Among the “elder statesman” of Americana music – an amorphous genre to begin with – Ray Wylie Hubbard may be the most protean. The Texas songwriter has long had his guitar-playing and songwriting attuned to several musical styles – folk, progressive country, blues, and good old rock-n-roll – and he has identified with, or been identified with, a variety of music scenes and styles over the decades. His new album, The Ruffian’s Misfortune, is a gritty new chapter in his eventful career, a mix of elemental blues and garage rock with a little folk music and earthy country mixed in, plus, for good measure, a co-write with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn.
After a busy round of performances at the Austin madhouse known as South by Southwest, the Texas troubadour escaped to Santa Fe to ski and visit old friends for a brief vacation before going back on tour. He spoke to me from there by phone.
Have you recovered from SXSW?
That’s why I’m in Santa Fe. My guitar player and my road manager both snowboard, so we brought ’em up here to kind of get away from it. [South by Southwest] was a lot of fun. But it’s changed a lot. I don’t know if it’s for the best. I still enjoy playing it, seeing a lot of people and all that, but it’s just pretty hectic. [To get to one gig] it took us 40 minutes to go two blocks.
It’s easier to play the usual type of gig?
Yeah, it really is.
Your music on your last several albums has gotten very rootsy and what I think of as elemental. Two other songwriters I greatly admire – John Hiatt and Steve Earle – have both put out some very rootsy, bluesy albums in recent years. I know my own musical tastes get more rootsy as I get older. Has something put you in closer touch with those fundamentals? Is it getting older? Something else?
I feel very fortunate – I started out in folk music, back when I was in high school. You discover Dylan, Jimmie Rodgers…and the Cambridge folk scene, Eric Andersen, Paul Siebel and those cats. So the lyrics were always very important to me as I was starting out as a folk singer, with a kind of an old outlaw-country Willie Nelson progressive thing happening…But in my 40s, when I cleaned up my act, I got into finger-picking a lot, and really got back into the Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker blues. So right now I really like being able to lay down a deep groove and then have lyrics that have a little more depth than just “I woke up this morning and had the blues.”
You mentioned finger-picking. Does playing guitar with different techniques lead to writing different types of songs?
I got into finger-picking when I was 41 years old. [Before that] I always was a strummer. At 41 or 42 I said, Man, I really want to try to be a real songwriter, and I knew I needed to play guitar better. So I actually took finger-picking guitar lessons…and then by learning new things – learning finger-picking, and then open tuning, and then slide – that gives a song a door to come through that wasn’t there before. If I hadn’t have learned open G I wouldn’t have got “Three Days Straight” or “Polecat.” If I hadn’t have learned open D I wouldn’t have got “Too Young Ripe, Too Young Rotten.” So I keep trying to learn new things.
“Too Young Ripe, Too Young Rotten,” “Jessie Mae,” and “Barefoot in Heaven” are three songs on The Ruffian’s Misfortune that have very different feels but something in common: Each one is basically a one-chord song.
I’m at that age where I’m not only not changing chords, I’m not even rhyming! [Laughs] I’m just kind of going out there moaning a lot. You know, once I got into having a foundation in the blues – the hill country blues, RL Burnside and those cats, and then I got to see John Lee Hooker play, and also Ernest Tubb and Gary Stewart – I feel very fortunate to have seen those guys.
I can’t recommend this for everyone, but sleeping with the president of the record label – which isn’t Clive Davis, it’s my wife, Judy – it’s a real good place for me to be, ’cause you write your little songs about whatever you want to write about, and then record ’em however you want to and then see if you can sell ’em. So that’s a good place for a songwriter to be, where you don’t have to write songs to try to get a Tim McGraw cut, or have a publishing deal where you have to write so many a month. I get to write, you know, about black crows and chick singers and stuff like that.
So to answer your question, I’m not really a full-tilt blues guy or a full-tilt folk guy or a full-tilt country guy or a full-tilt rock guy. I’ve been influenced by all those forms of music and I enjoy ’em all. So it’s a good place for a songwriter to be, where you just don’t have to think about the future of the song. I just write.
Is that the secret to digging so deep that you can put together a song that doesn’t even need any chord changes?
