By Richard Skanse
At a recent solo performance at Austin’s intimate Cactus Café, singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard shared with his audience a fond memory from his recent trip to the Colorado Rockies for the Steamboat MusicFest, an annual ski-trip and Texas music party featuring Pat Green and a host of other Lone Star and Oklahoma mainstays. This year’s trip found Hubbard, revered by the younger generation of regional up-and-comers as something of an Obi Wan of songwriters, spending some quality time with fellow Okie/Texan hybrids Cross Canadian Ragweed. “I really like those guys,” Hubbard enthused after a good chunk of the older Cactus crowd let out a whoop of approval at the mention of the band’s name, evidence that it’s not just the college kids who seem to think those Oklahoma boys are A-OK. Hubbard talked about co-writing a new song with Ragweed frontman Cody Canada, proudly noted that Ragweed had recently recorded one of his older songs for their next album, and, with a good-natured chuckle, recounted how this bunch of “motorcycle-gang-looking, long-haired-rockers” asked him to pray with them before one of their performances. They all joined hands in a circle backstage and prayed for their friends and family. Prayed for the fans, maybe for the troops. And then, before the “Amen,” one last little request of the Almighty.
“And God,” spoke the band, “bless us as we rock.”
Apparently that was one even the wizened “Wylie Lama” had never heard before, and one he’ll likely never forget. It’s a line, equal parts humble and cocksure, that pretty much sums up everything you need to know about singer-guitarist Cody Canada, guitarist Grady Cross, drummer Randy Ragsdale and bassist Jeremy Plato: these outlaw-country-loving crowd-favorites love each other, love their fans and families, love to party, love Jesus and, as anyone who’s ever spent time with one of their albums or seen them live can testify, Jesus do they love to rock. For the faithful and not-yet-converted alike, the latest testament comes in the form of Soul Gravy, Ragweed’s second outing for Nashville-based major label Universal South, as well as the band’s first live DVD. Soul Gravy features a baker’s dozen new studio tracks, including a storming cover of Hubbard’s “Wanna Rock & Roll” and a new version of one of Ragweed’s best songs, “Alabama” (originally featured on the band’s independently released Highway 377 CD). The 16-song DVD, recorded before a rabid, packed-to-the-walls crowd at College Station’s Shadow Canyon, will be packaged as a free bonus disc with a limited-edition run of Soul Gravy, after which it will be sold separately.
To mark the occasion of the release of both discs, we caught up with Canada on his cell phone as the band rolled into New York City for a gig at the Mercury Lounge. Contrary to the age-old fear of bands “selling out,” signing to a major hasn’t done much to water down Ragweed’s sound, but it sure has taken them to rooms far, far away from Stillwater’s old Wormy Dog Saloon where they got their start.
You’re in New York City, aren’t you?
Yes sir. I think this is our fourth or fifth time.
Have you seen the audience grow much each time?
Yeah, we have. The last time we played here we played a different bar than we usually do, and it was small, so we did’t see that much. But it grows every time we come this way. Tonight we’re at the Mercury Lounge, which is cool. We love that room. The very first time we played it we had some Ragweed fans there. We were blown away.
I spent a few years living in New York, and saw quite a few Texas bands in that room. You ever eat at the famous Katz’s Deli right down the street?
Oh yeah, every time we come here. Never kloses!
So obviously you’ve been to the Big Apple a few times now. Are you starting to see other things in your career that are directly linked to signing with Universal South?
Yeah. Well, lot of the stuff is kind of the same, but some of it’s changed. For instance, we’ll play shows in New York City and actually have a lot fans out, and we know a lot of it’s from having radio play and video play.
Those videos have been doing pretty good for you on CMT, haven’t they?
Yeah, they have. “Constantly” didn’t do quite as good as “17,” but we’re not bitching.
So what’s going to be the first single from Soul Gravy?
“Sick and Tired,” the song with Lee Ann Womack.
That oughta get the attention of a few country radio program directors. How in the world did Lee Ann Womack ever end up on a Cross Canadian Ragweed record? Was that [Universal South co-president/legendary producer] Tony Brown’s work?
