By Richard Skanse
The guitar had seen better days when Ray Wylie Hubbard happened upon it. It was an old Regal — far from a top of the line brand even its day — but surely it deserved better than this: reduced to a planter in the back corner of a little store somewhere in Arkansas. “They had plants in it,” Hubbard laughs, “because the whole bottom part of it was curled up and gone because it’d been washed away in a flood.” Nonetheless, Hubbard thought it was pretty neat, and when the shop owner asked him if wanted it, he said yeah. The owner shipped it to Hubbard, who with the help of a friend brought the instrument back to life.
“I’ll be amazed if the thing’s not incredible,” marvels Hubbard over the phone from his log cabin home in Wimberley. “Regals were kind of the bottom end of guitars back then, pretty cheap, but it’s funky — it’s real warm and it’s got a great neck on it. It had to have belonged to a blind musician, because on the neck there are these notches on the third, fifth, seventh and ninth fret, and the only thing we could figure out was that if you were blind that way you would know what fret you were on. I’m getting ready to paint the top of it black and put a rose decal on it, and then it will be done.”
Hubbard is a man who knows a thing or two about remarkable resurrections. After a wild run through the heyday of the Austin-based progressive country movement of the ’70s, during which time he penned the immortal outlaw anthem, “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” and performed at the front of a reckless outfit dubbed the Cowboy Twinkies, Hubbard hit the brakes at the beginning of the ’80s and spent eight years re-evaluating not only his career but more importantly, his life. Inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan’s successful eradication of his drug and alcohol addictions, Hubbard followed suit and returned in 1992 with the independently released Lost Train of Thought. The excellent Loco Gringo’s Lament came two years later, with the increasingly sophisticated and poetic Dangerous Spirits, a cracklin’ live album, and 1999’s devilishly good Crusades of the Restless Nights following in short order. His winning streak continues this month with the release of the Gurf Morlix-produced Eternal and Lowdown, a gritty, bluesy collection of songs that plays like an aural map down the rough and tumble road to redemption and second chances. In another life, not too long ago, Hubbard might have been written off as a one-hit-wonder. Albums like Eternal and Lowdown prove otherwise, marking him as a Texas songwriter on the order of Townes Van Zandt and Butch Hancock. You better believe Hubbard belongs in that company— every bit as much as that funky old Regal guitar deserved to be rescued an ignoble retirement and thrust back to work in the hands of a serious song poet.
You’ve been recording at a very fast clip since your 1992 comeback album, Lost Train of Thought. Eternal and Lowdown is now your sixth album in nine years.
Well, I’ve been trying to make up for lost time, I guess is one way of looking at it. [Laughs] But I suppose so, yeah.
How much time did you give yourself between finishing 1999’s Crusades of the Restless Nights and starting on Eternal and Lowdown?
Actually I kind of started right after Crusades first came out two years ago. I did a pretty heavy two to three month tour that August, but after that I came back and started writing after the first of the year. So I spent a little more time on it than I did on Crusades. I didn’t know what the songs would be like, but I had the time to sit in and write at a more leisurely pace than I had with the Crusades record.
Do your albums have different personalities for you?
Yeah. This one has kind of a really Southern roots feel to it. I read some Flannery O’Connor again and I kind of got into that old ’30s, ’40s, ’50s feel of the South. And I started playing more slide, and that persona kinda comes through in this character on the album, whoever it is — I guess it’s me with a little fiction thrown in. It starts off with, “I’m going down to the police station/Just go on and turn myself in.” This guy’s kinda having a bad day. And it kind of goes through a little bit of the idea of some sort of redemption, so that at the end of the record he’s into forgiving people and makes amends for some stuff. It just felt right to try and get that Southern-folky, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams feel to it. I’ve been reading more of that than the mythology on my other records.
How much of the slide guitar on the album is you?
I’m doing all the acoustic Resonator stuff, and then Gurf Morlix is playing the electric slide. I really got into it. I keep trying to learn new things, ever since Loco Gringo’s Lament. Before Loco’s, I just kind of beat the soup out of the guitar. Then I took guitar lessons, learned how to fingerpick, and those songs came through on Loco. And then I got a mandolin and some of those songs on the mandolin came through on Dangerous Spirits. And then I started on slide and put a little bit of that on Crusades, and then on this last one I kind of got into different tunings like an open C tuning for “Sugar Cane” and a little more slide. So I keep learning new things and that triggers the inspiration.
There really is a dirtier, swampier sound to the whole album.
Yeah, there really is. I did three records with Lloyd Maines, who I just adore. And then to have this opportunity to work with Gurf — we’ve been trying to do a record together since Loco Gringo’s. And I finally had an opportunity and time to work with him and it was a treat, because he is a tone king. He was ideal for these songs. It’s got a little bit greasier sound to it.
How do Gurf and Lloyd approach producing differently?
With Lloyd, we would get the musicians together — like Paul Pearcy, Glenn Fukunaga, and Stephen Bruton — and do the arrangements while you wait there. Then we’d record that and then go back in and do the overdubs wherever we needed them. But working with Gurf, I got him as a producer, but I also got him as an engineer, and as a bass player and as a guitar player and he sang harmony. We spent the month of September at the studio at his house, I’d go over each day and we’d get the right groove and tempo with just two guitars and a microphone between us. And when it felt right, we would record it and then he would overdub the bass and the guitar part and then Rick Richards came in and did the drums.
