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Friday, 27 April 2012 08:54

'It's kind of divine reverb' An interview with Ray Wylie Hubbard

'It's kind of divine reverb' An interview with Ray Wylie Hubbard
Written by Matt Sorrell

Ray Wylie Hubbard's latest record, "The Grifter's Hymnal," has been in constant rotation in my truck for the past week. Living with it as I did, many questions arose, and I was lucky enough to be able to run them by the esteemed Mr. Hubbard recently via phone from his front porch in Texas.

Matt Sorrell: In the song "New Year's Eve at the Gates of Hell," you say you pawned a 1959 Gibson ES-335. True?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: No, you can't believe everything on that record! Actually, it was a '56 Stratocaster, but it just didn't rhyme. That was really kind of a metaphor for all of the guitars I've lost. I tell my wife I don't want a Porsche or a younger girlfriend. I want all of these guitars I used to have.

Is the whole story relayed in "Mother Blues" autobiographical?

Pretty much all of it is true. My wife Judy was the door girl and checked IDs at Mother Blues when she was 16. I didn't really know her at the time -- I used to come in the back door. It was a great, funky little club in Dallas. Like I say in the song, Lightnin' Hopkins played there, and Freddie King and Mance Lipscomb. After the club would close there'd be poker games upstairs and the girls from the strip clubs would come over and it was a party till dawn. I did meet an old girl there and we went around together, and she ended up going to Hollywood, and I met Judy again 23 years ago and we had our son Lucas. He plays guitar and he's got that gold top Les Paul.

Is that the guitar Lucas plays on the record?

Yeah, that's him on "Coricidin Bottle," "Red Badge of Courage" and "Mother Blues."

A lot of the record seems to be about you looking back and going over some of your decisions, good and bad. How do you feel about Lucas starting to play and go out on the road?

Well, I'm very grateful to share the stage with him. He says, "I play the music for free, but you gotta pay me to ride in the van with you and a bunch of old guys." He's in school now, doing really well, and I'm proud of him. I'm not pressuring him or anything. It's still just fun for him. I'm just letting him see what happens. Like I say in the song ["Mother Blues"], I don't know if he's gonna hang his life on a guitar or not. I'm very proud of him.

Is he playing with you when you come to St. Louis?

No, he's got finals. It's just gonna be me and [drummer/percussionist] Rick Richards. That's what I've been doing lately. It's just the two of us. Lucas will be traveling with me this summer, and Rick will be going out with Joe Walsh on some summer dates, so I'm gonna lose my sense of time.

The songs on this record lend themselves to all sorts of arrangements. A duo would work really well I imagine.

I'm kind of at that age where I get the gig and then get the band. All of the songs were pretty much written with an acoustic guitar, and then we got in the studio and just kinda saw what happened with them.

You namedrop a whole bunch of really classic guitar rigs on the record, like a Les Paul through a Vox AC30 ["New Year's Eve at the Gates of Hell"] and a Kay through a Silvertone ["Coricidin Bottle"], among others. Did any of those combos end up being used in the studio?

Yeah, they did. We recorded this thing pretty much without any pedals. All of the guitars were plugged straight into the amps, and we didn't use any effects, except there may have been one pedal on a song somewhere that I don't remember. But most of the time we just took these old guitars and plugged them in to these old amps. I had an old '65 Princeton Reverb, and an old Alamo amp and some others, just to get that tone.

Some of the tones you get are downright filthy, in the absolute best possible way.

They're rude! We cut it in this old Methodist church near La Grange, built in 1888, and they let us go in there and make some rock. It was de-sanctified, so we weren't offending anybody! It's kind of divine reverb.

That was the first thing that struck me when I listened to the record, it just sounded so good.

