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Published: 2012/04/27
by Brian Robbins

Ray Wylie Hubbard: A Few Pages From The Grifter’s Hymnal

65 years into this life, Ray Wylie Hubbard might have found the key to inner peace: keeping your gratitude higher than your expectations. Don’t let the fact that he shares that nugget of wisdom during “Mother’s Blues” – a tale of “a fine stripper girlfriend and a Gold Top Les Paul” with a little bit of “Polk Salad Annie” on the side – the words are just as wise.

Maybe that’s the whole deal with Hubbard’s music these days: it’s gritty and greasy and rootsy and real, with lyrics percolated from a life well lived. And the fact of the matter is, Hubbard could’ve just as easily died years ago – and might have, if not for a turnaround sparked by a conversation with the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.

In some circles, “clean and sober” is looked upon as being synonymous with “bland and boring,” but Hubbard could be the poster child for getting your shit together while remaining one funky ol’ cat. At an age where many artists have already soared, peaked, crashed, burned, and vaporized, Hubbard is being fueled by six-plus decades of stories and philosophy that just gotta come out, along with a love and appreciation for those around him and those that came before him.

What was supposed to be a few minutes out of the middle of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s day to talk with about his new album The Grifter’s Hymnal turned into over an hour of fun that included some nasty-ass long distance slide gee-tar over the telephone. Sit back and enjoy some Ray Wylie Hubbard.

BR: Before we burrow into the album, I wanted to ask you about “Mother Hubbard” – your wife Judy, who also heads up WylieWorld Music. We e-mailed back and forth a little bit these last couple of weeks and she’s just a treat to deal with. I know I’m not telling you anything, but she’s quite something, isn’t she? You two make a good team.

RWH: Well, I’ll tell you what … I’ve said this before and I mean it: if it wasn’t for Judy, I would have everything I own in a shoebox and be looking for a happy hour gig. (laughs) I can’t always advise sleeping with the president of a record company, though … just because it works for me. (laughter)

BR: I’ll make note of that. We might have some young and impressionable people reading this and I wouldn’t want to give them the wrong idea.

RWH: Yeah, that’s right. (laughter) No, Judy and I have been married for 23 years. It’s great for me because I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder telling me what to write or, “Hey, we need to write a song for so-and-so”; or “That’s not ‘radio-friendly’.” I just keep writing these songs and it’s great to have that kind of freedom.

You know, sometimes I’ll say, “I’ve got this song, here …” and she’ll kind of roll her eyes and say, “Put it on the record …” (laughter) Yeah, I’m really fortunate.

Our son Lucas is 18 and he’s playing guitar with me – played on three or four tracks on the record. Like I say, I’m very grateful and very happy to be where I am.

BR: Ah – I wanted to talk about Lucas. I’m a sucker for parents and their children playing music together; some of the most fun I’ve had playing music over the years has been with my two daughters. Was there a moment when Lucas came to you and said, “Hey, I want to do this”?

RWH: (laughs) Well … not exactly. (laughs) You see, Judy and I have this deal where I get a guitar; she gets a refrigerator; I get a guitar and she gets a stove. We take turns getting something, ‘cause, well, we’re okay, but not rich … I can’t just go out and buy a guitar. So anyhow, it was her turn to get something, but I found this old guitar at a guitar show and I bought it. I came walking in through the door with it and she said: “What are you doing? What’s that? It’s not your turn.”

And I went, “It’s … it’s for Lucas! ” (laughter) “Here, Lucas – here’s an E chord!” (laughter)

He was like, 8 years old and I’m showing him where to put his fingers on the neck: “Daddy, it hurts!” “Play the guitar!” (laughter)

But Lucas picked up on it and started playing. I’d have gigs and he’d come out and do a song or two – some blues things. I think it was maybe when he was 16 that he said to me, “I’m tired of being a novelty act.”

And I said, “What do you mean?”

And Lucas said, “Well, you bring me out and just kind of show me off – I want to be a member of the band.”

And I said, “You’re gonna have to earn it. George and Rick will decide if you can do it.” That’s when he really started getting into it.

I can’t remember where the first gig was, but I remember telling him, “Okay – you’re the guitar player for the whole 90 minutes.” And he stepped up there and just played it, you know? Afterwards Rick said he passed the audition. (laughter)

But yeah – it’s cool to be doing that together …

BR: Oh, it’s gotta be …

RWH: And then he’ll come in and ask me, “You ever heard of a song called ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ by The Animals?” (laughs)

And I’ll say, “Yeah – as a matter of fact …” (laughter)

I think the first record he bought was maybe The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions and then the Stones’ Sticky Fingers – he’s got real good taste in music. (laughter)

I’m really proud of him.

