A fixture on the Texas music scene for years, Ray Wylie Hubbard surely doesn’t seem to show any sign of taking it easy. At 68, he released his latest album, The Ruffian’s Misfortune, on April 7th. Hubbard is a master storyteller and the album takes you on a ride (albeit a brief one as the record clocks in at a little over thirty minutes) that can be both gritty and raw as well as introspective and contemplative. In addition to releasing the record and touring, Hubbard will publish his first book A Life…Well, Lived in the coming months. Ahead of his show at Hill Country Live in Brooklyn, Hubbard graciously took the time to talk about the record, the book and much more.
So, after releasing more than a dozen records is there anything you do to keep it interesting and new for yourself?
Well I feel fortunate because I get to sleep with the label president, who of course isn’t Clive Davis (laughing). [Hubbard’s wife Judy runs their label, Bordello Records] So, for a songwriter I feel fortunate that I am able to write about whatever I want really, which is a great place for me. I’m not writing because I have a publishing deal where I have to write so many songs a year or write to get someone else to cut it. I can just write about blackbirds or stone blind horses or chick singers—anything I want. She [Judy] says “you write that and I’ll try to sell the damn thing.” I have that freedom as a writer not to have to worry or to think of a specific thing to write about in the future. Does that make sense in a way?
Absolutely. You have the ability and freedom to write about what you find interesting and she has your back.
Yes, that’s a really good place to be and really keeps it interesting. If I drive by a snake farm and wanna write a song about it, I can write a song about it. Or I can read Aesop’s fables and say I like that idea of a blackbird talking and if I want to incorporate that into a song, I can. I can write about Jessie Mae Hemphill or Charlie Musselwhite knowing the songs aren’t going to be hits or even played on the radio a lot, but I know they’re songs I enjoy. I just enjoy writing. I enjoy the process and I like being able to let people know about those artists, like Jessie Mae.
I have never been mainstream; I’m way to the edge of any country singer. I’m not a full on rock n’ roll guy or folk purist or a dyed in the wool blues guy. I’ve been so fortunate to have seen guys like Freddie King, Lightnin' Hopkins and Ernest Tubb. I’ve been influenced by all of that so I’m not limited when I write which is a good place for me; I enjoy that. I’ve also been influenced by old roots rock and 60’s garage bands. We went into this record with the idea to do it like that. If you listen to a lot of bands, like the Beatles, the Stones, and even the Go-Gos--listen to their first records. They didn’t have auto-tune; they just went in, plugged in and played. So our whole idea was like, you may not like the singer or the songs, but you’ll like the way it sounds. When you listen to the record you can hear us play. There’s Lucas on the guitar, he just plugged into old amps, and Eleanor Whitmore from The Mastersons came in, we put a mic on her fiddle and she just played. It’s just real musicians really playing on the record and I think that comes across. I’m very pleased with the sonic quality of it.
Those influences, and then your versatility, are definitely heard on The Ruffian’s Misfortune. You’re bluesy one minute, hard rockin’ the next and soft and thoughtful at other times. Is that where you are personally, still rocking yet also more reflective?
As I’ve gotten older I think more about mortality. There are songs on there like “Barefoot in Heaven,” “Hey Mama” and “Jessie Mae,” where she sings of black angels. I’ve said before I hope God grades on a curve because you know I’m not Mother Teresa, but I’m not Attila the Hun either, so maybe I’d get a C- (laughing). It’s not a concept album, but there is a theme that runs through it.
There’s a thread of spirituality and mysticism not just in some of the lyrics, but from the art work, the birds, and the back cover as well. Are you a very spiritual person or is that something that interests you from a writing perspective?
I prefer spiritual awakening to religious conversion, if that makes sense. I don’t follow one dogma or religion, but I try and apply the first spiritual principal in everyday life. I try to be honest, show courage, forgive and not hold resentment. The only time I go to church is for a wedding, but I have a faith and a belief system that works for me keeps me honest.
One song that deals with something totally different, and really rocks, is “Chick Singer, Badass Rockin’.” You name check Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde in the song, but are there women on the scene currently that you think fit the bill?
