Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Ray Wylie Hubbard remembers asking Stevie Ray Vaughan what it was like to be sober. “I just couldn’t see myself never taking another drink again. It had become so important,” says Hubbard, the Americana singer-songwriter who plays The Linda WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio on Central Avenue in Albany on Monday (May 14).
“Stevie said once he’d got sober, it was like he’d took off the boxing gloves. He could really play.”
Hubbard at first didn’t understand what the blues-rocker was saying to him. After all, Stevie Ray had put out all those defining albums before he got straight. Stevie told Hubbard, “Once I got sober, it’s like I could really play. I could play everything. There was nothing between me and the music. That kind of gave me some hope. There was no alcohol or drugs between me and the music. That was the place I really wanted to be.”
It took Hubbard about six months to absorb the message and get straight himself. “I didn’t know what was going on. I just jumped from one foot to the other and did the deal, and then somewhere in there, after I got sober about a year, I realized I wanted to be a real songwriter. But in order to do that I needed to play the guitar better. I needed to learn how to finger pick.
“So I overcame this embarrassment and called up a guy named Sam Swank. Would he teach me how to finger pick? He taught me some patterns. Then through that, all these other doors opened up like open tunings and the slide. Then I could do this stuff I’d wanted to do since the first time I’d seen Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins in those old days, but I couldn’t do it because I didn’t know how to get my thumb working, and so it was – I feel very fortunate.
“I started off in folk music and appreciate the lyrics, and in my forties I appreciated the groove. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of Stevie Ray. He really means a great deal to me. He took the time ’cause we really didn’t know each other that well. We’d met a couple times. Back in the old days, we’d both been up about 30 hours (in a row), but he took the time to give me some hope.”
Was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s advice a defining moment for Ray Wylie Hubbard? You decide. For 20 years in the business before meeting Stevie, Hubbard’s chief claim to fame was a novelty song first recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1973, “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother.” Hubbard also formed the Cowboy Twinkies (often credited with being the first cowpunk band), doing covers of everything from Merle Haggard songs to Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown.”
His other claims to fame include “Off The Wall,” recorded for Willie Nelson’s short-lived Lone Star label and a stint in Bugs Henderson’s trio. Henderson, who just died a couple months ago, was a vastly under-rated Austin guitarslinger. “He never was really accepted in Austin as the blues guy like the T-Birds, Stevie Ray and the Cobra guys,” says Hubbard, “’cause Bugs also played all the guitar stuff. He’d play Chet Atkins.”
From 1984 to ’92, Hubbard put out no records. (Vaughan died in 1990.) Since then, he’s released on the average a CD every other year with quirky titles like “Lost Train of Thought,” “Growl,” “Delirium Tremalos,” “Snake Farm,” “A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C)” and his just released “Grifter’s Hymnal.”
Hubbard today is a cultural contradiction. His mind hoards words as if they were junkyard treasures and blends them together with fundamental truths filtered through the brain of a rural Alabama lad who went to school barefoot. His father was the principal of that school and read him Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” when he was seven years old. A hillbilly intellect, he throws wildly disparate images into songs that weave thematic threads through a southern hybrid of rock and folk that’s part Mississippi Fred McDowell and part Shelley and Byron, both cultural and guttural at the same time.
“Don, you know what? You’re the first cat that’s really caught onto that,” Hubbard said, stopping me mid-sentence. “I really like being a dumb guy who says profound things. Sometimes I pitch myself as Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He was this torn t-shirt kind of guy, but then what he’d say, his words are from Tennessee Williams. You know what I mean?”
The title “Grifter’s Hymnal” underlines Hubbard’s cultural dichotomy. “Both grifter and hymnal are just really strong words. I enjoy that,” he says. Hubbard sees grifters as scuffling old guys who set up sting operations on people who deserve to be tricked. “They usually went after people (who let) their own greed get them in trouble,” he explains. The word hymnal, on the other hand, implies spiritual, profound and authentic. He adds, “I doubt (the two words) have ever been used (together) before, but it seemed kind of fitting for this album. This album just kinda goes in both worlds.”
My favorite line in the album comes at the end of an anti-war song “Red Badge of Courage” where he sums up in 13 words my own feelings as a Vietnam veteran: “We was just kids doing dirty work for the failures of old men.”
His collision of influences is most dramatically stated in the opening song “Coricidin Bottle:” “I got a Coricidin bottle that I use as a slide/And a woman sweet as a tootsie roll/When she’s kissin’ and cussin’ and grindin’/Shakes the mortal coil round my amaranthine soul.”
The one autobiographical song, “Mother Blues,” is about an after-hours night club where a stripper comes in at the end of her shift. She asks him if he’s ever heard of a song called “Polk Salad Annie.” In the song he quotes her as saying, “Every time I hear that song my insides feel like warm butter, and I just wanna take off my clothes and dance around in my underwear.” I guess I don’t need to tell you that he plays a line from the song for her, “Down in Louisiana where the alligators grow so mean.”
Turns out EMI owns the rights to this Tony Joe White classic and wanted $5000 and 66% of the publishing on Hubbard’s song for permission to use the line. Judy, Hubbard’s wife, emailed back and said, “Fuck you!” Then, Tony Joe called Hubbard and said, “I called the old boy in New York, and they’re not gonna charge you nothin.’ You’re all free to go ahead and do it.” Ray says simply, “I thought that was pretty cool ’cause with Tony Joe, it’s not about the money. It’s about the song.”
The one non-original on “Grifter’s Hymnal” is “Coochie Coochie,” an obscure old Ringo Starr number that features the drummer, not on drums, but singing and playing shakers. I guess Hubbard should be allowed one number that may be about more than just “the song.”
“I got a Beatle on my record,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m impressed with that.”