Gurf and Lloyd were different, but I’ve learned so much from working with both of them. With Gurf it was a little rawer, a little looser. I was doing slide on one song, and my slide hit the wood, and I stopped, and he said, “Why’d you stop?” I said, “My slide hit the wood.” He said, “Man, you think Lightnin’ Hopkins would have stopped?” I went, “No.” [Laughs] So after that, anytime I hit a little chink I would keep on playing, and unless it was a giant clam, we would leave it because it felt right. We were trying to get a reality to it — we weren’t trying to get a techno perfected record.
The album opens with “Mississippi Flush,” which has to be the greatest song about a poker game since Townes Van Zandt’s “Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud.” Did that song cross your mind when you were writing it?
Not at all. I’d heard that song before, but I’d heard the phrase “Mississippi flush — just a small revolver and 85 cards,” and I was like, I need to write a song with that because that’s a great punch line. You can just see it: two guys playing cards, one says, “I’ve got a Royal flush, can’t beat that!” And the other says, ‘Well, it doesn’t beat a Mississippi flush!” You go, “Ok, you win!” So I had that line, and figured out I had to write the poker game into it. So I wasn’t really conscious of Townes’ song. I’d heard the song, but I wasn’t that familiar with it.
Is there a story behind the album title?
No, I just like those two words. “Eternal” and “Lowdown.” Those are two of my favorite words. And it felt right when I played the whole record, like it was what I was trying to do—make something that would be lasting, but still lowdown. Originally, Gurf suggested we call it “No, I am Shelby Lynne.” [Laughs] That was the working title for awhile.
What’s the biggest difference between your career today and where it was in the ’70s — a period you’ve referred to before as your “honky-tonk fog” years?
Well, I remember the gigs for one thing. But as far as my career goes, I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do when I was in high school, which was be a folk singer. You know, write songs and then travel around with a guitar and do them. I’m doing that now, so I’m very fortunate and grateful that I can do that. I can pack my guitar and get on a plane and fly to Canada by myself and play folk festivals and coffeehouses and then come back home and do a band thing. The difference is I’m really really enjoying it now, and I’m aware of what’s going on with my music. And I know my writing’s improved, and I’m still trying to learn new things.
I started out in folk music, playing with Three Faces West in coffeehouses in Dallas, and folk festivals. And then the whole outlaw thing happened, and I was kind of a bottom feeder on that, low down on the totem pole, but here in Texas there was still places to play. I really don’t think I really appreciated it. I played a lot of Willie 4th of July Picnics, but I was just this kind of grandiose little demon set loose on the planet. [Laughs] I was pretty much driven by ego rather than self-esteem back then. And I was torn because I was still trying to be a songwriter, but we were playing these drunken cowboy fraternity crowds, so my stuff didn’t go over so well, so we just became outrageous. I look back now and I really didn’t know what I was doing. But I had a good band, we had a good time, drank a lot of beer and raised hell. But today, I feel good about what I’m doing because I feel like I’m contributing rather than just doing it to see what I can get. I’m not writing a song just to get the money, I’m writing it because I think it’s a valid song and maybe somebody can hear something in it and dig it. So there is a difference today. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve matured or what, but I look at it different.
There’s a lot of rock ’n’ roll in your music. When you were in high school, what made you lean towards folk? Or have they always been intermixed?
There really were two separate camps back then. When I was growing up in Dallas, I was in this group at Addison High School called the Coachmen. And Stevie Ray Vaughan was in Kimble, and his band was called the Chessmen. And they were rock ’n’ rollers and we were folk, but every once in a while, the Oak Cliff Tribune would print a picture of Stevie’s band and they’d put “The Coachmen” under it. And we’d get mad because we were folk singers, not rock ’n’ roll. I was really into Dylan and Woody Guthrie. But then of course the Rolling Stones and the Beatles came in and they were rockers, but with Revolver their lyrics went wham and had so much depth, and the Rolling Stones, too. Everything went haywire. And when that whole outlaw thing happened, it was really a pretty cool deal. It was all this gypsy-like band of everybody playing with everybody else. It really was progressive, it really was different. To be a folk singer but still have a rock attitude. When I was with my band the Cowboy Twinkies, we’d play some honky-tonk and do “Silver Wings,” the Merle Haggard song, and then it’d come time to do the guitar break and Terry Ware would do it like Hendrix with feedback — just to piss people off. That’s what we did. [Laughs]
How well did you know Steve Ray Vaughan?
Not really that well. We only met two or three times, and both of us were pretty loaded. But later on I’d heard that he got sober, and we had an opportunity to sit down and talk, and he was the first guy that had drank and done drugs like I did and gone sober, but he still had this incredible edge. So I got a little bit of hope. He was very influential in that aspect, but we really didn’t know each other that well.
On the new album, you’ve got a song called “Don’t Bother Asking Me,” in which you sing, “Don’t bother asking me I wouldn’t tell you if I knew/I don’t know why I do what I do.” But I will bother. Why do you do the things you do?
I have no choice. I didn’t start out writing songs to get a record deal or have other people cut my songs. Writers — we write because we have to write. After I did Loco Gringo’s Lament, I didn’t know if I’d ever do another record or not. But I kept writing. I get some sort of gratification from it. That’s why I do it. I’m damned by the gods to write, I think I once heard me say. [Laughs]