One more quick story about Lucas: I guess when he was 12 or 13 – I think he was in the 9th grade – these kids came up to him at school and said, “We heard you play lead guitar.”
And Lucas says, “Yeah.”

“Well, we’re in this band. We’ve got some gigs coming up and we need a lead guitar player.”

And Lucas said, “Well, what kind of music do you play?”

And the kid said, “Soundgarden/Mudhoney/Nirvana kind of stuff.”

And Lucas said, “Oh, man – sorry. I’m a bluesman.” (laughter) How old are your daughters?

BR: Jessica is 28 and plays guitar; Cassie’s 22 and plays bass. Their brother Jeremy’s in the middle; I think he figured there was already enough noise in the family. (laughter) Now come the grandkids: Lydia’s about to be 4 and she’s always up for a tune. I gave her a harp a while back and said, “Now you practice this all the way home in the car with your folks, okay?”

RWH: (laughs) Aw, that’s cool. (laughs) So, yeah – Lucas is my full-time guitar player now.

BR: And he fits right in with some really talented pickers on The Grifter’s Hymnal.

RHW: Yeah, he does. (laughs) We had all these great guitar players on the record: Audley Freed – he’s played with everyone from the Black Crowes to The Dixie Chicks; Billy Cassis, who’s played with Soulhat and The Bob Schneider Band; and Brad Rice, who’s played in Ryan Adams’ band and Son Volt.

When I wrote “Coricidin Bottle” [producer/bassist] George Reiff said, “Man, that needs to be played by, like, an 18-year-old kid with a Les Paul and Marshall turned all the way up.” (laughs) So we had Lucas come in and just let him have fun on it, you know? That song ended up being just me and Lucas and Rick Richards on drums … I think George might’ve played a little percussion on it, but no bass.

That’s the thing about George as a producer: he’s a great bass player – played with Joe Walsh, Chris Robinson, Court Yard Hounds – but there are times when he’ll say, “This song doesn’t need bass.” That kinda tells you what kind of guy he is as a producer – he listens to what the song needs, rather than just saying, “I’m gonna lay down a groove.”

BR: While we’re talking about the core players on the album, how about a few words about drummer Rick Richards?

RWH: Rick’s been my drummer for, I guess, 10 years now. He really is my favorite drummer – such a deep, deep pocket. Rick’s played on my records and a whole bunch of great records that have come out of Austin: Tom Russell, Mary Gauthier, Slaid Cleaves, Gurf Morlix, Sam Baker … he’s just such a cool drummer.

We did the song “Coochy Coochy” by Ringo Starr on this record, okay? We sent it to Ringo and he called us back and said, “I’m just going to play guitar and sing on it, ‘cause the drums on it now are just too good – I don’t need to play drums.”

So … that’s when I really wished that Rick wasn’t that good, you know? (laughs) I could’ve had Ringo Starr drumming on my record. (laughter)

BR: Listen, I promise we’ll get to the album in just a minute –

RWH: Oh, that’s fine … take your time. (laughs)

BR: Don’t encourage me, buddy. I’ll go right off the track and down over the banking into the puckerbrush with the conversation if you don’t keep an eye on me.

RWH: That’s okay – I’ll be right there with ya … (laughter)

BR: Thanks. (laughter) No, the one other person I wanted to ask you about was the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. I know he helped you with some … navigational issues years ago.

RWH: That’s right – that’s right. (laughs) I’d known Stevie when we were kids in high school up in Oak Cliff – I went to Adamson High School and Stevie went to Kimball. It was kind of weird: I was in this folk group called the Coachmen while Stevie Ray was in a rock group called the Chessmen. Every once in a while they’d show a picture in the newspaper when we were playing a gig and it would say “The Chessmen” – and there were also pictures of Stevie’s band and they would say “The Coachmen”. It was kind of a running joke right up until he passed away: I’d say, “How’s everything in the Coachmen?”

And Stevie’d say, “Hey, I love your band, the Chessmen.” (laughter)

But yeah, Stevie Ray’d gotten clean and sober – he was the first guy, in fact, that I knew that did it and didn’t lose his edge, you know? Some of those guys got sobered up and they ended up on the 700 Club and, man … I didn’t want to do that. (laughter)

But Stevie just said, “Hey, man – here’s what I did …” He just took the time to talk to me … and this is where I am now.

He really just helped … well … I love the way you put it: he helped me with my navigation. (laughs)

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