No, actually it was through Enzo DiVincenzo, who’s part of our management (Lead Dog Management, LCC). He also works for MCA, and he’s been working Lee Ann to radio forever. We met her through him a couple of years ago, and then we really got to know her when we did that Houston Livestock Show. And ever since then we’ve had a really good relationship with her. When we did that song, it was really cool of her to come to Texas, instead of us sending her a tape. It wasn’t the normal bullshit of, you know, “We’ll send you the tapes and this and that, and you send it back, and if we don’t like it, we’ll send it back to you again …” She actually flew out to Texas and came in the studio. It took her a couple of hours, because she’s a perfectionist, but that was real cool.
How does she mix in with you guys? That seems like a weird mix.
She’s one of the boys. She’ll swill Jäger with us!
What are the other singles going to be? Any idea yet?
I think “Alabama.” We re-recorded that for a reason. We get a really good response from that song, and people ask for it, but it was only on Highway 377, and that was an independent release so there’s a lot of people that can’t get a hold of it. So we wanted to get it out to the masses. We’ll probably re-cut one old song like that an album. “Long Way Home” is another one I’d like to do again — I really want to redo that for my dad.
The last time we talked, you said 377 took you three days to record and Cross Canadian Ragweed — the “Purple Album” — took three weeks. So how long did Soul Gravy take you?
Actually we probably got it done in the same amount of time. I think we had two months that was actually booked in the studio, but we had a lot of it laid down after the first week. But then we had a lot of time to go back and pick it apart, and say, “We can do this different.” We had time to live with it, as they call it.
The “Purple Album” was your first major-label outing, but it was recorded before you signed to Universal South. Soul Gravy is the first record you’ve made while on a major label. Was the experience much different?
Having more time was awesome. We had some financial support this time, so it wasn’t as much of a hurry-up-and-get-it-done kind of thing, which was nice. Other than that, it’s really about the same as it’s always been. But having time to actually dick around in the studio and get prefect tones and stuff was a luxury we never really had before. There’s a couple of songs, “Lonely Girl” and “Hammer Down,” that we recorded, scrapped and completely redid, because we went, “We can do better than that.”
But it’s not like anybody’s talking about bringing in a full orchestra or anything like that yet.
Oh no. [Laughs] Mike McClure, who produced it with us, has actually been talking about bringing horns in for the last three records, but I don’t know … that might be pushing it a little bit. It might sound cool — he’s got a good ear — but we’re not ready for that yet.
Apart from Mike, are there any other producers you’d like to work with in the future? Like Tony Brown or Gurf Morlix?
Actually, we just had lunch with Tony and [Universal South’s other founder/president] Tim DuBois, and they were talking about maybe bringing Steve Earle in for the next record, and we’re pretty pumped about that. We wanted to use him on 377, but it was too expensive and we knew that we’d germ out and turn into a bunch of kids if we were around Steve, and we’d end up doing whatever he told us to do instead of voicing our own opinion. But I think we’re ready for it now. I think we’re a little more seasoned. I’d also like to work with Tony.
Do he or Tim put much input into this record?
No. Well, after it was done they did. Tony wanted us to record it and just half-ass mix it, and then send it to him so he could have another guy do a final mix on it. But we did the record like we would have done it, like we’ve done every other record, just put it together and send it to him and say ‘This is what we’ve got.” But this time we said, “This is what we’ve got, but if you hear something different, our ears are open.” They’ve done some edits, and they’d add a little bit every now and then, like on “Hammer Down” they added some weird guitar stuff on it, just effects. It’s pretty cool. And they brought Lee Ann Womack’s voice up a little louder on “Sick and Tired.” It was beautiful where it was, but they brought it up a little more. She’s a beautiful singer, and it adds accents to the song. They’ve got some good ideas. And there’s some ideas we’re not real fond of, but we respect each other, so we’re open to suggestions.
So who suggested the title Soul Gravy? Where did that come from?
We’ve been guilty of naming an album after a song in the past — that’s the easy way out. But we were kicking around stupid ideas one night, and someone said “Plaid Gravy.” We were all laughing about it. Then Chris McCoy, our sound guy, pretended to kick me in the face, with his sole in my face, and we went, “Soul Gravy!” [Laughs] We’ve had a lot of mixed reviews on the title, but we’re kind of digging on it. It’s something different. Tony and Tim loved it. And I mentioned it to Ray Wylie Hubbard, and he said, “If you don’t use it, I’m going to use it!” So I thought, ok, Ray thinks its cool. And then I wrote it in the guest book and had people comment on it, and about 99 percent of them dug it. If fans dig it, you better roll with it.
Speaking of Ray Wylie, you cover his song “Wanna Rock & Roll” on the new album. That’s such a great fit, it’s a wonder you didn’t record it sooner.
