At Large in the Hills
Ray Wylie Hubbard's Dangerous Spirits
"Doomed" is one of Ray Wylie Hubbard's favorite words. It captures the many shadowy and sometimes shadowless figures that line his songs -- hobos, preachers, outlaws, and hard young rockers, billowed and buffeted by the forces of nature and life's cruel twists of fate. And as the former wild man of the progressive country movement, Hubbard himself seemed doomed for many years, his career trapped on a honky-tonk treadmill and his mind warped by drink and drugs. "I was filled," he admits candidly, "with fear, doubt, and resentment." Such a statement seems hard to fathom right now. Based upon the quality of his work -- if not yet the quantity -- today Hubbard stands poised to join the top table of Texas singer-songwriters, alongside the likes of Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, and Guy Clark. And although Hubbard is a music industry veteran of more than two decades, much of his critical ascendancy rests on the broad shoulders of 1994's acclaimed Loco Gringo's Lament and now its equally compelling follow-up, Dangerous Spirits.
But things didn't always look so rosy. "I haven't always been this sensitive singer-songwriter you see before you now," Hubbard chuckles wryly. "I'd play gigs where it was kind of an adventure not knowing which way I was going to go -- up or down. It wasn't all dark, sometimes it was a lot of fun. But in the end, I had all the fun I could stand."
All that fun found Hubbard on the honky-tonk circuit in the early Seventies, playing in venues he didn't want to perform, in front of audiences who didn't want to listen. These were the heady, hazy days of the cosmic cowboy scene, which Hubbard, along with his compadres Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, helped invent; his song, "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," is the Texas outlaw movement's pledge of allegiance. Hubbard carried that song, a Number One hit for Walker, like an albatross and stayed in a "honky tonk fog" for close on 15 years.
"I was caught in this thing I had created," remembers Hubbard. "The whole outlaw scene went insane. The progressive country thing with Willie and Jerry Jeff was really cool. And then, all of a sudden, Nashville took hold of that. Their urban cowboy and country disco thing was just a mess. It was horrible to play those gigs. I'm not a righteous guy -- I wrote "Redneck Mother" after all -- but you wrote these songs and you'd go to these honky tonks and people weren't there to hear the music. They were there to drink and dance and rub their horny little bodies against each other. It was frustrating because I wanted to be this songwriter."
In fact, Hubbard had always wanted to write. English Literature was his favorite subject at school, teaming up nicely with musical inspiration in the form of Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. In high school, at Oak Cliff's Adamson High School near Dallas, he found himself in distinguished company; his peers included Michael Martin Murphey, B.W. Stevenson, and Steve Fromholz. "When I started out it seemed to have so much value. The gratification in those days came from other musicians coming up and saying, `Great song. I know how hard it is to write sometimes.'"
Born in Soper, Oklahoma in 1946, Hubbard's family moved to Texas when he was nine. Two years later, he picked up a guitar and with the help of an uncle, learned some chords to those Jimmie Rodgers songs. By 15 he was performing in high school bands, and after his senior year, took one of them to a summer job in Red River, New Mexico. The band would work in the restaurant by day and sing for their supper in the evenings.
Soon, Hubbard had helped establish a coffeehouse where artists like Walker, Murphey, Stevenson, and Fromholz could play when they passed through town. Guitarist Terry "Buffalo" Ware, who Hubbard met there and with whom the songwriter has enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership, was a rock & roll guitarist with a daytime job at a Pizza Hut. He and Hubbard started playing together as a folk duo, and soon, songs began to emerge. "I was writing goofy, strange songs, like `Nutty Boggy Banjo Man' [a B-side for Larry Groce's hit `Junk Food Junkie']."
In 1972, after Hubbard and Ware opened a show for Tony Joe White at Castle Creek, the duo would spend their summers in Red River and their winters in Austin. During one of those winters, Hubbard formed a band featuring Rick Fowler, Bob Livingston, and Michael McGary. Folk songs were out and country songs were in, particularly after a friend -- a defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys -- asked if Hubbard & Co. wanted to play a party at a rowdy honky-tonk in Ft. Worth. The pay was $1,000, and it was at this moment that the Cowboy Twinkies -- featuring Ware, Jim Herpst, and Dennis Meehan -- were born.
To this day, Hubbard cringes when you mention their one and only album, Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies, released on Reprise in 1975. "Things were really happening with Willie and Jerry Jeff. Everyone seemed to be getting a record deal except us. We couldn't figure it out because we were playing to really big crowds. We'd made a tape that everybody liked and finally, we had all these offers -- Atlantic, Frank Zappa's Discreet label. We even flew to New York to meet Jerry Wexler. He sent us on to Muscle Shoals but the producer was just too flaky.
