Ray Wylie Hubbard: A Few Pages From The Grifter’s Hymnal
BR: You couldn’t have taken those same words from just anybody, right? Here was this guy who had straightened out but was still funkier than hell …
RWH: Right, right. After my dad died, I was pretty much in a blackout for about a year, year and a half. And then Stevie and his buddy BC came to see me in ’89, I believe. They heard I was in pretty bad shape through this dancer I knew.
I asked Stevie at the time, “What’s it like? I mean, God, man – what is it?”
And Stevie said that once he got sober, it was like he got the boxing gloves off and he could play guitar.
And I said, “No, man – you could play guitar before.”
And he goes, “No … there was always this film between me and playing. Once I’d been clean about six months, I could play and I could hear … it was better than any drug I ever took.”
And I went, “Nawwww …” (laughs) I asked him, “Remember when we …?” You know, took this or did that?
And Stevie said, “Nope – this is better.” So that gave me some hope, you know? Maybe you could get sober and not turn into a square. (laughter) Yeah …
The thing about Stevie was, he had that same charisma as Freddie King. Freddie King would come out on stage or come into a room and you were just drawn to him – Stevie had that, too. Even when he was just a kid, playing at those Monday night blues jams at Antone’s when there weren’t a lot of people there … you were drawn to him. And once he got cleaned up, it was even more so.
And he really cared about helping people; it wasn’t a preachy thing – it was just, “Hey, man – this is what happened and this is what it’s like now.”
I think of Stevie every day. Besides being an incredible guitar player, he was an incredible human being who took the time to sit down and talk to me. And his legacy lives on, man. He died contributing to life, rather than just seeing what he could get out of it.
BR: Well, thank you for talking about him.
RWH: Stevie was … he was a great cat.
BR: Well … how about we take a look at the new album? One thing that hit me about it was how live and sweaty and intimate the thing sounds. If you did do any amount of overdubbing, it doesn’t sound like it – and I don’t want to know about it if you did. (laughter) I want to keep my vision of you guys just plugging in and letting it rip.
RWH: Well, that’s pretty much what we did, actually. One thing you ought to know is we didn’t use any pedals or effects; these are old amps with old guitars plugged right into them – not even a tuner in between. We’d tune up and then plug the cords right into the amps – no nothing. That’s what we wanted; we figured if we got our tone right, then we didn’t need a lot of EQ or compression or all that … we just wanted it to sound old and funky.
We set up in a church in Round Top, Texas that was built in 1888 and needed to be sanctified with some greasy ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. (laughs) We recorded most of the tracks there and another … four, I think – at George’s studio. Everything is pretty much live. We did overdub Ian McLagan’s parts – and Ringo’s. Like I said before, we sent “Coochy Coochy” to Ringo and he did his thing.
BR: Ian’s a great player, isn’t he? His work on Warren Haynes’ solo album last year was just outstanding.
RWH: Oh, man – he is. He lives here in Austin, you know.
Ian came in and we set him down at the piano and played the tracks one time through. And Ian said, “Okay – I think I got it. Let’s go for it.”
And we said, “No, we got it. You’re done.” (laughter) We wanted that rough, sloppy, Small-Faces-cool piano – and we got it. I just loved the Small Faces. I mean – and I hate to say this, man – but when they were drunk, they were great. (laughter) They were so good and just had that feel, you know?
So, yeah – I think Ian and Ringo were overdubbed … and we might have overdubbed Brad Rice on “South Of The River”, where he played guitar and then went back and played the bass. I think that’s pretty much it, though.
BR: And the church never got hit by lightning while you were there?
RWH: (laughs) No … no, it didn’t. But we got the sound we were after. Our good friend Chris Robinson called Joe Gastwirt on our behalf and asked if he would master the album. Joe’s the best – he’s worked with everybody from Hendrix to Crosby, Stills & Nash … everybody. He mastered it onto 2” tape, which cost us an extra … 400 dollars, I think. (laughs) But by doing that – and I know this is gonna sound funny – you can hear the air, you know? You can hear the room, almost. And that’s what we wanted.
When we mixed it, we took out the lip smacks, but we left in the coughs and the string noises and the squeaks on the drum pedals. Took out the lip smacks and left everything else. (laughs)
BR: Maybe sometime you could release the lip smacks as an EP.
RWH: (laughs) Yeah!
*BR: But until then, we’d better get to talking about The Grifter’s Hymnal, I guess. Here’s how I began the review for Jambands.com: “I used to think the first 40 seconds of the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ made for one of the most tension-filled, terrifying opening segments in rock ‘n’ roll.
I still do, but I have to tell you something, right now: ol’ Ray Wylie Hubbard has managed to rival it. ‘South of the River’, on his new album The Grifter’s Hymnal, gets the job done in half the time. And only two chords. (The Stones used three.)*
RWH: (laughs) Well thank you – I appreciate that. That’s funny that you compared it to the Stones. What happened was – after all this time – I finally took off the low E string and tuned to open G like Keith Richards does, you know? I’ve always heard about it, but I never have done it.
BR: Ha! What guitar did you use?
RWH: Oh, God … I think I used an old Martin D-18E – it’s a Martin with a DeArmond pickup. The only other one I’ve ever seen is the one Kurt Cobain used on MTV Unplugged. They only made 300 of them.
So I tuned the thing to open G and then played the song in the key of E – that’s where I think it just kinda got this weird and evil sound. That’s one of the songs that Ian’s on – and he really adds to that Stones/Nicky Hopkins vibe.
BR: The twin acoustics of you and Billy on “Lazarus” is a nice piece of work.
RWH: Aw, thank you. I always loved Delaney & Bonnie’s version of “Poor Elijah”. We wanted it to have that same sort of guitar groove. That was fun to play.
BR: And I wanted to ask you about Rick’s “drums and bird feeder” on that one.
RWH: (laughs) Oh, yeah! When we were recording “Lazarus”, we kept trying shakers, but they didn’t sound right. We had this little bird feeder and Rick shook it and said, “Let’s use this.” He’ll pound and shake on anything to get the right sound.
The great thing about Rick is – and excuse my language – we can say to him, “Those drums sound great … now fuck ‘em up!” (laughter) And he knows what we’re looking for – we want the drums to sound like Slim Harpo, you know?
BR: Same vibe as the guitars and amps. You don’t want a drum that sounds too pretty, right?
RWH: That’s right. (laughs) It’s part of that whole thing – the right vibe; the right tone; the right groove. I hate to sound like an old guy saying, “Back in the day …” but sometimes I think some of these young bands depend too much on pedals and not enough on chops, you know what I mean?
BR: And maybe not knowing where it all came from.
RWH: Yeah – that’s right. Honor your roots. It didn’t start with the Eagles or Lynyrd Skynyrd, you know? You gotta go to go back to where they got it: Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers or Cisco Houston or Robert Johnson or Son House … back to those guys. Show respect.
I was talking with Eric Burden when he was down here for SXSW and he was telling me about going to Bo Diddley’s funeral. And I said, “Really?”
And he said, “Yeah – I never met the man, but I knew him. I just felt like I had to go to his funeral.”
And that’s just showing respect. I tried to do that on this record to some of those guys, ‘cause they all mean the world to me.