With a milestone birthday days away, Ray Wylie Hubbard avoids becoming a nostalgia act by continuing to evolve – or devolve.
Ray Wylie Hubbard marks 70 years on planet earth and 29 years of sobriety on Sunday, November 13, 2016. Between those two numbers, 70 and 29, the latter seems closer to the true age of the writer who has given us timely and timeless songs like “Conversation With the Devil,” “Texas Is a State of Mind,” and, of course, “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” made famous by Jerry Jeff Walker’s version on the 1973 album Viva Terlingua. At an age when most songwriters are content, or at least resigned, to playing the hits for nostalgic audiences, Hubbard is honing his craft.
But that should be no surprise. This is a musician who was in his 40s before he took his first guitar lesson, and who didn’t make his first Late Show With David Letterman appearance until he was 66. (“I didn’t want to peak too soon,” he jokes.) With the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s encouragement, Hubbard started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to kick the drinking and cocaine that were beginning to consume his life at age 41 after years of partying with and without his fellow Outlaw Country artists.
Age and sober living aren’t slowing him down. Last year, he released an album of new songs, The Ruffian’s Misfortune, 10 gritty, grimy rock-and-country-blues tracks filled with car thieves, killers, badass chick singers, and his own particular brand of hard-edged, wry spirituality. He also in 2015 put out A Life ... Well, Lived. (self-published by his own Bordello Records with a co-writing credit to Thom Jurek), a book that intersperses memoir with stream-of-consciousness spiels and song lyrics. He just got finished in the studio with a follow-up to the album, an as-yet-untitled collection of new songs set for mixing next week and a likely spring 2017 release.
Hubbard is playing a string of birthday celebration gigs, including a two-night stand in Dallas last night and tonight (Friday, November 11), a Saturday show in Austin, and Houston on Sunday.
C&I talked to Hubbard by phone about his ongoing tour, having his son beside him onstage, the upcoming record, and entering his eighth decade. Following is our conversation, edited for length.
Cowboys & Indians: What can you tell us about the upcoming record?
Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well, it’s pretty gnarly. [Laughs] Yeah, I’m kind of devolving, you know? I’m kind of going back — my friend Gurf [Morlix, an Austin musician and producer] said I’m gonna eventually do records where I’m just beating on a hollow log with some dried-up old hind-leg bones from a dead cow and just groan and grunt. Because I’m kind of getting back into that, you know. But there are songs that hopefully have a low-down, deep groove and lyrics that are more than just, you know, “I woke up this morning and I had the blues.” So I feel like it’s a pretty good record. It’s pretty sparse, just me and my son [Lucas Hubbard] and my drummer [Kyle Snider]. We’ve got a few special guests, but we’re still working that out. ... You anguish over it till you get it right, then it’s a joy, and then you’ve got to do it again. [Laughs.]
C&I: What’s it like playing with your son? First of all, onstage, and also, with him being a young man, touring with him. Do you try to protect him from making some of the same mistakes you did or let him do his own thing?
Hubbard: He’s got his head screwed on straight right now. I mean, he’s just really doing good. He’s just upright, and he’s kind of taking it one day at a time, too. Playing with him is such a treat because he’s been around bars and musicians and all that stuff, but he’s had really good opportunities to hang around guys like Gurf Morlix, Buddy Miller, and Joe Walsh and Seth James and Cody Canada, guys like that. Besides being great guitar players, they’re standup guys. They’re good men. So he’s had that kind of influence, the opportunity to be around guys who are not only good musicians but their behavior, the way they handle themselves. It is a treat for me, because he doesn’t show off. He just plays the song, and I like that. I’ve heard him up in his room when he was living here playing Hendrix and stuff, but when he plays with me, he just keeps it that lowdown country blues, that old Buddy Miller, Gurf kind of tone and groove. So it is a treat to have him in the band. I call him “the future of classic rock.” [Laughs.]
C&I: You’re about to turn 70. Did you think you would make it this long?
Hubbard: Well, I never really thought about it. I feel really fortunate to have made it this long. My 20s and 30s were pretty much just kind of, you know, drank beer, did dope and peed. That’s about it. I don’t remember anything that was going on. And then once I got clean and sober, I have come to the realization getting older, that old thing that life isn’t fair. Life just is for a while, and then it isn’t. So while it is, I need to treat each day with the respect that it deserves. I try to take each day and try to live on certain principles of being honest, showing courage, having no fear, not holding resentments, and try to see what I can contribute with my songs rather than just what I can get from them.
C&I: Seventy is a pretty big milestone. Does it make you nostalgic or look back on your life and reflect on your accomplishments, things you’re proud of, regrets, things you still hope to achieve?
Hubbard: Well, I’m just not [having] a big, you know, wear a funny hat and blow a horn on New Year’s Eve type birthday. I’m just going to have my family and friends around. ... I still feel like I’m still writing songs that hopefully contribute, whether someone smiles when they hear a funny, goofy lyric or maybe make someone think about some idea I have. I don’t think I’m nostalgic. I think that’s one of my healthy fears: I never wanted to be a nostalgia act, you know, go out and sing my hit, “Redneck Mother” — the only one I’ve got. [Laughs.] But I’m still writing songs that hopefully have value, have weight, and hopefully contribute something. I’m very grateful. Gratitude is where I am today.
C&I: Your lyrics have a lot of religious and spiritual elements to them, lots of God and Devil, Hell and Heaven, and seem to more so with your recent songs. I read in another interview you said it’s not so much due “to a religious conversion but to a spiritual optimism or awakening of sorts.”
Hubbard: I prefer spiritual awakening to religious conversion, you know what I mean? So I try to live on certain spiritual principles even though I don’t belong to a church or follow one. I’m kind of a spiritual mongrel. I like certain things from certain religions. There are certain things about Christianity I admire and certain things I don’t. There are certain things about Buddhism where I think, That works. There are certain things where I’m like, Well, I don’t know about that. I read a bunch of stuff, comparative religions and ideas, everything from Native Americans to Carl Jung and all that stuff. So they kind of come through in my songs. I also write about guitars and amps and Les Paul Gold Tops and strippers. [Laughs.] I’m not just up there expounding any certain belief or anything. The new songs, I’ve got a song on there about prayer. It starts off really sarcastic, and then it turns around, and hopefully at the end of it, you’ll go, “Oh, OK, that works. So I believe just enough. [Laughs.] Certain spiritual practices I try to embed in my life, and certain dogma I don’t believe in.
C&I: Yeah, that seems like a good way to ...
Hubbard: ... tap dance around it? [Laughs.] I feel very fortunate to be married to the president of my record label. Which is Judy, not Clive Davis. So my wife says, “You write about whatever you want to write about. If you want to write about Charlie Musselwhite or a guitar amp or snakes or whatever, you write that, and you make the record you want to make ... and I’ll try to sell the damn things.”
Ray Wylie Hubbard performs at the Kessler Theater in Dallas tonight, tomorrow night at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, and Sunday night at Rockefellers in Houston. His tour picks back up in December. Visit his website for more show dates.