By Richard Skanse
Comebacks, in the commercial sense of the word, are a dime a dozen. For all the hoopla that usually accompanies the great second-coming of an artist — be it a songwriter, actor, writer, director — from where-are-they-nowville back into the public eye, all it takes is one hit song, one great script, one book, one whatever just a nudge or so better than the last forgotten flop, and it’s welcome back to the all-you-can-eat buffet of all-is-forgiven critical kudos and Entertainment Weekly photo shoots. Sometimes it all boils down to the hip company you keep, like when Quentin Tarantino plucks you from obscurity and gives you a starring role in his own comeback bid, or a White Stripe begs to produce you. Of course, genuine talent, luck and good timing all help, too, but suffice it to say, successfully pulling off your average everyday comeback is hardly rocket science.
But artistic comebacks — or more specifically, artist comebacks that stick, the kind that yield not another fleeting 15 minutes of fame but rather an honest-to-goodness second career that not only improves on the first but keeps getting better and better with each project, with no sign of slowing down? Those comebacks are few and far between, a rare breed. Fittingly, that’s the kind of comeback fellow rare breed Ray Wylie Hubbard reached for, grabbed by the neck and has now run with for more than a decade. By now the back story has been told about as many times as It’s a Wonderful Life has aired on Christmas Eve: You know, the one about the struggling folk-rocker who pens an ironic, undying outlaw country anthem, spends the ’70s and a good part of the ’80s trudging through a self-described “honky-tonk fog,” then discovers sobriety, Rilke and fingerpicking and remerges at the dawn of the ’90s as one of the finest songwriters in Texas. From Lost Train of Thought to Loco Gringo’s Lament to Dangerous Spirits to Crusades of the Restless Knights to Eternal and Lowdown to Growl, Hubbard’s anything-but-ordinary “comeback” has moved from strength to strength and keeps turning up new surprises. And there’s more to come — like the mother of all redneck rock ’n’ blues albums he’s already chomping at the bit to record. But first up — and this, too, is a real corker of a surprise — is Delirium Tremolos (Jan. 25), a brief, catch-your-breath respite from the full-tilt rumble of Hubbard’s “wanna rock and roll” roar of late. Call it the Eye of Hurricane Hubbard; or more to the point, a disquietingly beautiful little folk-rock covers record, offered Trojan Horse-style before all hell breaks loose.
You’ve got a song on your new record called “Dallas After Midnight” that you originally recorded way back in 1979 for Something About the Night, your last pre-“comeback” album. So of course I dug out my old copy of that record to compare the two versions …
Oh, geesh …
And I say this with the utmost respect, but man, you’ve come a long way.
[Laughs] Yeah, I have. I was still trying to kind of put it together back then, as far as songwriting and any of that stuff. I hadn’t really studied enough to know the craft of it. I would just grab a six-pack, start writing, and go, “Yeah, that’s done.” So yeah, I have come a long way since then. Hopefully I have!
How would you describe where you were back then at that point in your career?
[Laughs] It wasn’t a career! It was a hobby where I got to drink beer and travel around. Of course I’ve always been able to make a living as a working musician, because I had good bands and we’d play anywhere, but I wouldn’t call it a career.
Your first album, Ray Wylie Hubbard & The Cowboy Twinkies, came out on Warner/Reprise in 1975, but I understand you were never happy with the production and it was pretty much abandoned at birth by the label. A couple of years later you had a record called Off the Wall on Willie Nelson’s Mercury imprint, Lone Star Records, and that didn’t really take off, either. So by the time you made the half-live/half-studio Something About the Night (for Renegade), were you still hoping for a breakthrough, or were you close to giving up? I mean, while Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker were both having tremendous success around that time, did you feel kind of left behind?
I never could figure it out. I mean, like with the recording part of it. Because we were playing the same places at the same time with Willie and Michael Murphy and B.W. Stevenson and all that, and we were drawing the same amount of people as them, and we didn’t even have a record out. We just had a really intense show. We were the Cowboy Twinkies — we were pretty crazy and wild. We had a really rock, punk attitude. But we got burned on the one record deal with Warners, and then we did the one record deal with Willie, but … all these records were kind of under-funded. You know, mix 11 songs in one night. And of course I had already blown off Nashville, because I was never going to get a record deal there. So I just never could quite get it, you know — get all the ducks in a row. I was writing some songs, and playing clubs and people liked us, but I could never figure out the business end of it. I had managers who weren’t really managers, and I never had anyone who could really represent me, business wise. So I don’t think I ever felt like I was left behind, but I just couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.
