By Andrew Dansby
(March/April 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 2)
Ray Wylie Hubbard’s story is that of two men in their 20s. One was young and dumb, the other is weathered and wise. The first was a folkie from Soper, Okla., who tasted success as an insurgent country musician when he was too inexperienced to make much of it. He disappeared into a chemical haze he refers to as “the fog.” The other Hubbard came out of that fog a new artist, one set upon developing his faculties rather than hindering them. That Hubbard is now 65 and starting the second decade of his second act, which boasts a much better soundtrack than the first.
The new Grifter’s Hymnal is Hubbard’s 10th album in 20 years. On quick assessment those albums are filled with some remarkable music. Scratch a little deeper and they also represent a larger quest for something: call it wisdom, enlightenment, or a groove. Sometimes all three. Hubbard has, in that span, developed an instantly recognizable sound of his own. His is a propulsive sort of country blues marked by a twangy nasal growl and holler that delivers luscious words, deft turns of phrase, and thoughtful musings on life and death to the sound of a nasty resonator guitar and a band that races alongside with sympathetic soulfulness.
Nearly 30 years after Jerry Jeff Walker took a Hubbard song about a bad bar encounter and handed the songwriter a creative albatross, Hubbard now holds the tether for his work. He has a deep songbook that freed him from his reputation as the guy who wrote “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” and he and his manager/wife Judy now put out his music on their own Bordello label. Through study and practice Hubbard has attained that which was elusive when he was a young man: a musical world of his own, which is informed by the wonder of youthful discovery and the seasoned sound of experience.
Did you come up with the phrase Grifter’s Hymnal? It has a great sound to it.
Yeah, I just feel like they’re two very strong words that kind of seemed to fit. And it plays off that idea that in the 1920s there were these grifters who would come to con people who had it coming. (Laughs) They’d con people because of their greed and vices. So it seemed like the grifter — it wasn’t quite a noble purpose, but it also wasn’t vindictive. And I just liked the word: Here I am an old cat still out there scuffling. It just seemed appropriate. Some of the songs, I didn’t realize until I finished them, had some sort of spirituality to them. So it seemed to fit, kind of like the last one, with a foot in both worlds.
There are a few end-of-the-road songs on here.
As I’ve gotten older, obviously I think more about mortality. You get older and have friends pass away. It’s something that’s just there. Sometimes you stare at it, sometimes you look at it out of the corner of your eye. It’s not something I’m trying to focus on too much, but it pops up when it pops up, and I let it have the corner of my eye.
The song “Lazarus” offers a bit of glass-half-full perspective on death.
Yeah, it does. It’s one of those things, as you get older you think about dying. But hey, Lazarus had to think about it twice. I had that line and then I heard that old Delaney and Bonnie song, “Poor Elijah.” So I got the groove going and it fell into place after that.
The first song, “Coricidin Bottle,” sets a brisk tempo for the whole thing.
Yeah, and that’s the last song I wrote. I’d recorded everything else. We recorded in this church but we were doing rock ’n’ roll all over the place. So I’d be going out there listening to some Howlin’ Wolf and so it just dawned on me, we had this little ritual … We’d go in and take a moment to say a little prayer. It sounds strange or funny, but it was like “Bless us while we rock.” So we’d just done the ritual and I had a chance to throw out those lines. It came quick, about 20 minutes. My son came in and plugged in and got the whole vibe of it, playing with reckless abandon. We got in there and left it alone. We took out the lip smacks, but we left in the coughing and the creaks and the bangs. I love playing with these guys, and I wanted a sense of them playing. Some of my favorite records had guys doing that. That early Stevie Wonder hit, “Fingertips,” you can hear the bass player saying, “What key? What key?” I still remember that.
Do Coricidin bottles really make good slides?
They really do. In fact I have a Coricidin bottle given to me by Gary Stewart. He said he got it from Duane Allman, but I don’t have any proof of that. It’s an old one, not one of the fake ones, and it’s very special to me. And it made for a good title. I had all those lines in that song but nothing that was good for the title. I really couldn’t go with “old black gods” or anything with the monkey.
It’s an interesting sounding word.
It is, isn’t it? I just thought it sounded cool and, what the heck?
Coricidin could also mess you up if you weren’t careful, right?
Yes. Yes, it has a bit of a reputation.
“Amaranthine” is another great sounding word in that song.
Yeah, I was reading something, Milton or something, and I thought, “What is that? I have to look it up.” People think I’m singing “American soul,” but that’s not it. I just enjoy words. Little things that bring me enjoyment. Sometimes I feel a little like these songs are like Stanley Kowalski: You’ve got Brando as this dumb guy in a t-shirt saying profound things that Tennessee Williams put in his mouth.
Do you keep a notebook on hand at all times to jot down those snippets of inspiration?
