Gettin' There As Fast As He Can
Devilishly Witty Storyteller Ray Wylie Hubbard Goes His Own Way
The consummate storyteller, Ray Wylie Hubbard blends elements of raw Texas blues, traditional folk, dirt road country and roadhouse rock'n'roll with a unique and distinctly iconoclastic delivery.
After surviving the '70s, '80s and '90s with modest record sales and more dive bar gigs than he cares to remember, his music has finally found healthy support within the burgeoning Americana scene. Still as loveably ornery as ever, Hubbard's quick wit and keen observational narratives are in peak form on his latest album Tell The Devil I'm Gettin' There As Fast As I Can.
INsite caught up with Hubbard on the road to a show in Missouri.
Many of your songs have a timeless quality, but do current events effect your songwriting?
I've been doing a lot of blues lately! More so than ever. It does but I'm not into name-calling or pointing fingers much. I try to keep it subtle. Like in "Conversation With The Devil" a while back, I said who I thought wasn't gonna get into heaven. I don't make it too blatant because I'm too old to be a protest singer.
You've certainly offered some interesting observations on both sides of the political and spiritual spectrum.
Yeah, you know the whole thing sort of started with "Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother" (the Hubbard-penned song famously covered by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1973). It was kind of an answer to songs like "Okie From Muskogee" and "Fightin' Side Of Me," back when the country was torn apart with the Vietnam war and hippies and rednecks and everything.
Your latest record really falls into that great '70s-style cautionary-tale vibe that Bob Dylan used to do so well. It's irreverent but it's a very honest gospel record in many ways.
I guess I'm sort of a spiritual mongrel. I don't follow one particular religion but I try to live on certain spiritual principles so it does seep into the songwriting. I read the Bible up until it got to the begats and I was like, 'Ok, I get it.' It's something that's kinda in the back of my head a little bit. You get older and you start thinking about your mortality. But hopefully the title is just a metaphor.
Your stuff always reminds me that our time here is really quite short.
I've come to realize we have to give each day the respect it deserves. The whole attitude of gratitude thing, you know. Just try to be grateful for each day and keep your side of the street clean. These are turbulent times so what else can ya do? All we can do is the next right thing and that's it for right now.
As usual, there's some great storytelling on your new album. You also seem to be continuing the snake imagery.
Yeah, I didn't realize it until this record that I've kinda mentioned snakes a lot. You know in songwriting, a blackbird or crow can make a lot more images than a robin. You have a robin or a bluebird? Well that'll probably be a happy song. But you put a crow, a blackbird or a snake in a song and there's a difference; they're like the cool ones.
Speaking of songwriting, in your book (2015's "A Lifeā¦ Well, Lived") you mention that you didn't get serious about writing until your '40s. That's so rare. A lot of the musicians we both love peaked creatively by their mid-20s, and then it was just replication from then on.
In my 20s and 30s, I was a working musician but it was a pretty wild time. Running around with the guys, you know, Jerry Jeff and Willie and Waylon and all those cats. Everybody drank hard and played hard. So in my 20s, songwriting was secondary to just, "Let's roar." In my 40s when I did get clean and sober, I went, 'Ok, what do I need to do to become a real songwriter?' Somewhere in there I made a decision that I was just gonna write songs and not think about the future. I wasn't going to write songs to just get someone to record 'em or for a publishing company where I'd have to give 'em twelve a year. My wife [and manager] Judy said. 'You write the songs you want to write, you make the records you want to make and I'll try to sell the damned things.' So as a writer that was great. I could write about whatever. Probably nobody's ever gonna record 'em and they'll probably never be on the radio but it doesn't matter. They're valid songs and if something I do makes somebody go look up some of the people I mention - then I enjoy that. You know as a writer that songwriting is a joy and an anguish. You anguish to get it right and then it's a joy when it works.
You're 70 and still making great records and touring more than ever. But does aging change your songwriting techniques or the material?
Well, I think so. I write on a computer now, which is different. I used to have notebooks everywhere. As I'm getting older, like on this record, I can write whatever I want so that's a good place to be. I really don't care if it sells a lot - but don't tell Judy I said that! What really validates it for me is talking to you about it and having musician friends calling me up about it.
Your style of writing is so different than those Nashville "writer's rooms" where they just crank out hits.
Yeah, it'll be about four or five guys in there and it's like, "OK, Kenny Chesney needs a song," so they'll sit there and write it. I just never have thought I could do that. It's like the difference between Nashville and Austin or even Athens and Atlanta. It's the difference between livelihood and lifestyle. In Nashville it's a livelihood, you've got to write a song and get somebody to cut it, while other places it's a lifestyle. That's what I am, I'm a songwriter, a musician, it's what I do. If I get a cut, great - if not then I'm still doing it.
The last few years your son has been in your band and played on the records. It must be fun for you guys to share the creative process.
I'm very proud of him, not just because of his playing which is perfect for what we do, but he's been around guys like Gurf Morlix, Buddy Miller, Charlie Sexton and Derek O'Brien, the blues guy at Antone's. Those are stand-up guys. So he's got his head screwed on straight. He's a good player and he knows how to handle himself so it's a treat for me.
Before you make it down to Atlanta, you're finally playing the Ryman. After all this time, that's a big deal.
It really is. That's a pretty good gig on that stage. I hope I don't stain it! The Cadillac Three called me up and asked if I'd play with them. So yeah. I've never played there and I'm 70, kind of an old cat. But you know, it's like in the book, somebody asked, 'Man, you're 66 and doing your first David Letterman show; isn't it kind of late to be doing that?' I said, 'Well I don't want to peak too soon.'
Ray Wylie Hubbard plays City Winery September 15. Caroline Aiken opens. Showtime is 8 p.m. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.