Well thank you! We just wanted it to be guys playing. What we did when we mixed it, we took out the lip smacks but left the coughs and the string buzzes and the pedal squeaks and stuff like that. You can hear the air around the drums. I love records that are real guys playing, like some of those old Slim Harpo and Muddy Waters records. Those guys were playing and you could hear them play. We wanted to kind of honor that. Like the first line of the first song ("Coricidin Bottle"), "We said our prayers to the old black gods." We would get in there before we would play and do these old blues things, some Lightnin', Chuck Berry, Fred McDowell, Son House. We'd get together in a little room and play that. That was kind of the vibe. It felt really good to do something -- and this might be the wrong word -- but organic.

It's funny you recorded it in a church, because heaven and hell are all over this record. Are these just universal themes you just like to come back to, or were you working some stuff out?

As I've gotten older, I kind of think about my own mortality more, and recently Levon Helm and Chris Ethridge have passed away, and it makes you think. I feel like I have a foot in both worlds. I like to write a song like "Ask God" or "Red Badge of Courage" with that sort of spiritual vibe, but then write "Mother Blues" about strippers and guitars.

There's also a sense in the record that you're making peace with some things. Like in "Mother Blues" where you say you're happy your old stripper girlfriend did OK for herself, and you're glad your son is finding his way.

I'm very grateful. It's like the line I have in there, "On the days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days." I'm grateful to be able to write these songs and travel around and play them. I try to be mindful of that. As an old cat, I'm still trying to make records that are valid and not be a nostalgia act. It's important to keep learning new things. I learned to fingerpick when I was 41 or 42, learned open tunings and slide. I try to keep learning things; it keeps me on my toes.

You recorded an old Ringo Starr song, "Coochy Coochy," for the album, and Ringo played and sang some on it. Were you in the studio with him?

No, I met Ringo out on California. He said he liked my songwriting, and I told him I liked his songwriting too. He said, "Nobody ever thinks of me as a songwriter, just a drummer." I told him I loved "Coochy Coochy," which was on "Beaucoups of Blues" back in the '70s. It only had one chord on it. I told him I wanted to record it, and he said he'd like to hear it. So when we were out there at the church, I had a resonator and Audley Freed had a mandolin, Rick had something like a bird feeder and a stomp drum or something and George [Reiff] had a 12-string so we just rolled the tape and recorded it. We sent it to [Ringo], I don't even know why. And he called and said he loved it. He said, "The drums are so good on it, how about I just sing on it and play some shakers?" and we said sure. So I have a Beatle on my record. How cool is that? It really was a great moment to have him on there. We kind of low-keyed it. We didn't put a sticker on it that said, "Hey, it's Ringo Starr!"

You kind of started out amidst the cosmic cowboy and outlaw country movements, with folks like Gram Parsons and Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Do you see yourself as a part of those movements, or do you define yourself in a different way?

With that whole progressive country/cosmic cowboy thing, it was just a great vibe, and it came down to the songs. Willie was writing great songs, and Jerry Jeff and Michael Martin [Murphy]. It was a great scene, so I feel fortunate to have been a part of it. Like I said, I feel fortunate to have seen Lightnin' Hopkins play, but I also saw Ernest Tubb. I feel grateful to have seen all of these great players. I was kind of a Forest Gump type. I was just in the right place at the right time.

You're such a good lyricist, have you ever wanted to branch out into other writing projects?

I wrote a screenplay, called "The Last Rites of Ransom Pride," and they actually filmed it in Canada. It had Kristofferson in it, Dwight Yoakum, Jason Priestley, Peter Dinklage, Lizzy Caplan. I was scoring it and they ran out of money and brought someone else in to work with the score and we kind of butted heads. I wanted it to be like Lightnin' Hopkins and Lucinda Williams strung out, low down and greasy, and they wanted it to be like a cop show. It was heartbreaking, but I had to walk away from that. I'm actually working on another project. I wrote another screenplay that I'm hoping to get done that involves Hayes Carll and some other musicians down here. Yeah, I've kind of branched out and enjoy doing stuff like that.

88.1 KDHX welcomes Ray Wylie Hubbard to the Old Rock House on Saturday, April 28.

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