Ray Wylie Hubbard: A Few Pages From The Grifter’s Hymnal
BR: I think you’re onto something in “New Year’s Eve At The Gates Of Hell” with this theory that God is outsourcing work to the Devil.
RWH: Yeah, well … sometimes I … I think too much. (laughter)
But when you think about it, you know … the Devil’s just kind of doing his job. I mean, they’ve got to be working together, right?
BR: Got to be. (laughter) The songs “Moss And Flowers” and “Red Badge Of Courage” – the first one paints such beautiful, big pictures and the lyrics of the second one take you right into the center of a young soldier’s soul. Where do songs like that come from? Did the grooves show up and they summoned the words? Or do the words show up, looking for a home?
RWH: Well, “Moss and Flowers” I wrote with Charlie Shafter. Charlie came up with the lick and I took it and said, “Man, I want to write a Led Zeppelin/English Lord Byron/Irish wake song and Charlie went, What?”
And I said, “There’s an opportunity here to make it kind of deep and dark, you know.” And we did that one pretty much live.
And then on “Red Badge Of Courage” the idea came up first. These two kids came up to me at one of my shows – they’d been in Afghanistan and were leaving to go back.
They told me, “We’re big fans of yours.”
And I said, “Well, thank you.”
And they said, “We play that song of yours – ‘Dust Of The Chase’ – every time before we go out on patrol.” That’s an old song of mine off Loco Gringo’s Lament.
I said, “ Really? ” and they said, “Yeah, we play that every night for the line about ‘I kill a man, I say a prayer …’ We play that every night before we go out on recon.”
I mean, they were kids, man. And I thought about them after that, over there in Afghanistan, playing my music. And I just kind of put taht song together from there.
When we recorded it, I just had the first three verses and I wasn’t sure where I was going from there. And then it came to me that these kids were going to go through the rest of their lives with these ghosts, these images in their heads – how can you rationalize that? And somewhere along the way, I heard that line “It takes young men to do the dirty work for the failures of old men.”
It’s not their fault – they’re just kids doing the dirty work because the old men couldn’t work it out. That’s the way it’s always been.
BR: You want to be prepared to hear some pretty powerful stories from vets as they come home and hear this, man.
RWH: Well, like I say, those kids touched me. They’re home now – they both made it back.
BR: Oh, good – good.
RWH: Yeah, it … it really hit me when they told me that.
BR: Tell me what you used for a guitar to play that nasty slide on “Train Yard”.
RWH: That was … I believe that was an old Gibson I got. Hang on a second … I think this is it right here …
[There’s a moment or two of silence, then I can hear a bit of blues guitar over the phone.]
Yeah – this is it right here, I think. Hang on, hang on …
[I do – and for the next thirty seconds or so, I’m treated to my own little Ray Wylie Hubbard slide guitar concert.]
Yeah … that’s it. (laughter)
It’s an old Gibson HG-22 and it was made in 1929 – just an old, funky guitar. It’s really mid-rangy … kind of a one-trick pony, but it’s a good trick.
I wrote “Train Yard” with Liz Foster who’s in a band called the Trishas. Liz used to work for Judy for a while, and she was at the house one time, talking about songwriting and stuff. I said, “We should write a song,” and she agreed.
And I said, “Of, course I’ve never written a song with a woman before.”
And she kinda laughed and said, “Oh, it’ll be okay.”
So I had some lyrics and I said, “What about this?”
And she goes, “I don’t think you can say that.”
Then I said, “Well, how about this line?”
And she said, “Uhhh, I wouldn’t feel comfortable singing that.”
I said, “Huh … Well, how about this?”
And she said, “Mmmm … I don’t think so …”
So we wrote a clean one. (laughter)
BR: I imagine you’re going to get pummeled with folks asking you how much of “Mother Blues” is true. I will say this: by the time you get to the end of the story, it’s a cool way to show your appreciation for your family and the folks you’re making music with. I love the line “When I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well, I have really good days.”
RWH: (laughs) Thank you. I will give you a couple of quick details – Judy really was the doorgal at Mother Blues when she was 16.
RWH: Yep – she really was. She’d take Lightnin’ Hopkins his gin and Lightnin’ would look at her and go, “I don’t like white people.”
And she’d go, “Well, I don’t either.” (laughter)
But I always came in the stage door whenever I played there, so we didn’t know each other. And then we finally ran into each other 23 years ago and got married … (laughs)
BR: Well, there.
