Even if you don't know Ray – and I do; we go back some 15-odd years – hearing his songs, on stage or on record, is like hearing an old friend, the one who's wiser, wittier and yet, somehow, more humble than you. He's a friend who's lived, made all the mistakes there are to make, and yet hasn't lost any of his love for living. He'll tell you the truth when you need to hear it and he'll make you laugh when you need that even more. My desert-island album will always be "Exile on Main St.," but if that one gets washed out to sea give me any of Hubbard's records – "Loco Gringo's Lament," "Eternal and Lowdown" or "The Grifter's Hymnal" for starters – and I'll happily live out my shipwrecked years with the poetry of his groove.
Though originally associated with the Texas outlaw movement of the '70s – he wrote that movement's most notorious anthem -- Hubbard never really fit into the country music scene, even of the Lone Star stripe. Like his old friend Willie, his music is soaked in blues, but with a visionary lyrical caste that puts him in the line of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. His best lyrical pieces – "Portales," "The Messenger," "After All These Years" and "Moss and Flowers," again, just for starters – really are that good.
But what distinguishes Hubbard from his Texas songwriter compadres is what Robert Christgau called "that incommensurable token of collective creation," aka, the groove. That word has a special meaning for Hubbard; it's what supercharges his stories, his wit and his rhymes. He's a spiritual songster, but he's also a lowdown, mean, dead-thumb-blues-picking master of the unholy groove (or is it holy? with Hubbard you never can tell). And his latest album, "The Grifter's Hymnal," has more grooves than a redwood split in two.
I caught up with my old friend Ray Wylie Hubbard by phone from his home in Wimberley, Texas, just outside of Austin. He returns to St. Louis for a show at Twangfest 17 at Plush on Wednesday, June 5.
Roy Kasten: You're making your second appearance at Twangfest. That's a pretty safe gig. What's the most dangerous gig you've ever played?
Ray Wylie Hubbard: About 15 years ago I met this guy, and I should have known right off the bat, he had this tattoo on his arm of handcuffs that said, "Free Sonny Barger." I should have gotten it, but I didn't. He was a real nice guy. He calls me up and says, "Have you ever played a biker swap meet?" I said, "What's that?" "It's where a bunch of bikers get together, you know, these rich dentists and lawyers who have Harleys. They get together, and it's just kind of a swap meet." I said, "No, I never have." He said, "You want to play one?" I said, "I don't know." He said, "We've got $2000." I said, "Yeah, man, I'll play it."
We go up there, north of Gainesville [Texas] for this biker swap meet. Unbeknownst to us, the Hells Angels were trying to start a chapter in Texas. So it was a front for the Hells Angels to meet with the Bandidos and the Scorpions, the two big, bad-ass motorcycle gangs in Texas. We get up there, nobody is wearing colors at the time, but there were about 40 of these Hells Angels, 40 Bandidos, 40 Scorpions, and then about 10 or 11 dentists with Harleys who just showed up.
We get about half way through our first set, then about 40 of the Hells Angels rode off, then 15 minutes later the Scorpions rode off and then 15 minutes later the Bandidos rode off. Communication had broken down. So we were left playing for about 10 rich dentist-lawyer bikers at this gig. I guess it wasn't all that dangerous. It was more awkward.
I was going back and listening to your old records, even the one with the Cowboy Twinkies, and you can hear the blues in your songs. But you've gotten deeper and deeper into it. Was there a turning point where you really embraced the blues?
I guess when I was about 41 and I had quit being a young country hunk. That never worked for me in Nashville, you know? I started taking finger-picking lessons. When I was younger, I'd seen Lightnin' Hopkins play and Mance Lipscomb and Freddie King, but growing up my foundation was in folk music: Dylan, Townes and Guy Clark and Paul Siebel and Eric Anderson, the Cambridge folk singers. Somewhere in there I had this thing where I really wanted to try to have a groove like John Lee Hooker or Lightnin' Hopkins and have lyrics that were more than just "I woke up this morning and had the blues." I wanted that foundation, that groove, and it all came together. I could feel it when I played. I knew this is it. It had a blues foundation but the lyrics were more folk inspired. I don't know if there was a burning bush at the time, but when I was 42 or 43 and I learned to get into that finger-picking, I knew I could still have lyrics with depth and weight and have that deep groove.
Was there something specific that just finally made you do it?
It wasn't desperation, you know, but there I was 42 and I didn't have a career, but I said, this is who I am, this is a part of me that feels natural. But it's not all just standard 12-bar blues. On the new album, "The Grifter's Hymnal," you have a song like "South of the River," which is straight-ahead roots rock, a Stonesy, Black Crowes rock thing. It's based on a Keith Richards open-tuning groove. You're a writer. You know it's a mysterious process.
I'm paraphrasing here, but you said once that a songwriter should read "The Grapes of Wrath" but not listen to "The Ghost of Tom Joad."
Now, I didn't say not listen to "The Ghost of Tom Joad." I mean, that's a great record. I said, you should read "The Grapes of Wrath" and not just listen to "The Ghost of Tom Joad." By reading the novel you see where Springsteen got his inspiration. I've said that many times to young kids. They'll say, "Can we just watch the movie with Henry Fonda?" No! You have to read the book. Somebody misquoted me on that. They left out the "just."
I heard this new record by the Will Callers, which you produced. It sounds great. Are you working with anybody else lately?
That was the last one. I really like them too. They're twang guys, they have that jangly guitar but with that deep rock groove. I think that was the last project I did. They don't pound down my door. You've got to have a special grit on you to have me produce you.
A few years back you were working on a pilot for a TV series with Hayes Carll, who I was surprised played the unlikely role of a fried, ne'er–do–well Texas songwriter. What became of that?
Brent Carpenter took it to a bunch of TV people, and they loved it, but we never could get a commitment. As a matter of fact, we put a cut off date of June 1st. If we didn't do a deal we'd go back to doing it as a movie. I wrote the script as a movie, and I ran into Brent, and everybody was doing these series, like "Party Down" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and we took the movie and cut it into six 30-minute episodes. We had a bunch of interest, but it was one of those things, "Take out the cussin' and we might do it…" But we couldn't get a full-tilt commitment. So as of this Saturday if Brent doesn't have a TV deal on it, we'll put it back into movie form, and raise the money and do it. Maybe we'll do a Kickstarter thing or just shoot the thing. It's like how Robert Rodriguez did "El Mariachi"; you just make the commitment and shoot it.
What's your single favorite thing about performing these days?
I get up there and have fun with it. I have these goofy things I say, I like to see people smile, but also watching people dig the groove. It's still fun to me. Flying is a pain in the ass, but playing, you walk out on stage, you see people smiling, dancing, getting the vibe. That's still important to me. I feel like doing that.
Ray Wylie Hubbard performs at Twangfest 17, presented by 88.1 KDHX, at Plush on Wednesday, June 5.