Ray Wylie Hubbard
By Kevin Zimmerman
Ray Wylie Hubbard | Texas Legend Still Riding High
“I figured out pretty early, in high school, that it was cooler to write your own songs. Nowadays I’m still learning how to do it!”
So says Ray Wylie Hubbard, the 63-year-old country and Americana singer/songwriter, with a hearty laugh. The veteran performer, whose latest album – A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C) fuses his trademark literate wit with stripped-down, almost visceral blues arrangements, is currently riding high, having nabbed three Americana Music Association nominations, playing to appreciative crowds both Stateside and in Europe, and eagerly awaiting the release of The Last Rites of Ransom Pride, a movie he co-wrote with director Tiller Russell.
“It’s about despicable people double-crossing and killing people in Texas in 1912,” the Oklahoma native drawls, noting that its cast includes Kris Kristofferson, Dwight Yoakam, Scott Speedman, and Lizzy Caplan.
A laconic attitude has long permeated Hubbard’s music, from “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” – still probably his most widely-known composition, thanks to Jerry Jeff Walker’s hit 1973 recording – through his own recording career, be it with the seminal cowpunk group The Cowboy Twinkies or his consistently well-reviewed solo material; A. Enlightenment brilliantly follows two of the best-reviewed albums of his career, 2005’s Delirium Tremolos and 2006’s Snake Farm.
Hubbard’s writing approach has resulted in sometimes ornate literary allusions in his work, be it the nod to Poe’s “The Raven” that brought about A. Enlightenment’s title track or the memorable couplet featured in “Down Home Country Blues”.
“I try to keep a foot in both worlds,” Hubbard says. “I can have a song that’s based on literary figures or spirituality, or I can come up with something about a low-down, drunken poet.” But even “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” written with Hayes Carll, includes the evocative lines, “There’s some money on the table/There’s a gun on the floor/There’s some paperback books by Louis L’Amour.”
There was little in Hubbard’s upbringing to indicate that he’d become the respected writer and performer that he is today. “I was not born into what you’d call a musical family,” he says. “It was more a fact that the radio was always on, usually tuned to country or gospel music.”
A visit to the Texas high school where Hubbard was a student by Michael Martin Murphey showed him the future. “He played at an assembly we had,” Hubbard says, “and I remember he introduced one particular song as something he’d written himself. That was a powerful moment, and so I went out and got a guitar as soon as I could.”
Hubbard formed the trio Three Faces West and began touring the southwestern coffeehouse circuit, before starting another group, Texas Fever, that also fizzled out. Playing solo gigs at a club in Red River, New Mexico, he caught the eye and ear of Walker; once “Redneck Mother” hit, Hubbard was set.
Or so he thought. The Cowboy Twinkies, intent on delivering everything from Merle Haggard songs to Led Zeppelin covers during their sets, failed to connect with country or rock fans in a big way, and a series of solo albums failed to improve matters much.
But relentless touring won Hubbard a devoted, steadily growing following, and once he’d cleaned up his personal life he found himself enjoying his career as never before.
As for the importance of SESAC to his career, Hubbard is equally straightforward. “They’ve had an incredible impact. They’ve helped me so much in so many ways, from just being there at shows to helping me and my wife fully understand publishing and mechanicals. I’m extremely happy with SESAC, and I’m always recommending them to people.
“Since I’ve been with SESAC,” he adds with a burst of laughter, “I feel like I’m actually in the record business!”