"We ended up in Nashville and recorded a real good album. We left to go on the road and then found out they had put girl singers on every track and rope letters on the album cover. We were shocked. I'll never forget. We were sitting in my van in the driveway and my mom saw me, Buffalo, and the rest of the band all crying. She asked what we were doing and we said, `We're listening to our new record.' Then we got hysterical. We couldn't stop laughing. When the record came out we couldn't support it. It was just a mess. I started drinking heavily that afternoon."
Three years later came Off the Wall, an album on Nelson's ill-fated Lone Star label, followed by Caught in the Act, a live album. By this time, Hubbard had recruited Walker's legendary Lost Gonzo Band and together they cut the well-received Something About the Night. He toured constantly, but album sales success eluded him.
"At that time we could never quite get it together," recalls Hubbard. "We always seemed to run out of money and would end up mixing 11 songs in one night. We would hand it over and wince."
It was at around this time that the haze of alcohol and drugs descended. What started with the Twinkies as just some good times ended up being one long blur, from the time he was to 28 up until he turned 41. "Yes, I pretty much pissed my thirties away -- literally. I had been drinking beer a lot and, of course, these old musician guys would give you a little black pill and say, here, this will make you go fast. I feel like John Prine saying this, there were these missing years. But nobody sent out a search party.
"I didn't think drinking was the problem, I thought it was the solution. Then I found cocaine and thought that was the answer to my drinking problem. I just couldn't figure out why things weren't working. I was visibly addicted. I couldn't continue to drink, but I couldn't quit drinking. And I couldn't continue to live like I was living, but I couldn't kill myself. I thought about it for a time. I got really depressed in there."
In the late Eighties, Hubbard got himself into recovery, a process helped immeasurably by two books Hubbard took to heart: James Allen's A Man Thinketh, and Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet.
"There was a learning period while I was trying not to drink," explains Hubbard. "Around the age of 43 or 44, I read the James Allen book. It talked about fear and doubt as things that limit us. And all of a sudden, it just started making a lot of sense. I'd come out of this fog. I had always been kind of fearful and had doubts about myself. I also had resentments against other people. I was all screwed up. Somewhere in there, I became teachable. I learnt that resentments weren't any good, they were causing me to drink. If I had a resentment against someone I'd drink at them. It was like drinking poison and hoping the other fella dies."
Having faced down the cosmic cowboy era, the turn of this decade found Hubbard trying to re-invent himself. He knew what he wanted, too. He didn't want to sell out stadiums, he wanted to write real songs like his contemporaries Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams. He also knew he needed to finger-pick rather than thump his guitar. So, at the age of 43, he took his first guitar lessons. Rilke's line, "Fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures," which Hubbard later acknowledged in Loco Gringo's "The Messenger," helped.
"It made sense," he says. "I had this fear about picking up the phone and asking an old friend if he could teach me to finger-pick. I'd been playing guitar for 25 years. I'm no Doc Watson, but when I got over that embarrassment, sitting on the other side of that fear were these little songs. All the songs from Loco Gringo came after that.
"I began to lose a lot of fear on a bunch of stuff. I read about writers. I started to learn about inspiration as well as the craft. You might get the idea of a hook, but you need to fit it to the music. You have to couple it with discipline. I learnt about re-writing. With certain songs, I'm amazed I wrote them."
The first evidence was the self-financed "warm-up" album, Lost Train of Thought, released on Hubbard's own Misery Loves Company label in 1993 (and reissued last year by Rounder). A year later came the breakthrough Loco Gringo's Lament on Dejadisc. It won Record of the Year status at the prestigious Kerrville music awards and a host of other Texas Album of the Year prizes.
The album revealed Hubbard's penchant for western and spiritual imagery, a mood reinforced on Dangerous Spirits. Some have likened his lyrics to the literary work of Edgar Allan Poe and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Hubbard himself mentions Southern writer par excellence Flannery O'Connor as a source of inspiration.
"Some people get spiritual because they see the light, some get spiritual because they feel the heat," says Hubbard. "I kind of felt the heat. I'm really a spiritual and religious mongrel. I just read a lot."
Also crucial to Hubbard's work is self-deprecating humor. Indeed, it's this quality that sets him apart, according to former Hubbard band member from those missing years, Mandy Mercier. "He has that earthy, hard-boiled detective story humor of Raymond Chandler. For example, the line in `Twist of Fate' where `Sherry got the house, the lawyer got the car.'"
One of his new songs, "Last Train to Amsterdam," features the lines: "There's a preacher out spreadin' the word/There's a blond in a Thunderbird/One of them tells me to kneel and pray/One of them gets to me in a real bad way."
