliott, Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Lightnin Hopkins. But the main thing I got from Michael was he was the first guys I saw perform his own songs, before it was only radio and records; it was incredible. It was inspiring. To see this creativity this close and informal was great, and it was where I got into playing and to appreciate lyrics.
After that you veered over to country music?
It wasnt by choice. It was one of those things. It was one of them things as you had Outlaw and Progressive Country. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Jerry Jeff Walker (who started out as a folk troubadour) and everyone ended up in Austin. Willie Nelson had been a country singer, a songwriter, grew his hair long and moved to Austin, also he had Mickey Raphael play blues harp. Michael Murphy had been a folk singer and he got John Inmon a rocknroll guitar player play with him. B.W Stephenson and Jerry Jeff they also came down and they had steel guitars! It was really progressive country but it still came down to the foundation that those guys were writing. They were songwriters. I was in what I considered a folk rock group although we were playing the same places they were we werent country but we had country influences. I was still into folk music and we recorded a record for Warners that was a folk record and we took it to the people at the record company and they said, country radio wont play this! So they put girl singers and steel guitar on every track and I like girl singers and steel guitars but there were certain songs that should not have done that it. So that kind of broke our heart and we could not tour in support of that album although I was still playing live.
Was this the time of the Urban Cowboy craze?
Yes, things we going along okay till Urban Cowboy came out and it ruined everything. It was horrible because it wasnt about the songs it was about mechanical bulls and line dancing. It was awful time to be a songwriter and became really hard. When the album came out we had listened to it so broke our heart so much so I called my lawyer, manager. He wasnt a real attorney but a friend of mine and asked him what I could do about it. He said well you could start drinking (laughs) and I did for about twenty years but still continued playing and writing but never fit the times. I was never a Nashville act but was a working musician playing bars and honky tonks and played with different bands. I played with Jerry Jeff in the Lost Gonzo Band for four years and I also played some blues.
How did you gain the kick start it needed?
When I reached forty-one I cleaned up my act and got serious about how to live and be a songwriter.
How did you get to make a record for Willie Nelsons record label Lone Star records?
Willie called me up and asked me if I wanted to make my own record. He was on Columbia and Polygram wanted to sign him they gave him his own label, but when he resigned with CBS so Polygram had no use for (Steve) Fromholtz and Don Bowman, The Geezinslaw Brothers and me or any of the other guys on the label.
Your album “Loco Gringos Lament” with Dejadisc was I believe the big turning point for you as a recording act?
That record was really, really important to me, I had got clean and sober and writing songs. I never wanted to be or thought I ever could be as good as Townes or Billy Joe but wanted to write songs that people would like. I had burnt a lot of bridges in the 1980s and I got the opportunity to record for a label that was a small, but pretty much mainstream Nashville country. They offered me $15.000 to do a record and Dejadisc said we have got $4.000. But the people who were on their roster I wanted to be associated with them; people like Michael Hall, Michael Francasso etc…. real writers so we did Loco Gringos for nothing! We put it out on Dejadisc because we wanted to with those writers.
Your latest album has a most intriguing title ‘A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Bordello Records) plus, like Billy Joe you also evoke a spiritual feel to some of your work. Is this intentionally?
It is a feels like the perfect title. Enlightenment, Endarkenment enabled me to look at both sides; it has the Enlightenment part with ‘The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse and ‘Whoop And Holler which are very gospel, spiritual songs. While on the other side you have Endarkenment with ‘Drunken Poets Dream and ‘Loose.
Just like Billy Joe Shaver?
Man, he can be like two different people. One day he can come to one of my shows and stand at the back of the room and shout ‘give them hell, Ray and the next day be all about the Lord. If you ever get the chance to go with Billy Joe, do it. It is a powerful deal and is one of those people made out of truth, he really is. For Willie Nelson road manager Billy Lockes funeral he drove from Ohio and got there 30 minutes before hand, got up and sang ‘Live Forever, left and drove to Kentucky. He didnt fly or anything he drove 18 hours to come to this funeral that is the kind of man he is! I knew him back when he was really wild, back in the 1970s. Everybody was roaring back then, taking pills, black hollies and staying up all-night for days at a time.
Did you ever live in Nashville?
I never did. I never really fit in. Although it had a community of great writers live there (Clark to Earle to Crowell to Townes). I used to go up and see Kevin Welch who has just moved down the street from me, about a ¼ mile from me. He can be pretty intense at times too!
What have been the main things you have learnt from Gurf Morlix?
It comes down to grit, groove, tone and taste. It has got to have grit to it, it has got to have a groove and tone is really important to it. And then you have taste; you dont have to play a lot of look at me, look at me licks —those are the things I have learnt. Gurf would have produced my last album but was so busy with touring with his own record.
I notice Bukka Allen plays on the album; isnt his father something too?
One of my favourite shows I ever did….in fact we had Townes last show in the States before he died. You had Terry (Allen), Townes and myself when we played the Granberry Opera House, not Opry but Opera house. I think the word would be, irreverent there was no reverence about it. Townes was in pretty bad shape. He was leaving the very next day for Europe (October) and returned in December —we both thought it would be the last time we would see him that night and though he was poorly he was on form that night. He was so funny.
Ray Wylie Hubbards A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C) is out now on Bordello Records. For more on this Texas legend, go to Raywylie.com