Yeah, I think so. I think I learned too, Jon, that songwriting is inspiration plus craft. The inspiration being “Aha! That would be a good idea for a song,” and then taking that inspiration and seeing whether it’s gonna be a one-chord song or a twelve-bar blues or a minor thing or a slow folk song.
But I’ve also figured out that the craft will trigger the inspiration. I’ll get just a groove, a low-down dirty groove, and look there for some sort of inspiration for the lyrics. The groove is really important to me, it really is.
You say exactly that in “Jessie Mae,” your tribute to Jessie Mae Hemphill. The lowest string, the “hammer on a nail.”
Yeah, Jessie Mae Hemphill was probably one of my favorites. I want to acknowledge [my inspirations], I name-drop in my songs, [including] people who are [still] alive. I also talk about amps and guitars.
Speaking of which, for the gearheads out there, what instruments or equipment do you favor these days?
Well, I got a 1949 Gibson J-45 neck on a 1962 Gibson 7 jumbo body and it’s got a DeArmond pickup from the ’60s that I run into an Alan Durham Sex Drive pedal, he’s the guy in Austin who worked with Charlie Sexton, this little compression thing, it takes out the bite of the B string. For amps I really like, I’ve got two 1962 round-face Supers. For some reason that combination just works for me. I’ve got that DeArmond pickup on probably six different guitars, from Resonators to acoustics to even my new Gibson. Lightnin’ Hopkins, where he was just playing a [Gibson] J-160E with the DeArmond in the soundhole and then through an amp, he just would come out and rock. The piezos on the guitar sometimes just sound good for me.
On the other hand, there are a couple of folkie songs on the new album, like “Stone Blind Horses.”
When we made this record, we went in with the idea that the records that I really like are the first records – the first Beatles, the first Stones, the first Buffalo Springfield. Those guys didn’t have a lot of pedals. They didn’t have a lot of time. They just went in there and plugged into the amp. So when we wanted a roots thing, our philosophy is, when it comes time to mix, we’ll take out the lip smacks, but we’ll leave in coughs and string noises and pedal squeaks and 60-cycle hums, ’cause on some of my favorite records you can hear that stuff. And you can use [only] three mics on the drums, ’cause we wanted to hear the air around the drums. I don’t know if we used any pedals on this record, my son Lucas may have used a pedal on something, but it’s pretty much just plugging into old tube amps, like a ’65 Princeton Reverb I just love. That’s important to me, the tone. And hopefully taste. [Laughs]
What is it like playing in a band with your son?
It’s pretty righteous. He doesn’t show off. He started playing guitar at 12 or 13, and he’s been fortunate to be around guitar players like Charlie Sexton, Gurf Morlix, Buddy Miller, Derek O’Brien, W.C. Clark, and has this roots-rock vibe about him where tone is important to him and also space is important. I’ve heard him upstairs in his room playing “Little Wing” by Hendrix, but when he plays with me he keeps it pretty rootsy, very pentatonic…to answer your question, he’s a good player, it’s not nepotism, he earned the gig!
I’ve always been interested in the amount of religious imagery in your songs. With all the musical references too, it’s almost like Christianity and music are two religions side by side. Did you grow up in a religious environment, and how did it affect you?
I grew up in southeastern Oklahoma, and one side of my family was Baptist, the other side was Church of Christ. So as I kid, one Sunday I’d go with my mother to the Baptist church, one Sunday I’d go with my grandmother to the Church of Christ, and so, you know, it was fearful! [Laughs] [Then] I quit going to church, and in college I got into the folk crowd with this agnostic pseudo-philosophy.
So today I prefer the term “spirituality” to “religious conversion.” I don’t go to any church or follow any dogma, but I try to live on certain spiritual principles of being honest and forgiving and not being scared. But in my lyrics I’ll go full-tilt Pentecostal, the song will tell me that’s where it needs to be to put a little bite to it.
And there’s a lot of that bite. What caught me in the first place was when I heard you play “Conversation with the Devil” at the Philadelphia Folk Festival back around ’99. I heard that and had to buy the album and I’ve been a fan ever since.
I kind of ripped off the idea from Dante’s Divine Comedy in that. The cool thing about music and dreams, you can kind of use it to say stuff that you can’t get away with [otherwise].
In “Conversation with the Devil” you have the Devil put “Nashville record executives” in hell with the “Christian Coalition right-wing conservatives and country program directors.”