You know what, we did that Waylon tribute last summer, and I got up and played lead for Ray on that song. He just looked over at me real quick and said, “It’s in E, and the change-over’s just like ‘Gloria.’” You know, most people that are schooled musicians, they would give you numbers and tempos. But it just connected, like, “He’s the same kind of musician we are.” And Mike McClure was there, and when we got offstage he said, “Man, you guys really need to record that song.” I said, “That’s what I was thinking!” So it was pretty much right there in front of us. That’s our favorite song to play live now. It’s a lot of fun.
A lot of young artists on the scene seem to look at Ray Wylie as kind a mentor and songwriting advisor. What have you taken away from him?
I’ve learned a lot about how to structure things from him, how to craft words. If it’s really simple, you can make it simpler, and make it connect with people. He’s just his own being. From the minute I met the guy, we connected. My wife Shannon said, “He just fits in with you guys.” And I learned … I gotta tell you this. This is a funny story about him. He’d been asking me forever to write a song with him. He’d started a song, and he wanted me to write it with him. And that was a complement. But I told him, “You know Ray, I’m pretty intimidated by you.” He said, “Ah, shit, you’ll get over that!”
So did you finish that song with him?
Yeah we did, we finished it at Steamboat. It’s called “Some Things Under Heaven.” Really bluesy. He’s got a lot of blues in him. I’m sure we’ll take it to a producer and say, “What do you think we should do with it?” Because it could be a real dirty blues thing if we just take off with it.
So what else happened at Steamboat this year?
We did the Guy Clark tribute. All the lead guys from all the bands got up and did their favorite Guy Clark song while Guy Clark was sitting there in the crowd, just like last year when we did it with Billy Joe Shaver. And man, that was scary. I mean, Billy Joe is a sweet, cuddly, grandpa kind of guy, and …
That’s not Guy Clark.
Yeah. Guy Clark’s kind of like the uncle that you don’t want to piss off. But man, he was really nice and cool. But he’s such a powerful songwriter, so being up there and singing his words right back at him is very intimidating.
What song did you do?
I did “Stuff That Works.” That’s my favorite.
Did you watch his face as you sang it, or try not to look?
I looked every now and then. It was a long three minutes!
After each song, would he hold up a scorecard or give a dramatic thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict?
[Laughs] No. But apparently he called up John Dixon — the promoter that puts on Steamboat — the next day and said that that was one of the coolest things that he had ever been apart of.
Speaking of tributes, how did your Red River Tribute to Waylon last September go off?
Man, you know, it was bad timing on my behalf, booking it right at the same time as the Austin City Limits Music Festival. But it also kept a whole shitload of people from being crammed in there and making it more of a headache. We would have loved to have had more people, but we had a great crowd. But the first day, I was running around like a headless chicken. It was very stressful that first day because I worried about every band doing their part right, and then we got up and messed up our song because I was so stressed out. But we had several chances to redo the song, so it went off without a hitch. Every band got up and did their song, and if they got it wrong, they did it again.
What song did you do?
We did “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” and we did the Dukes of Hazard song with Phil Pritchett.
Waylon’s wife Jessie Colter and son Shooter were there, weren’t they?
Yeah. Jessie did a full set, and Shooter did a full set. Everybody had 45 minutes, but we let those guys go until they wanted to quit. Jessie had Don Was with her playing bass, and that was pretty cool to meet that dude. He walked in and all the musicians about shit. “Holy shit, that’s Don Was!” But Jessie, she went from smiles to tears, sad tears to happy tears, she loved it. We took her around and showed her all the Waylon decorations we had hanging up. When the CD we’re making of the concert comes out, you’ll hear — she talks a little bit about it right before her tune.
How’s that coming along? It’s going to be a double-disc set, right?
Yeah. It’s being pressed right now. The CD’s how it was recorded, from the first act on Friday to the last act on Saturday. It’s going to be on our Underground Sound label.
Did you ever meet Waylon?
You know, I had an opportunity to with Shooter. All of us did. We were playing at Lucy’s in Austin, and he came over to watch us play, and said, “Hey man, we’re going to go eat a dinner with my folks. You want to go?” We told him, “Man, we’ve already had too much to drink. We love the invitation, we love the offer, but if we went over there, we’d germ out, just be fans and not respectful.” Shooter said, “Oh, my dad’s used to that. You’re my friends.” We said, “We’ll do it next time.” And unfortunately, there wasn’t a next time. I wish we could have.
