Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Birthday Bash
Growly troubadour – still canny after all these years
By William Harries Graham,
1:00PM, Fri. Nov. 13, 2015
When Ray Wylie Hubbard walks onstage Saturday at the Paramount Theatre, he’ll be instantly recognizable – with his wild grey hair and bandanna strung through it, grizzly beard, scarfs, and his trademark sunglasses. Sixty-nine years young today, the longtime Wimberley troubadour defies comparison. He’s a creature all his own.
Hubbard embodies the true essence of Texas songwriters, having plied the craft since the mid-Sixties. In 1973, Jerry Jeff Walker recorded his song “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” and put Hubbard on the greater music map. Three years later, he released his first album for Warner Bros. In April – almost four decades on – he put out his 16th LP, The Ruffian’s Misfortune.
His memoir, A Life ... Well, Lived, came out Nov. 2.
“Writing songs is sometimes like an old cat having kittens,” chuckles Hubbard. “Just crawl off under the porch by yourself and do it.”
Spend five minutes with Hubbard and you’ll soon realize how great a storyteller he is. On the printed page, that process likewise takes mere pages. His chronicle isn’t a typical autobiography.
“It’s not just a memoir,” he says. “I put stuff about growing up in Oklahoma and then moving to Texas, but I also put these little road stories and lyrics in it too.”
It was both anguishing and a joy to write A Life ... Well, Lived.
“My friend Thom Jurek convinced me to do it. I had to go into some of the dark periods of my life, and that was uncomfortable writing about the wreckage of the past. But then I got to put in there about getting clean and sober when I was 41 years old, and about how Stevie Ray Vaughan did a 12-step call on me.”
Hubbard grew up in Soper, Oklahoma, a small town outside of Hugo, before his family moved to Dallas when he was 8. Today, he cohabitates with his wife and manager Judy, and their son Lucas. That latter also acts as Hubbard’s guitarist, the two having appeared together on the late-night TV talk show circuit – Letterman, Fallon, and Conan.
“It’s been an incredible treat playing with my son Lucas,” says Hubbard. “I didn’t force him into playing music. He got a little guitar and started playing. I showed him the pentatonic scale.
“I’m very proud of his playing, because he doesn’t show off. He just plays the songs. And when I’ve had other musicians that I respect play with me, like Gurf Morlix, they’ll say, ‘You know, I really like what Lucas is playing there.’
“That makes me feel really proud,” grins Hubbard.
Although he’s recorded 16 albums so far, each one manages a uniqueness within his singular style. When he sings, it’s almost like he’s talking to you, his voice deep, swampy. You could describe Ray Wylie Hubbard’s music as growly, rough wisdom from someone who’s lived it.
“The big difference between Nashville and Austin is that in Nashville it’s a livelihood,” he posits. “You write songs to make money. In Austin, it’s more of a lifestyle. It’s what you do. So I feel very grateful to have been in that community – the songwriters. I feel fortunate to be able to write a song not thinking about its future.“I’m not writing a song because I’m trying to get someone to cut it. I’m writing the best songs I can about whatever I want to write about.”
Hubbard went to W. H. Adamson High School in Dallas with Michael Martin Murphey and B.W. Stevenson. Apparently, lyrical inspiration wafted through the lockers and schoolyard. After earning his degree in English, Hubbard graduated from the University of North Texas and set his sites on Austin.
“I started playing in Austin at the old Checkered Flag and met all these incredible musicians,” he recalls. “I didn’t think ahead like, ‘I’m going to do this as a career.’ I just did it not really thinking about the future. When you’re 21 playing all these cool places and meeting all these cool people, you’re not thinking that you’ll be doing it your whole life.
“I’m still trying to decide what I’m going to do when I grow up!”
Over the years, Hubbard’s become known for employing songs as vehicles for his greater storytelling. Each tune then develops a life of its own. A composition like “Mother Blues” offers a prime example of his tale-spinning dexterity.
“When I was little, my dad read me “The Raven” and The Last of the Mohicans instead of children’s stories. I got into literature very, very young. I’m very influenced by my dad. He could always tell a great story; he was an English teacher. And then I saw guys like Mance Lipscomb, an incredible musician, who between songs would also tell these stories.
“And then of course there was Townes [Van Zandt], who played all of these incredibly powerful songs, and in-between them he was white and funny and sharp. A lot of the time he told the same joke over and over again, but it was still funny because he did it so well.”
Hubbard’s still learning new ways of playing, writing new music, and touring like crazy. He’s happy being an independent artist, a freedom from record labels that allows him and Judy to guide his career however they choose.
“I learned to finger pick when I was 42 years old,” he offers. “I was just kind of stumbling around before that. Then I learned open tunings and slide. And by learning new things, for me, it gives me a door to come through that wasn’t there before. So I’m still trying to learn new things.
“As my wife Judy says, ‘That’s fine as long as you don’t learn to play banjo. We won’t have that!’”