I do keep a little pad and pencil around. And of course now you have the phones, though I don’t really do that at all. It’s such a mysterious process sometimes. It’s like Keith Richards — have you read his book? He talks about that idea of writing the song before somebody else does. That idea that the song’s there. There’ve been times where I feel like songs are like that. Not every song. Sometimes songwriting’s a joy and sometimes it’s an anguish.
Do you step away when it’s anguish?
Yeah, I do try to get away and let it incubate if I get stuck. One of my friends, Kevin Welch, says when he gets stuck he lowers his standards, rhymes the damned thing and gets some sleep.
Speaking of damned things, let’s talk about “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell.” I’m glad I’m not Jimmie Perkins. Were names changed in that song?
(Laughs) No they’re all real people. That was an idea from The Divine Comedy. Back in college I majored in English but then I got sidetracked by the honky-tonks. When I was 41 I came out of the fog and got back to reading and that’s when I got to The Divine Comedy. I enjoyed that idea — what a brilliant thing to be able to go in there and skewer people. We had a little problem with this record label thing and I had to vent. I was debating whether or not to do it, but … I can’t remember, I think it was Rilke that said when you write you have to be fearless. You can’t write thinking about what people will think about it. So I sang it and figured I’ll take whatever the consequences are.
On the lighter side, how did you come to cover Ringo Starr’s “Coochy Coochy”? It’s not everybody that can boast a guest appearance by a Beatle. I actually enjoy several of Ringo’s songs; he never gets any attention as a writer.
That’s how this whole thing came about. I was out in California when Snake Farm was out and this guy Brent, who does Ringo’s videos, bought Snake Farm and burned it for him. Told him, “Here’s this guy in Texas you might like.” We’re out there again and Ringo’s playing the Greek Theater and he calls me to come on down. I went out with Rick Richards and Ringo was so nice. He was impressed that I travel just me and a drummer. He introduced me that way to all these famous people: “He travels with a drummer!” Sorry, that’s a horrible English accent, I can’t do one. Anyway, we went to New York for his birthday party. He’s such a musician. He loves musicians. So we’re talking about songwriting. He said he liked my songwriting and I said, “Thanks, I like yours.” And he said, “Nobody thinks of me as a writer.” I told him one of my favorites was “Coochy Coochy” and that I was thinking about cutting it. So we cut it and sent it to Ringo. He didn’t think it needed drums, but he asked, “How about shakers?” It’s kind of weird. You’re sitting there and he’s so nice and he asks you, “Would you like a cup of tea?” and somewhere in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “That’s a fucking Beatle.”
He almost came to Houston when he was 17. He was up in Liverpool and the American sailors would dock there and bring records. His uncle or somebody he knew was a sailor and had a Lightnin’ Hopkins record and Ringo fell in love with it. At 17 he tried to get his passport and go to Houston to start working at an oil derrick or something and track down Lightnin’ Hopkins. Apparently it was too much paperwork, so he started playing drums.
Which worked out OK for him.
Yeah. It’s funny, he’d say, “Before I was with the boys, I was in this band Roy Storm and the Hurricanes. Now that was a band.” And I’d say, “Yeah, but the Beatles were a pretty good band too …” And he’d say, “Well yes, but Roy Storm …” (Laughs)
I think my favorite line on the album is in the song “Mother Blues”: “We hit it off like a metaphor.”
(Laughs) Well thank you. I was trying to think of a metaphor. “We hit it off like a … I need a metaphor.” But I appreciate it. It’s one of my favorite lines. That’s just one of those things with words, I really enjoy working with them. Even something like that, where it’s kind of an inside joke.
Is the god in “Ask God” a capital “G” God?
Yes. Yes, I think that it is. I got that from Luther Dickinson, a song called “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” I wanted to write a gospel blues thing. I always had that line, “when darkness swoops down on you …” I just liked it. “Ask God for a light.” I just fell into that thing, a country blues gospel thing. Some of Lightnin’s stuff, I can’t remember the names now, but he did some of that stuff. Mance, Fred McDowell, Son House, those guys that had a foot in both worlds, you know?
Lightnin’ and Freddie King seem to appear and reappear on the album. Do you recall your first impressions upon seeing or hearing them?
Lightnin’ was in Dallas, probably 1965, ’66 or ’67, at a little club called the Rubaiyat. And I remember seeing Townes and John Vandiver in Austin in the late-60s. I was very aware at the time these were remarkable musicians. I’m in the process of writing my memoirs. It’s jumping all over the place, some of it is fun, some of it is depressing. But it’s nice to think back. Lightnin’ was so incredibly powerful. But he was kind of a rounder. Mance, he was a gentleman, very gracious. Freddie was wonderful and powerful. They were all such powerful people.
Your early interest was folk, right?