Let’s fast-forward two-and-a-half decades. What made you decide to go back and rescue “Dallas After Midnight” off of that long-forgotten album and give it a second chance on Delirium Tremolos?
I still get requests for some of these old songs. A fellow named Brian Burns did “Dallas After Midnight” up in Dallas, and I heard it on the radio. I thought it had been done pretty good. And I was kicking around ideas with [producer/guitarist] Gurf Morlix about songs to do on this record, and we started playing around with “Dallas After Midnight.” I was actually thinking about re-doing a bunch of these old songs, like “Dallas After Midnight” and “Bordertown Girl,” so I went in and I spent about a week re-writing them …
George Lucas style! “I’ll just give this a tweak or two, add a couple of new things …”
In a way, yeah! Because I looked back on some of these songs and thought, “I can’t sing that now!” So I tried to fine-tune them a little bit, put a little more craft into them. I did “Dallas After Midnight” and some of these others, like “West Texas Dance Band.” And I went over to Gurf’s, and as I was playing “West Texas Dance Band,” I stopped and said, “I just can’t do this.” I mean, people had wanted those old records, wanted me to re-cut them, and I said I’d give it a shot. But I just didn’t feel right singing them. I felt like they were written by somebody else. I don’t know how else to explain it. But I did go ahead and do “Dallas After Midnight.”
Well, that one really did turn out pretty good. You’ve got Jack Ingram singing on it with you, and the two of you really pack some drama into it. On the surface it could be just another robbery-gone-wrong song, but you both step into your characters with Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn-level conviction. It’s like a little movie, almost.
Well, there was an episode of Baretta — you know the show Robert Blake had before he was being tried for murder — and there was this one episode that had Gary Busey and Strother Martin, an old character actor who was in The Wild Bunch, one of my favorite actors — a real character. So the two of them are really inept, and they try to rob a liquor store, and they come out and steal a car and jump in a car with Baretta as a police officer. How great is that? So that’s how that whole idea of that little scene came from. And at that time, I’d spend a lot of time driving around Dallas late at night. So it was like a little movie. And when I did it for this album, for some reason I thought of Jack Ingram as a Gary Busey to my Strother Martin as we try to rob a liquor store. [Laughs] Jack was the kind of guy where I thought, “Well, if I ever do rob a liquor store, Jack would drive the get-away car. I could say, ‘Jack, stay here,’ and I could trust him that when I came running out, he wouldn’t be gone.” Because there’s a lot of guys on this scene that I’ve run around with, and Jack’s one of the very few I would trust in that kind of situation! [Laughs]
In addition to the original “Dallas After Midnight,” Something About the Night also has “[The Last Recording of] Redneck [Ever]” on it.
I guess I lied! But that’s why I just called it “The Obligatory Encore” on Live at Cibilo Creek.
But given that you still get requests for that song every night, and that you haven’t recorded a studio version of it since 1978’s Off the Wall, did you consider re-cutting that one for Tremolos, too?
No, not really. After I scrapped the idea of cutting a whole record of my old songs, I decided what I really wanted to do was just make the best record I could even if I didn’t write all the songs. I just wanted to make a really cool record. I thought “Dallas After Midnight” was a cool song, and I thought “Cooler-N-Hell,” a new song I wrote with Cody Canada, was kind of cool, too, and I redid “Dust of the Chase” because it was just so out there. But other than that … I had a bunch of songs that I was writing, like “Snake Farm,” that weren’t finished yet, and I couldn’t quite validate rushing them. So Gurf and I just looked for cool songs we really liked, whether I wrote ’em or not.
Which is how you ended up covering songs like Eliza Gilkyson’s “Beauty Way,” James McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo,” Slaid Cleaves’ finished version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Mornin’ I Am Born Again” and Gurf’s own “Torn in Two,” among others. That is a strong batch of songs. But, coming after all these albums from the last decade where you’ve established yourself as a songwriter and an artist hell-bent on moving forward, Delirium Tremolos kind of seems like a sort of palate-cleanser. Like you were barreling along on this runaway train, and you kind of hopped off for a moment to catch your breath.
