By Rob Patterson
Even if he had only written “Redneck Mother” — the anthem of the Texas progressive country movement of the 1970s that still echoes today — Ray Wylie Hubbard would be a true Texas musical hero. But after spending the better part of his 20s and 30s consuming, as he admits, enough booze and blow to give a buzz to a good-sized city, Hubbard got sober in the late ’80s and decided it was time to get serious about his art. He started delving into poetry, philosophy, spirituality, and mythology and learned how to fingerpick guitar, and a whole new Ray Wylie Hubbard began to emerge. Anyone who heard his 1992 return to action, Lost Train of Thought, realized that the onetime wild man of redneck rock was ready to take his place alongside such Texas country-folk songwriting legends as Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark as an exemplar of the genre at its best. And his work has only gotten better with each album as he rebuilt his career via deals with the small Dejadisc indie label and then on the giant indie Rounder Records and steady gigging throughout the Texas music circuit and beyond, by which he also proved himself one of the most riveting performers in the Lone Star State (as well as a between-song storyteller whose humor is so pungent and delivery so pitch perfect that you will laugh at the same jokes year after year).
Today, he is an icon to more than one generation of Texas musicians who have followed in his wake as well as the best advertisement for sobriety and the subsequent wisdom it brings. Happily living in a log home atop what he calls “Mt. Karma” in Wimberley with his wife and manager Judy (who is as beloved among Ray’s friends and admirers as he is) and his son Lucas (who is turning out to be a killer guitarist), Hubbard has just released Snake Farm — his best and most rocking album yet — on the new Sustain Records label started by former Pat Green manager Jimmy Perkins via the largest major label group, Universal Music. Any callow youth who may doubt the adage about how life gets better as you age need only listen to Ray Wylie Hubbard and talk with him, as we do below, to know that it’s true, and learn how keeping your artistic edge also keeps you young.
Tell us now it feels to be on the verge of releasing Snake Farm.
I’m kind of excited. We’re getting the video for “Snake Farm” tomorrow. What happened was that the writer Chuck Bowden — he’s from Tucson and wrote the books Blood Orchid, Stranger in the City and Down by the River, all this really dark stuff — sent one of my CDs to this young director out in Malibu who works for Planet Grade Films. His name is Teller Russell. He did all these documentaries about cockfighting, Compton, outlaw Russian fisherman out in the North Sea. He’s this young, crazy, great director. He heard the old Al Grierson song “Resurrection” from one of my earlier CDs, and just woke up at 3 in the morning and wrote a video treatment for it and sent it to me. So he flew me out to California and took me out to the Salton Sea and shot some 16-millimeter film and he put together this incredible video. We rerecorded it and put it on the record.
Then we got the deal with Sustain. And they were so impressed with this video they said, “We’ve got to do one for ‘Snake Farm.’ It’s got to be the first single.’” That’s the one we’re counting on to get me out of these hell holes. That’s a song I’ve been waiting to write all my life. “Redneck Mother,” “Conversations with the Devil,” even “Screw You We’re From Texas” — those are nothing compared to “Snake Farm.” I’m putting all my eggs in one basket for this song. So they hired Teller to direct this video.
Hmmm. I imagine you probably didn’t use the common video clichés for it, like, say, big-boobed women snake dancing in bikinis.
Teller and I both aren’t fans of most music videos, where the song says there’s a letter in the mailbox, and they show a letter in the mailbox, so obvious. So we said let’s not go to the Snake Farm, let’s not have anything to do with it. So we shot it here at my house and we decorated it like it would have been Keith Richards and Gram Parsons back in the south of France in the 1970s — real decadent, decaying hippie elegant. So we shot it here, and had the band in it: Gurf (Morlix), Rick (Richards) and George (Reiff). Pretty much that’s it, except we did have a wild, crazy Gypsy stripper doing tarot cards. And even if I wasn’t in it, it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s just brilliant, beyond any video I’ve ever seen.