Oh, absolutely. Well, there’s Joan Jett and Chrissie, but there are also the ladies in The Trishas and Larkin Poe. And my friend Sylvie Simmons, who is out with the ukulele making some rock. I feel really fortunate to know some of these wonderful female rockers and I wanted to express that in the song. I admire anyone who can pick up a guitar and write from a higher place, the place where the true poet writes. I love the idea of young female rockers not doing it to be a celebrity, but doing it because they wanna express themselves. These young women have no fear; they pick up a guitar to rock, because they have a spark and need to express it.
You co-wrote with the Dirty River Boys and Jonathan Tyler and you each put totally different versions of the songs on your records. I was able to speak with Jonathan last week and he said that he was kinda worried about your approval of his version, but you liked it?
Oh, I love it! It’s pretty spacy and really cool. The great thing about songs is that we know what the lyrics are about and have an idea about what we want to do when we record it, but you can put yourself into it and just do it the way you want to do it, like the song I wrote with Hayes Carll [“Drunken Poet’s Dream”]; we each did it our own way.
What I admire about Jonathan is that he just has this way, he knows how he wants to do things. Some of these cats, you just know they’re just doing it to be on an awards show or to get on a label. Jonathan has that creative spark and his hearts in the right place. I’m really proud of guys like him and the Dirty River Boys.
These younger guys really look up to, admire and are inspired by you. Do you get inspiration from them as well?
Oh of course, they keep me from being a nostalgia act. You know, I don't have any laurels to rest on (laughing), but running around with Jonathan and the Dirty River Boys, these musicians they keep me on my toes! With them, I have to step up. They’re really inspiring.
You have spoken about how you decided upon the title of the record, but what is the story behind the cover art?
I enjoy word play and for the title we were playing around with the word misfortune, missed fortune and miss fortune. I just love the title. The Ruffian’s Misfortune it sounds like a dusty old book, an American novel from the 1800’s like A Tale of Two Cities or The Tell-Tale Heart.
For the cover, well, we went and shot it in the house. I thought it was time to put her [wife Judy] on the cover. You know, she deals with the publicists, agents, and answers the phone—it’s a very unforgiving job. We went in and put a table in the living room, added a candle and ratted up her hair. I liked the idea of a fortune teller and going with that kind of gothic weirdness. We’re not really telling the future with that crystal ball, we’re gonna leave that up to fate or whatever; if you just try to live the right way on a daily basis, you should be okay.
In addition to the album, you have a book, ‘A Life…..Well, Lived’ due out this year.
We’re in the final stages of completing the book and it’ll be out some time this summer. It’s a memoir, but there’s also a few road stories in there, plus song lyrics. I also talk about inspiration and craft in songwriting and how in my 40’s I turned things around and became a real songwriter.
Are you someone who journals or did you have to remember those stories?
I never kept a journal, but went back and thought a lot about what happened, about Oklahoma and Dallas and getting with Michael Murphey and DW Stevens in Austin, and then getting into this whole progressive country thing. It was pretty easy to remember a lot of it to tell you the truth. Some of it is so close to the truth that I’ve come to believe it (laughing). I’ve had some people read it and they said it reads well, so I’m happy with it.
Has it been a life well lived so far and do you think there will be a second book?
This one is from when I was born until now, so I don’t know. Hopefully there’s still some more adventure in my life. I have been working on this book for two years and really enjoyed it. I’ve had a good life so far. I’ve made mistakes and had some dark times, but now like I say, I’m grateful to be an old cat and to be able to keep playing.
Finally, when you’re out and about driving around in your car, what do you listen to?
I like the old cats like Freddie King, John Lee Hooker and Townes. I also like James McMurtry, Sam Baker, Gurf Morlix, Hayes and Slaid [Cleaves]. I listen to musicians I happen to know and can call my friends. Those are who I listen to these days.
For more information visit his official website
Find him on Facebook
Follow Ray Wylie on Twitter
Purchase The Ruffian's Misfortune here
Come out and see him in Brooklyn:
When: Sat., May 16
Where: Hill Country Live, 345 Adams St Brooklyn
Showtime: 9 p.m.