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s about right — cause we’re getting ready to get back on! It is a cleansing of the palette — you know, take a chance, rinse your mouth, spit it out and then tear off another piece of meat with your knife. [Laughs] It definitely is different from what I’ve been sort of full-tilt riding, but at the same time it’s not an aside. It’s like the first record that I really wanted to do a long time ago; it’s kind of going back to my past and doing the first record with the Cowboy Twinkies, or Off the Wall or Something About the Night — all the ones I never could get right — only this time, we did get it right. It validates that yeah, I could do a great folk-rock record. It took me back to my folk roots, and I’m very happy with it.
As you mentioned, you recorded a new version of “Dust of the Chase,” which you first did in 1994 on Loco Gringo’s Lament. That song to me has always kind of represented Ray Wylie Hubbard Phase II as much as “Redneck Mother” represents the “honky-tonk fog” phase. Apart from just being “cool” or “out there,” as you said, what made you want to do it again?
That was the first song I wrote after I learned to fingerpick. That and “The Messenger” — I was working on both at the same time. I’d gotten clean and sober, and that was the first time I could really take the inspiration and the craft and work it together. I was sitting at a railroad track, and a train came along, and I came up with the first verse in my head over this fingerpicking pattern I had learned: “I came down from Oklahoma/with a pistol in my boot.” So I went home and wrote it, and because it was kind of the first real song I’d written after learning the craft of songwriting, it’s always been real dear to me. I took a lot of time to really make it work, to where I knew it was a valid song I could play for guys like Jimmy LaFave or Kevin Welch and they’d go, “Ah!” So again, when Gurf and I were looking for songs with that element of “coolness” that we wanted for this record, we gave it a try and came up with that weird, spaghetti Western feel, like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly kind of thing.
One of the great things about working with Gurf — and Lloyd Maines, too [producer of Loco Gringo’s Lament, Dangerous Spirits and Crusades] — is knowing that you’re not going to come up with anything less than great. That’s not an ego thing, it’s an assurance thing. There were so many records in my past where I’d always have to give them to people with a bunch of excuses, like, “We mixed all 11 songs in one night,” or, “We ran out of money.” But when you work with someone like Gurf, there’s no excuses. I can just say, “Here’s the record!” And if you hate it, I can still say, “Well, Gurf likes it, and that’s what counts.”
The assurance of working with Gurf aside, was it in any way nerve wracking to record these songs you really love with the writers in the studio? Eliza sings on her “Beauty Way,” McMurtry plays guitar on “Choctaw Bingo,” Slaid is part of the choir (along with Gilkyson, Morlix, Patty Griffin and Bob Schneider) on “This Mornin’ I Was Born Again,” and of course, Gurf plays on his own “Torn in Two.” Didn’t having those people around add extra pressure?
Not really. Because again, working with Gurf, I knew it was going to be cool. When we did “The Beauty Way,” Gurf said, “Let’s slow it down and make a little sadder,” and when Eliza came in to sing on it, she thought it was cool that we didn’t follow the guitar line. When I told McMurtry I was doing “Choctaw Bingo,” he said, “I appreciate you spreading the gospel.” I asked him to play guitar on it, and told him, “We kind of slowed it down, put a little groove on it.” He listened to it and said, “Yeah! I may have to start doing it like this, too.” Gurf was actually the only one who … he didn’t want me to do “Torn in Two,” because he thought people would think it was nepotism, since he was producing the record. I said, “Nah, it’s a cool song. I really wanna do it.” So we did.
And then there’s Cody Canada of Cross Canadian Ragweed, who plays guitar on the song you wrote together, “Cooler-N-Hell.” You’ve also written songs lately with Slaid Cleaves, Pat Green, Hayes Carll and Omar of Omar and the Howlers, among others. Almost overnight, it seems like co-writing a song with Ray Wylie Hubbard is the new getting-Willie-to-sing-on-your-record.
[Laughs] I guess it is. It’s the new black!
I guess it depends on who it is you’re writing with, but generally, when you sit down to write with some of these younger songwriters, do you approach it as, “I’m looking to get me a song out of this, too,” or do you play more of a mentor role?