Did you listen to Waylon growing up, or was he an influence you picked up later in life?
No, that was from birth. For everybody in the band. Our moms and dads were jamming that stuff since we were kids. Big time influence. Every aspect — his songwriting, and especially his attitude.
Do you think you’ll ever put together a tribute show like that again?
We’re actually already committed to it, because I said we would — once you say something on stage, you’ve got to do it. But we want to do a Johnny Cash one. We’re going to try and put it together for the summer. We’re definitely going to do it, we just don’t have a date yet, because this next year’s going to be pretty hectic for us.
So talk about this busy year you have ahead of you. Does the label have you opening for anyone? What’s going on with the promotional blitz?
We’ve got a bunch of that. In-stores and radio. And in February, we’ve got 12 dates with Johnny Lang coming up, which I think will be pretty cool.
That’s not a bad match. Better, surely, than say, Kenny Chesney.
[Laughs] Yeah. No, we won’t be doing that.
Do you have any history with Toby Keith, what with the Oklahoma connection?
We heard from some people that went to his concert in Oklahoma City, they said he played “Purple” from front to back during their set change. And we’ve got emails from other states, from states we haven’t even been to yet, saying the same thing. That’s pretty cool. I remember going to watch the guy in Oklahoma City when he was the house band. I know he says a lot of things that people don’t agree with, and he says some stuff that I don’t agree with, but that’s pretty cool to get the respect from another musician.
What’s the best show you’ve ever seen? Any one that really set the bar for you?
Yeah. The first Todd Snider show I ever saw. It was in Luckenbach. Only show I’ve ever been to there besides one of our own. Randy and Jason Boland and I went there to see him in ‘95 I think, and it was just an eye-opener. It was like, that’s it. That’s where we’re coming from, and he’s doing it. I still haven’t seen another show like that. I’ve seen a lot of concerts, but that was just a broke-down garage rock ’n’ roll band that just kicked our ass.
Tell me about that “Long Way Home” page on the Web site, where you’ve got pictures from your fans in the Armed Forces over in the Middle East. It’s got to be mind-blowing to see your band name spray-painted on walls in Iraq.
Yeah, over the face of Saddam!
That’s quite a street team.
No kidding. We do anything and everything we can for those guys. We get emails from those guys saying, “When we listen to your CDs, it really takes us home. Kind of mends the homesickness.” So when they send us pictures, we know that we’re being thought of over there, and they know that we’re thinking about them.
Have you given any thought to playing for them over there? USO style?
Yeah, it’s actually in the works right now.
For this year?
I’m not sure yet. It was brought up last year, but we were in the studio when it was brought up, but we’ll see what happens. We’re going to France in July, so it might be around that time.
Will that be your first time overseas?
Yeah. I hate flying. But we’ll see what happens.
Man, we’ve sold a bunch of records over there. I don’t know how it happened. But you know Wade Bowen? His guitar player is from France, and he said anything American, especially rebellious American, they eat it alive over there. We’ve had a couple of people who’ve sent emails saying, “Why you going over there when they didn’t support Bush and what he did in Iraq?” I don’t read that shit, but my wife does. Her response was, “Well there’s people here who don’t support him, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to play music for them.”
Have you played any political type shows?
We haven’t yet. But Jenna Bush comes out to a lot of shows.
With Secret Service in tow?
Oh yeah. And you can point them out, too. Hawaiian shirts and one earring. Flattops.
All your fans know that your faith is important to you, and that you love to party. But what are some CCR facts that would surprise fans? Any closet guilty secrets?
I think we pretty much just lay it on the line. I think everybody knows what goes on. No, I can’t think of anything. We’re big fans of blackjack and strip joints.
What’s Ragweed’s favorite bus movie?
[Laughs] Playmate of the Apes. It’s one of the worst movies ever, but it’s great.
Is that porn?
No. It’s like a B-flick, Skinimax-type show. We saw it one night on the bus, and it was so funny and so bad, we had to record it. It’s even got a shitty title. Man, I’ve got to send you a copy. It’s like they had alley surgeons do all the boob jobs, and they have maybe two people dressed up in good ape makeup, and everybody else is running around with gorilla head masks, flannel shirts and belt buckles.
That would make a great album title.
Playmate of the Apes? [Laughs] Yeah, it would.