RWH: And all the other stuff in there is pretty much close to the truth. (laughter) That’s another one of those cases where George knew when not to play – the bass doesn’t even come in until, I guess, 30 or 40 seconds into the song. And when it does, it’s so cool.
BR: Oh, man – speaking of cool: my first thought when I heard “Henhouse” was, “That’s got Doug Sahm’s vibe all over it.”
RWH: (laughs) I kind of get these thoughts and ideas and I have to write the whole rest of the song in order to say what I really wanted to say … which was that I like the Small Faces rather than Fleetwood Mac. (laughter)
But Doug Sahm … man, he was so cool.
I went to Doug Sahm’s funeral in San Antonio and it was a rock ‘n ’roll funeral. All the East Side/Chicano/low rider cats were there … everybody had on Ray-Ban sunglasses … (laughter) it was cool. Doug would have dug it. He was a rock ‘n’ roll cat, man. Just a great, soulful cat.
Doug used to hate the Dallas Cowboys – hated them – and he’d come over here and watch the games. When Lucas was little he used to refer to Doug as “The guy that yells at the TV.” (laughter)
I remember we did a gig up in New York one time at the Lone Star café and flying back, I was sitting on one side of Doug and my guitar player was sitting on the other side. And the whole flight, Doug was talking to my guitar player about professional wrestling and talking to me about baseball … (laughter) At the same time, you know? He just kept the conversation going steady between the two of us, on two totally different subjects.
BR: Like a Texas version of Neal Cassady, right?
RWH: (laughs) Very much, very much. I’m honored that you mentioned Doug – he was a special cat.
BR: “Count My Blessings” is another one with both a wicked groove to it and these great, great pictures that the lyrics paint. Again, which came first: the tune or the groove?
RWH: Well, I was driving and listening to some old Lightnin’ Hopkins when this crow landed on this fencepost alongside the road. And as I was driving by, this crow was cawing – and I know this sounds weird, but it looked like the crow was singing what Lightnin’ Hopkins was singing. And I just kinda slowed down and watched this crow sitting on the fencepost, singing away like Lightnin’.
And then the next song that came on was an old Sam Cooke song and I got thinking about him. I would’ve been a sophomore in high school when he was killed, I think. And I remembered when they had the trial, it seemed like it only lasted about 15 minutes. So when I got home, I did a little research on the Sam Cooke thing and the conspiracy theories that maybe he was set up by some Mafia guys … it was just kind of weird.
And then I got to thinking about my family when I was a kid and how they were all kinda gamblers and grifters (laughs). I was kid, eight years old, playin’ cards … (laughter) I mean, just playing Go Fish, you know … (laughter) And for some reason, I had the first verse, and then I got to the chorus and said, “Well, what is it about this?” And then I said, “Maybe I should count my blessings” … and it just kind of come together from there.
BR: You always want to pay attention to crows, man.
RWH: Oh, yeah – Flannery O’Connor once said, “Never second guess inspiration.” When it happens, you gotta grab it.
BR: It was interesting what you said earlier about the bass laying out on some of the songs. On the album’s last cut, “Ask God”, George, Rick, and Audley are there, but you almost don’t notice them … it’s just enough.
RWH: They play the song, you know? There’s some guitar players who say, “I’ve got this lick …” and they’re going to play it, whether it fits the song or not. And then you have George and Rick and Audley, who are so subtle in what they do – if they weren’t there, it would be really, really different. What they add is powerful.
BR: Those are also the words I’d use to describe your slide guitar on that tune – subtle, yet powerful.
RWH: Well, thank you. Getting into that Lightnin’ Hopkins fingerpicking blues style really helped me – it saved me, man. It kind of gave me a career.
You know, I feel very fortunate that I started off in folk music when I was in high school; got into Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Eric Anderson – all those great folk writers – so the lyrics are important to me.
After that I was kind of a folk/rock guy; then that whole “outlaw country” thing came along and I was doing that; and when Stevie Ray came along, I got into the blues.
So I feel kind of fortunate that I’ve got the depth of those folk lyrics and the greasiness of those blues cats. That’s kind of where I am right now: trying to be a cross between John Lee Hooker and Guy Clark … and that’s a good place to be, you know what I mean?
BR: Oh, yeah. (laughter)