So how did the song “Snake Farm” come into being? Were you driving along I-35 and passing the Snake Farm?
I was passing the Snake Farm and went ugh! Snake Farm — it just sounds nasty. Well it is, it’s a snake farm! So I wrote it in the time it took to get from the Snake Farm to my home, in about 20 minutes. Then I just put the music to it and I just had to come up with the last verse to make it work. It was one of those that really happened quickly.
The song is already resonating with people from when you play it live. I saw Beth Garner the other night and she played it.
Isn’t that cool? We played at Gruene Hall at KNBT’s big Americana Jam yesterday, and it was Buddy Miller, Joe Ely, Hayes Carll, Marty Stuart, Ragweed. When we played it, the whole audience was singing along with it and it hadn’t even been released yet. It does resonate with something. It’s got a life of its own. Plus I love playing it live. I’m old and goofy. A lot of people think I’m old and cool. I’m not. I’m just old and goofy.
So where were you at with your music as you approached writing and making this record?
All these songs just really kind of happened quickly. They happened after my record contract [with Rounder] ran out. I don’t know. I’ve been real prolific lately. I’ve got six songs written for the next one and ready to go, and I’ve got three more that I’m just about ready to finish. I’m really looking forward to doing it. Writing is such a joy and anguish. I love it, and I’m beginning to really love the anguish of it — the purging or something to get it right. Some of them on the new album came very fast, and some of them I did the craft — got a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus after I got the ideas and really worked on making them work.
So tell us about one that was a result of craft.
“Kilowatt.” If you’ll really notice, the rhyme scheme is different in the last verse. I had to change it to make it say what I wanted it to say.
And where did that song come from?
Just the idea from that quote about “faith without works is dead” — you know, where these people say, “I believe in God,” and you say, “so what? Show it. What are you doing? What action are you taking?” I talk about God in two verses and talk about my Mama and Lucinda [Williams] in two verses. The idea being that if you put forth the action, all it really takes is a kilowatt of action or energy to embrace a faith. Plus, for some reason, I really wanted to have a song say: see yourself as you would like to be. If you do that and then take the action, it cannot not happen.
How about one that came quickly?
Well, “Mother Hubbard’s Blues” is one. I wrote that on Judy’s birthday. I was flying in from Chicago and was supposed to be in by about 2 o’clock and it got delayed and I didn’t get in until 10 or 11 at night. And it was her birthday and I went, oh, man, I’m in trouble, because I planned on getting her something nice. So I stopped in at HEB and got her a bottle of real nice shampoo. And kind of wrote the song between there and home. And I was just thinking about her, like how when I left she had a doo rag on her head, and how she really likes the blues but she hates banjos — some of these things about her. I thought about the Ragweed band and how they call her Mother Hubbard. I remember one time when we were watching Reservoir Dogs, and I realized that she’s one of the only women I know who really likes that movie, because it’s such a man movie. It’s the type of movie where guys will go get a tattoo of a reservoir dog. That one just kind of fell into place. I was just going home singing it, and by the time I got there, I said, here’s your birthday present. I hedged a little bit on it. She didn’t really say that last quote about Jesus and a vapor trail. I think I read it in Joseph Campbell. She didn’t really say it, but I made her say it because it sounds cool.
Why do you think that at this point in your life that you are so prolific?
Running out of time. I dunno. My 20s and 30s were like 20 years of being in a fog. And now I’m coming out and not trying to make up for lost time, but I really appreciate the time I have. As I say, it’s such a joy and a joyful anguish to create. And when it works. Like with this record, I feel really satisfied. Not so much ego pride, though I’m definitely proud of it, but just the satisfaction of, yeah man, this is a pretty damn good record. It’s got substance to it, hopefully, and it’s got some depth. It’s got a little humor in it, it’s got cool licks and some gnarly slide
So this is your first time being affiliated with a major label since your abortive stint with Warner Bros. in the late 1970s. How’s it feel?