"Ah, but which is which," jests Hubbard.
Though Hubbard would have liked a little more studio time and money to polish the new album, there's no doubt Dangerous Spirits comes out of the same top draw as Loco Gringo. It comprises basically the same personnel as last time; Buffalo on various guitars, Paul Pearcy on drums, Lloyd Maines on dobro and guitar, and Dave Heath replacing Lorne Rall on bass. Maines and Hardin share production credits.
In addition, there's a star-studded guest line-up highlighting the esteem in which Hubbard is held by his peers: Sara Hickman, Lucinda Williams, Tish Hinojosa, Jimmy Lafave, and Kevin Welch touch up the backing vocals while Welch's Dead Reckoning partners Kieran Kane and Mike Henderson give instrumental support. And while Henderson with his savage Silvertone trades superb guitar licks with Ware and his trusty Telecaster on the fiery opening title track, it's Hubbard's hero, Tony Joe White, who steals guest star billing, coming down from the hills to produce an unbelievable guitar squall on "The Last Younger Son."
Now familiar themes are littered throughout Dangerous Spirits, including faithless men with fast left hands (on the gospel-type hymn, "The Sun Also Rises") and redemption (the title track). In some cases, old spirits and characters return, as with the prodigal son from "Dust of the Chase" (from Loco Gringo) reappearing in "The Last Younger Son." The faithless man with the fast left hand in "The Sun Also Rises" is the same guy who drew Hubbard's tattoo in "Crimson Tattoo." Alongside these sit the most exquisite love songs, such as "If Heaven Is Not a Place to Go." And all told with customary Hubbard soul and humor.
Take "Hey, That's All Right," which Hubbard says was inspired by an old girlfriend who stole cars for a hobby. "I said, that's awful," he recalls. "She assured me it was only Lincolns. It was a great pick-up line and I dated her for a couple of years. That song is partly fact, partly fiction, with perhaps just a bit of resentment still in there."
And like resentment's partners, fear and doubt, old spirits haunt the new album's title track, a song inspired by an old Chinese saying: "Dangerous spirits are at large in the hills." That stayed with Hubbard. "I thought, well that explains everything," he says. "Whether there's good or bad, it's because dangerous spirits are at large in the hills. But I like the idea of redemption -- of the gunman dropping his revolver in the dirt and becoming a pilgrim. Compassion and empathy are important, I think. Somewhere in there, around nine years ago, I think I got a conscience."
Hubbard takes a moment, reflecting on the art of songwriting. "It's been a long time since Redneck Mother," he says. "Somebody asked me, why am I still doing this? I have never made a living as a songwriter, I have always been a working musician. But I identify with Rilke, that some are condemned by the Gods to write. We write because we have no choice. I wanted to tell the story through an acoustic band, with old dreadnoughts and drop-down d's. They're not in it for the dreams or the riches, but because they have no choice."
That's a far cry from those dim and distant outlaw days when songwriting for Hubbard consisted of picking up a guitar and buying a six-pack of beer. "If the songs didn't come, then at least I got drunk."
Contrast this with the craft that went into writing "The Last Younger Son," a song that Hubbard thought was "doomed" not because he didn't have a six-pack, but rather because he couldn't get hold of a Gideon bible to authenticate the song's definitive line.
Hubbard's band had traveled down from a gig in Lubbock and had pulled into a hotel for the night before heading to Austin. The songwriter couldn't sleep, and at three in the morning, had gone out to the van and picked up his mandolin. The riff came easy and then the first two lines. "My last name is Younger, I am the last younger son." At that stage Hubbard wasn't thinking of Cole Younger or any outlaw. He was thinking of his 4-year-old son Lucas. Then, like a bolt, came the next line: "The name I was given, Luke 15:21."
"I thought, `Whoa, wait a minute,'" says Hubbard. "I knew there was a Gideon bible in the room because the Beatles told me so in `Rocky Raccoon.' I couldn't sleep then, wondering if there was a Luke 15:21. I thought if there wasn't, I'm doomed. Finally, I sneaked [into the motel] about 6am and found the bible. And there was a Luke 15:21, and it's all about the prodigal son."
"My last name is younger," goes the song. "I am the last younger son/Won't get no older than the age of 21/As I look in the mirror I see the future once more/And an old friend is waiting just beyond the closed door."
Hubbard, living happily with his wife of eight years, Judy, and their four-year-old son Lucas in a new home in Wimberley, is indeed happy to see the future once more.
Ray Wylie Hubbard celebrates the release of Dangerous Spirits at the Cactus Cafe, Thursday, September 4.
Steve Taylor, 39, is a freelance writer for the British monthly magazine Country Music International, and political editor of the Surrey Mirror newspaper in England.