Well, the thing about writing with these other people — like I’m supposed to write with Wade Bowen tomorrow — is that I don’t really put any restrictions on the song. If they’ve got the idea, I just go with it. I may not always do the song myself after we write it, but I really enjoy the collaboration part of it. A real cool thing about it is … well, I got the greatest advice from Gurf. It started when Slaid was coming up to do his record, and he was having writer’s block. Gurf told him, “You ought to get together with Ray, because he’s been writing a lot and he’s never been blocked about it.” So Slaid called me up and said, “Will you write a song with me?” I said sure, but then I called Gurf and said, “I’ve never really written a song with anybody before like this, so I don’t really know what the procedure is.” And Gurf said, “Well, ‘Memphis,’ ‘Tambourine Man,’ ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ ‘Highway 61’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone — you don’t have to write those, because they’ve already been written. So when Slaid comes to you with something he’s working on, you just take that and help him make that the best song you can.” And so that really took off all the pressure of, “Oh man, we’ve got to write the single on his next record!” Slaid just came in and said, “I’ve got this song called ‘Wishbones,’ and I want to do this with it,” and I said, “OK,” and we just wrote it. And when Pat came out, he said, “I’m doing this record and I’ve got all these happy songs on it, and I want to do something dark.” I said, “Well, revenge is dark! But it’s not dark if you’re the one doing the revenge. Then it’s sweet.” And he said, “Yeah! ‘Sweet Revenge!’” And then writing with Omar was a real treat. We were sitting in my kitchen, and I said, “What do you want to write about?” He said, “I’ve always liked the word bamboozled .” [Laughs] We started writing that, and my son Lucas comes home from school, and all of a sudden Omar became OMAR, like the Omar on stage: [growls] “I’ve been hoodwinked! / I’ve been bamboozled!” This whole Howlin’ Wolf power thing, right at my kitchen table. Lucas didn’t know what to think!
In addition to the co-writes with Slaid and Pat, among others, in 2004 you also had a co-write on a freakin’ rap record [G-Unit breakout-star Lloyd Banks’ Hunger For More, which featured the song “Warrior” that sampled part of an old Hubbard/Bob Livingston song called “Hold On.”] Has life changed much for you much now that you’re gangsta-approved?
No, not really. I haven’t got the check yet. I’m supposed to get it sometime in May, so that’ll be kind of neat. But I liked Lloyd Banks’ record a lot, and when he gets ready to record another album, I’d like to send him another song. I’ve got an idea I think would be pretty cool. I’ve been listening to a lot of rap lately, on XM radio and especially through Lucas. Of course, like with any music, there’s a lot of crap, but there’s also some really good stuff out there, too. I mean really good lyrically.
That almost makes me scared to ask this next question … but, after Delirium Tremolos, what direction do you think you’ll go in next? Will you hop right back on the track where you left off with Growl — that really dirty, bluesy, swampy slide direction — or start flirting with rap or go somewhere completely different?
The next record I really think is going to be my real rock ’n’ roll record — my real Keith Richards/Guns ’N Roses record that I really want to make. Or my Tom Waits/Guns ’N Roses record, with a little Son House thrown in. That’s the way I’m hearing the songs I’m writing now, and that’s the goal to shoot for. But, don’t hold me to that, because I mean, I lied about “[The Last Recording of] Redneck Mother [Ever]” thing. [Laughs]
You really got into playing slide guitar on your last couple of albums with Gurf. Have any new instruments captured your imagination since then?
Not really, no. There’s still just so much to learn to get really, really good on the slide and the guitar. I haven’t really learned any new instruments. Besides, my wife, Judy, won’t let me have a banjo in the house!
At some point recently you talked about doing a new live record. Is that still in the cards?
Yeah, I’d like to do one with Gurf and [drummer] Rick Richards. We played at the Cactus Café [in Austin], just Gurf and I on acoustic guitars, and Rick found stuff to hit on and shake, and man, it just sounded great. It was such a cool sound. It wasn’t like these guys trying to be old-timey music. It had a great groove and a great vibe. I’d love to do live record like that with a bunch of new songs.
I missed that Cactus Café show, but I did see the one where you brought your son out to play guitar. Is he still playing?
Oh yeah. And he’s getting good, too. As long as we stay in E. Gurf said he sounds like some old drunk blues player, because he’s got a little blues slur to his playing. I call him Mud Puddle, like little Muddy Waters. We’ve got a show coming up. I’m bringing him on my Roots and Branches radio show at the Lone Star Music store in Gruene in a few weeks, and on Jan. 22 we’re playing the “Chip Off the Old Block” concert at the Union Ballroom. It’s a benefit for the SIMS Foundation with musicians and their kids. Kevin Welch, Eliza and Jimmie Dale Gilmore are all gonna be there with their offspring, and Lucas and I are going to come out and just smoke them! We’ll open with “Hideaway,” do “Snake Farm” and “Wanna Rock and Roll,” and we’re out of there. Leave ’em wanting more. [Laughs]