Yeah, I was in folk music doing the strumming thing. When I was 41 I finally wanted to learn to fingerpick and got my thumbs and fingers going where I needed them to go. I got into this Lightnin’ thumb technique, which I wish I’d learned earlier. But I started in folk doing the Dylan, Tim Hardin, Woody Guthrie thing, being inspired by songwriters and studying English. When I finally did learn to play it was a good combination for me, taking what I’d learned as a folk singer and applying it to the groove of the blues. There’s so much clichéd blues it helped me avoid that “Woke up this morning …” and all that “I got a woman …” stuff. I love that stuff, and the guys who do it are great. But there was no reason for me to do it.
You mentioned the memoir: Has it been difficult to recall the “fog” years?
Other people remind me of this stuff all the time. “Remember the time you fell on the drums?” Like, yeah, I’m gonna write about that. No, I’m gonna come across as Achilles in this book. (Laughs) I’m gonna be the hero. It is difficult sometimes going back and remembering stuff, thinking about guys like Stevie Ray. And some of it is painful and some of it is embarrassing. There are also parts where I’m honored to have been there and parts where I’m happy with the way I did behave.
I’m sure there’s a period of time you’d just as well forget, but do you find that period had some inadvertent value?
Y’know, it’s hard to say. Like the song says, I’m grateful, I really am. It’s a good question. I guess I had to go through what I did to get where I am. When I was younger I didn’t handle it all very well. I had this song, “Muddy Boggy Banjo Man,” and on the flip side was “Junk Food Junkie,” which sold really well as a novelty. So if you bought the 45 I got paid for it. I was 20 or 21 and I got a royalty check for $6,000. It was a little like the Tasmanian Devil was let loose on the planet … for about a month. (Laughs) And then it was just gone. So hopefully I haven’t grown up but maybe I’ve matured a bit.
Did you buy anything good with the money?
No, man. I think I went and bought a Gretsch White Falcon. Which a folk singer doesn’t need. (Laughs) I lost it or gave it away. At the time it just seemed the thing to do, buy a $1,200 guitar that I wouldn’t use but it looked good. I don’t remember where any of that stuff went. I tell Judy I have these middle age moments, but it’s not a younger girlfriend I want, it’s the guitars I used to have.
Any estimate as to how many got away?
Oh quite a few. I just let them get away. At the time who knew a 1956 Telecaster was going to be worth anything? It seemed old and crappy, so, sure I’ll sell it to you for $400, I only paid $200. But you know, I’m OK with it today. I have some cool guitars so I’m happy.
And they seem to have plenty of songs in them.
They do. I definitely treat them with respect.
The resonator guitar has become such an important part of your sound. Do you remember when it first grabbed your attention?
Oooh yeah … it was the first one that I got. I was traveling in Arkansas 12 or so years ago. I was in this little store at the gas station on my way to the Ozark Folk Festival. There was this guitar neck stuck in this plant. I asked about it, and the guy told me the White River flooded in ’72 and this guitar got soaked. I thought it was pretty funky, and the guy asked if I wanted it. I said yeah. So he gave me this neck and it was from a 1929 Regal resonator. He said some other parts were in the shed, so I gave him my address and two weeks later I get this package with the rest of the guitar. I took it to a friend of mine and he put it back together. There was these weird slashes on the back of the neck where the fifth, seventh and ninth frets would be. I found out that’s what the blind guitarists would do.
Anyway, so I tuned it to open G and got Muddy Waters’ Alan Lomax recordings and started learning those licks. It was frustrating to try to learn to play slide. It took about two weeks to where I could do it without making it buzz. And then it just worked for me. There’s just something about that time that’s really special to me. After that I got a metal one and as Judy says, the race was on. I got about four of them. The thing is, as I’ve gotten older learning new things helps with my songwriting. Learning open G tuning opened things up to where I got these songs. If I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have gotten them. For me, I’m an old cat, but I can learn new things. Judy says as long as I don’t bring home a banjo I’m OK.
Here’s the obligatory encore question about “Redneck Mother.” After years of playing ¡Viva Terlingua!, I just last week figured out what Jerry Jeff was singing with the “goat ropers” line.
(Laughs) Yeah, goat ropers need love too. We were in Red River, N.M., having a hootenanny. It was my turn to get the beer in this real redneck bar. So I went in there and there was this woman, probably in her 40s, and she started hassling me about my hair. And it got tense. Anyway, nothing happened, and I walk out with the beer and passed this pickup truck with a gun rack and Oklahoma plates with a sticker that read “Goat ropers need love too.” So I’m back at the hootenanny and B.W. Stevenson said, “It’s your turn to sing.” So I made it up. We were talking and I said, “I almost got in a fight.” “With who?” “This old woman.” (Laughs) Who knows? It’s the song that refuses to die. And it’s in the repertoire now. For a long time it was the only song I was known for. So somebody’d yell “Redneck Mother!” and I’d play it and then say, “OK, and here’s another one I wrote …” I wouldn’t even get started before I’d hear, “Redneck Mother again!” But I’ve gotten to the point where I have fun with it. I don’t play it every night. If I’m doing a folk festival in California, I won’t play it. But I still pull it out. At least it’s not “Feelings.” If I had to sing that every night that’d be a problem.