That was a hard rhyme but I got it in there!
I’ve never been a country singer at all, but a folk music cat. That song “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” [Hubbard’s early hit for Jerry Jeff Walker] was the answer to “Okie from Muskogee,” just kind of a hippie thing to do back in those days, and that whole progressive country outlaw thing came along and I had always thought of myself as a folk singer. So I’ve never been, like, in the music business! [Laughs]
Maybe better off for it?
I was on Rounder Records out of Cambridge, but I never was a Nashville cat. I have friends out there, but I’ve never felt a part of that.
So how did it come about that you wrote a song [“Bad on Fords”] with Ronnie Dunn?
Oh, man. I’m driving in my van, right? I get this phone call:
– Ray, this is Ronnie Dunn.
– Ronnie Dunn.
– Who is this?
– It’s Ronnie Dunn, from Brooks & Dunn.
– Are you the one in the hat?
– No, I’m the other one.
– Who the hell is this?
– It’s Ronnie Dunn. Tony Joe White gave me your number.
– Oh, man. Sorry about the hat remark, I thought it was one of my friends or someone goofin’ with me.
Dunn had told Tony Joe how much he loved [my 2012 album] Grifter’s Hymnal, and Tony Joe had suggested he call, so he called and said, “Do you want to write some songs together” and I said, “Sure, I’m always open for that,” so I went up and met him, I’d never met him before, and I knew Brooks & Dunn but…I never really paid much attention to Garth Brooks and Clint Black and that whole scene – I just wasn’t familiar with it, I’d just rather stay over here and kind of be the Austin cat. So anyhow we went up there and met him and I thought, “I think he’d like to write a song about bein’ an Oklahoma car thief,” so I came up with this idea [for “Bad on Fords”]. So yeah, it was really nice, and he was really nice to hang with.
Then what happened was, he recorded it and Sammy Hagar played guitar on it, and then Sammy Hagar cut it on his own record [Sammy Hagar & Friends, 2013].
Later we were in the studio just messing around and I said, Let’s go ahead and cut it and see. So we took off the spandex and put on the overalls and cut the damn thing, put a little Okie on the voice…
You’ve got a young son into rootsy music, but most kids are not so into listening to music in a close way like we used to, listen to the sound of it and listen a million times. Do you think there’s always going to be a place for that?
Man, I hope so. There’s always cool underground stuff that’s going on, even goes mainstream sometimes, like Old Crow Medicine Show. And then there’s a bunch of these young guys going out there doing solo stuff with a Resonator and a stomp box. So there’s always going to be certain kids that their priorities change from just beer and girls, and when they get the guitar they’re writing songs because they really need to express something within’ ’em.
There’s some young cats that I really dig, like a roots-rock guy named Jonathan Towers…and of course [James] McMurtry and Hayes [Carll] and those cats. And then there are these cool country bands. For a time there was this Texas Red Dirt scene, [but] I thought it kind of got watered down a little bit, where it wasn’t about writing really good songs and more about just kind of jumpin’ on the bandwagon. You know, most of these guys, they would say their “influences are Townes van Zandt…” and I’d say “Then why don’t you write like Townes van Zandt?”
Not too many of us can.
Yeah, I know, I know, Jon, you’re right there. But there are certain ones that are gonna find it and they’re gonna have to do it. Like the song “Chick Singer Badass Rockin’.” [Stream audio file for this song above.] There are certain women that rock, like Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde that I name-drop in it, I don’t think they’re doin’ it to be celebrities. There are certain girl rockers that they don’t care about bein’ a celebrity, they don’t care about bein’ Madonna or Taylor Swift, they wanna just rock. There are certain kids that just have to do it.
Any plans to tour outside of Texas anytime soon?
Yeah, I think we’re doin’ about four shows in the Northeast, including Hill Country in Brooklyn.
The one time I saw you in New York was at the Living Room, which has now moved to Brooklyn too. You were playing solo then.
Oh, gosh, yes! I was traveling solo, and I had to cut myself short because of the parking meter!
Ray Wylie Hubbard’s new album The Ruffian’s Misfortune is out April 7 on his own Bordello Records. His autobiography, A Life…Well, Lived, will come out later this year.