Yeah, I guess it is. It’s the big time! I don’t really think of it like that. I just went and met with the guys at Sustain and really liked what they presented. It’s a thing where I own the masters; it’s a lease deal. They put out their marketing plan and say this is what we’re going to spend and this is what we’re going to do, and if they don’t, I get the record back and go wherever I want to. But right now they’ve gone beyond what they said they were going to do. They’ve hired the right promotion person and they’ve got the publicist and paid for the video. I’ve never had that happen before. They’ve really stepped up to the plate. Even if it falls apart right now, I’m still ahead of the game. One of the plans is that they’re going to fly me out to Los Angeles and do a little song and dance for the suits out there and set up something where I go in and play in the lunchroom or something. And try to get them excited and do even more.
When you were going into this one you were talking about making a real rock ’n’ roll record. Since you already have songs for the next one, care to give us a preview of what to expect?
The next one I think is going to be called “Guitar, Harmonica, Voice, Foot.” We’re going to do it with me and Gurf, just two acoustic guitars, maybe Rick beating on a pizza box or playing a tambourine and a shaker, and then maybe using George sparingly on just a couple of songs. And I think we’re going to do a DVD of just that, because I get such great response when I do this acoustic thing with Gurf and I on acoustics and then Rick with percussion and all sorts of gnarly stuff. So I’m thinking of doing a DVD of all new songs. And I’ve got a bunch of other stuff going on too that I’m excited about.
Are you surprised at where you have ended up at this point?
Am I surprised? I’m pretty well shocked that I’m where I am today — here in Wimberley with a home. At one point in my life it was pretty much that I would burn the bridges I was sleeping under. So I’m actually shocked at where I am. But I’m also very grateful and aware of the reason why I’m able to write and do what I do. And I’m hopefully trying to do it right.
You’ve really become an elder statesman if not icon for all these younger singer-songwriters in the Texas music scene. How’s that feel?
Well, I don’t really think of myself like that. I just enjoy hanging around with Cody Canada, Hayes Carll, Slaid Cleaves, Bleu Edmonson and Wade Bowen — you know what I mean? So I don’t think of myself as some older guy. I just kind of think that they’re old cats, too. I’m kind of their age and they’re my age when I hang around with them. So I don’t really sit around and think that I’m an icon or elder statesman. I just kind of think that I am writing songs and I get to hang around with really cool people that I like. I’m honored that they say nice things about me, but I don’t really think of myself like that. I’m still scuffling, still hungry, still down in the trenches. And I kind of like it like that.
Where do you think you’ll be 10 years from now?
Hmmm. I hope I’m still valid as a songwriter. I’ve got a whole bunch of projects going on. I’m getting ready to do a songbook. I’ve had lots of people ask me about that. So we’re going to put that together with a little songwriting workshop like I do at colleges and folk festivals. So it’ll be a songbook with an instructional DVD with some of the tricks I’ve learned like my fingerpicking stuff and inspiration and craft. And Teller and I are working on a screenplay together.
You seem to have this fascination with the margins of the mystical world. Why do you think that is?
Well, it’s pretty fascinating — the supernatural, superstitions, mythology, Zen Buddhism and physics, voodoo and all that stuff. And I just enjoy looking at it. It’s a pretty interesting world we live in. As I said before, I prefer spiritual awakenings to religious conversions. And I’m not trying to, like, do enlightenment. Because there was a period of time in my 20s that “endarkenment” wasn’t that bad — hanging around with strippers and wild, crazed people.
I imagine that those days provided you with lots of material and characters to write about.
I cleaned up my act, but I still enjoy that edge to my music and to my writing. It’s fascinating to me.
It’s not like we want to lose you anytime soon, but do you have any idea what you’d like your epitaph to read?
Uh. “He couldn’t believe how old he was?” Oh, I like: “good husband and father.” I know it sounds corny, but Judy and Lucas are very precious to me.