A FEW MINUTES WITH… Ray Wylie Hubbard
By Don Wilcock
When anyone asks me today who my favorite act is, it’s like asking a beachcomber to pick out his favorite shell. My mind is a blur, but I usually bring up Ray Wylie Hubbard, who returns to the Hanger on the Hudson in Troy on Saturday (June 3).
First of all, he’s simply an exquisite live performer. Second of all, he’s quirky and funny in a way that I identify with. But perhaps most importantly, he is a living example of the progress we as a society have made in recognizing the value of uniquely American culture and southern culture in particular which east coast northerners have long lagged in acknowledging.
In 2017 that may no longer be completely true anymore, but it was when I started writing about “Americana” music in 1969 for The Army Reporter behind the barbed wire double perimeter of Army Headquarters Vietnam. At the time, the Americana moniker didn’t exist. And the idea that hippies and southerners could be one in the same thing was just beginning to be considered as a result of the Allman Brothers’ coming-out parties.
Texas-based Ray Wylie Hubbard, who today sells hats that say “Screw you, We’re from Texas,” is an archetype of our musical evolution. Fifty years ago, the 70-year-old Hubbard of today would have been thought of by most of the Nippertown demographic as a tottering old man drooling out redneck nonsense. In fact, his early song “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” (made into a hit by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1973) makes light of that perspective on life. And indeed, there is undoubtedly a segment of the population that does feel that way today. But we’re not a culture whose taste is totally formed by the musicians everyone used to watch on Sunday night’s “Ed Sullivan Show” between Topo Gigio and Jimmy Durante. We have the resources to chase our individual interests. In this environment, Ray Wylie Hubbard IS American culture.
“I really can put on this persona,” he explains. “When you look at ‘Streetcar Named Desire,’ it has Stanley Kowalski, but his words are from Tennessee Williams, so you’ve got this torn T-shirt, but what he’s saying has incredible depth and weight. So that’s kinda the thing I sometimes do when I can write a song and be this guy who writes ‘Snake Farm’ and adapt a persona in writing that perhaps is not really me.”
When I began writing about music in 1969, I was dodging incoming rockets in Long Binh and justifying putting my life on the line, not for “the Great American Cause” but because my “Sounds from the World” column in The Army Reporter gave the grunts in the Delta – that’s as in Mekong Delta, not Mississippi Delta – a glimmer of a light at the end of the tunnel.
If I was going to die, my last rites would be informing draftees that there was still a world out there where music was the primary preoccupation. That mission went a long way toward my stomaching the idea that my country was putting my life in danger for no good reason. And it was a reason to hope I would survive. Though we soldiers were pawns, there was a one-year deadline to our descent into madness and a youth culture awaited our return to a reality that made sense. And music was the Bible of that religion. It was our healer.
“Faith to me is like a conspiracy that’s beneficial to us. It’s believing in a conspiracy that’s beneficial to us.” – Ray Wylie Hubbard
I’ve spent, some would argue, an inordinate amount of my time and energy proselytizing on that religion. Some of my prayers have been answered, principally I made it home in one piece. In 1970, music fans looked askance at a veteran who was a closet hippie, but my hair grew back. Others thought that being in advertising – my day job – was antithetical to being an honest chronicler of the gospel according to Dylan.
“In a discussion about J.J. Cale refusing to lip synch on ‘American Bandstand,’ Dick Clark told him, ‘If you lip synch on the show, you will have a number one record. It will make you a star.’ Cale responded, ‘We play music. We don’t act like we’re playing music.’” – Ray Wylie Hubbard
Now I get people who thank me for my service, but I wonder how much of that thanks is based on their own guilt for not having to face death for the flag. Do they secretly wonder if I burned villages and killed babies? Would they say thanks so sincerely if they knew I worked in an air-conditioned office? I worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and I did guard duty only once.
I spend much of my time now chronicling the thoughts of artists who sometimes struggle over the significance and importance of writing three-minute “ditties” about Jack and Diane. For almost half a century, more than 5000 interviews and hundreds of thousands of articles, editing hundreds of magazine issues, scores of webpages and witnessing uncountable numbers of concerts, I’ve seen some of my hopes and dreams for music materialize. Ray Wylie is at the top of my list.
“I started off (being about) beer and girls when I did it. I didn’t care about being a real songwriter. It was beer and girls and everything, and somewhere in my 40s I kinda came out of this fog and said, ‘OK, this is important to me. This is good for me to be able to write and to have a validation.’ And that’s when I feel my writing got a little depth and weight. It wasn’t an ego thing. It was more a self-esteem thing.” – Ray Wylie Hubbard
Today, technology puts virtually every artist who’s ever recorded at our fingertips. Genres of music are not chained to the past but utilize our great musical heritage to inspire them to new heights. Regional music can go viral in minutes. Culture has a much wider definition, and Americans have gradually come to understand that these three-minute ditties are the fuel that energizes the world. American popular music is much more than the world’s soundtrack. Much more than the babble of youth, much more than a get-rich-quick business. It is the essence, it’s our DNA.
“It’s not an ego thing. ‘Wow, this is a great song.’ It’s the thing about, OK, this is my best, and you do it where you sing this song. You can look someone in the eye or when you make a CD, you can hand it to them and say, ‘Here it is,’ and it doesn’t come with excuses duct-taped to it.” – Ray Wylie Hubbard
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