Ray Wylie Hubbard performs at City Winery in DC on July 29, 2022. (Photo by Rashad Polk)
“I found out you get more attention burning down the barn than you do taking out the trash,” Americana singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard told a sold-out audience at City Winery recently.
In his autobiography, A Life Well…Lived, Hubbard writes appearing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon — his first national TV appearance — in 2010. When Ray Wylie how he should be introduced, he asked to be described as an Americana singer-songwriter, rather than as a Texas singer-songwriter.
Born in 1946 in Soper, Oklahoma, in 1946, Hubbard’s family moved to Dallas in 1946. He attended high school with another future pioneer of cosmic country, Michael Martin Murphy. While studying English at North Texas State University, he spent summers in Red River New Mexico, playing music, in a gig that he describes as involving more cleaning than music for very little money.
During his time in New Mexico, Hubbard wrote “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” Jerry Jeff Walker recorded it on his 1973 live album, Viva Terlingua. It has become a modern country — at least outlaw country, or Americana, if you will — standard, which I’ve seen performed by Dwight Yoakam and Colter Wall. Speaking with tongue-in cheek at City Winery on July 29, Hubbard told the audience the most important thing to consider when you write a song: “Can I sing this for the next 40 years?” He doesn’t play the song every night, but he could indeed play it for another 40 years.
Hubbard’s songbook is diverse, and “Redneck Mother” only scratches the surface of what he can do. It’s inspired by his experiences as a young, long-haired hippy dealing with the more traditionally-minded crowded who might gather, at the time, in the local honky tonk. It’s a humorous song, a satire, and it doesn’t have the depth or weight of the work in his later career. But it is amusing and it is clever — it’s the work of young writer who is obviously quite sharp and talented but hasn’t develop an emotional maturity yet.
Hubbard is the first to admit that he didn’t have his act together for a long time. In “Mother Blues,” he sings about being a 21-year-old guitar slinger whose stripper girlfriend has a bit of a drinking problem. Introducing the song, he said, “I am an acquired taste, and I am not for everyone. This next song should weed those people out.” The lyrics include the line “the first of many bad decisions I was to make for the next 20 years.” For nearly two decades, Ray’s life spiraled as he lived with alcoholism, with drugs in the mix, too.
Watch Ray Wylie Hubbard perform “Mother Blues” for The Texas Music Scene on YouTube:
As a reader who likes being entertained, I can say that this period of his life at least left him with some pretty incredible stories. I’m a lifelong wrestling fan, so I marked out, as they say in that business, for his stories about running around Dallas with the legendary tag team (and even more legendary hell-raising party animals) The Fabulous Freebirds. I used to think it was pretty cool that my dad hung out with Harley Race one time, but this is way, way cooler. I won’t give away any details — Ray Wylie’s book is a pretty quick read, it’s definitely worth your time, and it’s all in there.
“Mother Blues” ends with a positive twist: Ray got his life together, and he’s been with his wife now for 33 years. Their son, Lucas, plays guitar in his band, and he sings about being grateful to share that experience. When I interviewed Ray last spring in advance of his latest album, Co-Starring Too, I asked him about how he processes things differently, having had a second act to his life. He emphasized then, as he does in the song, that he approaches life with gratitude at having gotten and made on a second chance.
That second act came together with his 1994 album, Loco Gringos Lament. It’s here that his songwriting starts to achieve the depth and pathos it has since possessed. Improving his skill on his instrument was crucial to making that jump; he talks about swallowing his pride and taking lessons. Around this time, he was given the memoir of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The closest track on the album, “The Messenger” — which he played as his encore at City Winery — includes a line from the book: “Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures.”
Co-Starring Too is a sequel or continuation of the project Hubbard with his 2020 album, Co-Starring; both are sets of duets and collaborations, and they contain a mix of new songs and new versions of old songs. “Stone Blind Horses” originally appeared on his 2014 album, The Ruffian’s Misfortune; Willie Nelson sings on the new version. Steve Earle joins him on “Hellbent for Leather;” had he said “no” to the collaboration, Ray told the audience, he probably would’ve left the song off the album. On Labor Day, they’re playing a showing together in Amarillo.
“Bad Trick” is the only song he’s written with his wife, Judy. After a tough gig, she asked Ray how it went, and when he said it didn’t go well, she replied “Everyone turns a bad trick now and then.” He’s joined on the recording by Ringo Starr, Joe Walsh, and Chris Robinson. “I have a Beatle and an Eagle,” he recounted his thoughts, “I need a Black Crowe.”
Watch the official music video for “Bad Trick” by Ray Wylie Hubbard — ft. Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Walsh, and Chris Robinson — on YouTube:
Before he got to the new material, Ray started his show with a few favorites from his songbook, beginning with “Rabbit,” which includes the memorable line, “It’s the night people’s job to take the day people’s money.” The title cut of “Snake Farm,” which I’ve heard described as a song about guy in love who is also afraid of snakes. I have that fear myself — I was traumatized as a child when, on the WWF’s TV, the villainous Jake “The Snake” Roberts knocked out my favorite wrestler, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, then proceeded to release his python on his unconscious form — and the song sends chills down my spine.
“Drunken Poet’s Dream” was cowritten with Americana mainstay Hayes Carll, and he recorded it for his album A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C). The album, he said, had a “terrible title” and a “creepy picture” for cover art.
While it’s not a concept album, Tell the Devil I’m Getting There as Fast as I Can does have a theme: “I hope God grades on a curve.” Ray went on to say, “Maybe a C- won’t get me into heaven proper, but maybe it’s enough to get me into some kind of celestial night school.” He’s joined, on both the song and in the video, by Lucinda Williams and Eric Church.
While Ray considers himself “pretty underground,” people who know what’s up — like Williams and Church — appreciate just how good he is. He has a pretty strong following among writers, too. At the World Fantasy Convention — a professional conference for genre authors — the prolific and highly-regarded Canadian writer Charles de Lint entertained a crowd with several of his songs.
Hubbard learned that Church was a fan from his song “Mr. Misunderstood,” in which Church name-checks Ray along with Jeff Tweedy and Elvis Costello. Later, Eric contacted him, and they wrote “Desperate Man” together. The sung became his first — and only — to go to No. 1 on the country charts. With the royalty check, he was able to buy a gate for his fence. That fence was a bit of a running theme at the the end of the set. With the royalty check from Red Dirt band Cross Canadian Ragweed’s cover of “Wanna Rock and Roll,” he was able to buy the fence.
Locally-based singer-songwriter Lauren Calve opened the show with a 30-minute set. I saw her open for Rhett Miller in 2018, and her new material since then shows a lot of growth. Her closing number, “Sweep,” was especially impressive. I look forward to the debut LP she’ll making in the near future.
Before Ray came out, we learned that he had flown in just for this show. Many in the audience had been waiting for this evening for nearly three years — Ray was scheduled to play when Co-Starring came out in 2020, but the show was postponed numerous times due to the pandemic. Normally, he plays in a trio, but his drummer had abandoned them to take a trip to Hawaii with his girlfriend. (My parents weren’t all that impressed with the state when they visited, but I’m not sure how much it matters where you go on vacation with your girlfriend.)
Ray Wylie Hubbard may not be for everyone, but his fanbase is passionate and dedicated. And we were all very glad that Ray made a trip up to the DMV just to play for us.
Here are some photos of Ray Wylie Hubbard and opener Lauren Calve performing at City Winery DC on July 29, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Rashad Polk.