Ray Wylie Hubbard is standing at the crossroads once again, but after four-plus decades of highs and lows, this is familiar terrain for the acclaimed singer-guitarist. He's been blessed (or cursed) with the respected-yet-non-lucrative position of being "a songwriter's songwriter," but finally, his career is enjoying some much-deserved exposure. Hubbard's latest release, The Grifter's Hymnal, is a strong bluesy affair that keeps the tradition of showcasing Hubbard's skill fusing raunchy riffs with potent lyrics.
While Hubbard is often considered a country artist, The Grifter's Hymnal reinforces his blues roots. On tunes like "Coricidin Bottle" and "Ask God," his band slithers along with a production style that crackles with a live feel. "You listen to those old Slim Harpo records and part of the magic is hearing that 60-cycle hum on the song," says Hubbard.
Born in 1946 in Soper, Okla., Hubbard eventually moved with his family to Dallas, where the developing folkie met fellow songwriter Michael Martin Murphey. There Hubbard was soon introduced to the electric blues, guys like Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Freddie King.
In 1966, Hubbard enrolled at the University of North Texas, where he majored in English. "I lasted nine hours," Hubbard laughs. He ended up in New Mexico and became "a freewheeling, tumblin' tumbleweed."
Hubbard tumbled his way to Austin, where he drifted into a scene of longhairs turned on by Buck Owens as much as Blue Cheer. Fellow songwriters like Billie Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt greeted him with open arms and shared his anarchist approach to country music. Collectively, this group became known as the Cosmic Cowboys.
While hanging in Austin, Hubbard wrote
"Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," a counter to Merle Haggard's famous 1969 hippie-bashing chart-topper. "I wrote that as an anti-‘Okie from Muskogee' because we were a bunch of country hippies," he says. "Then Jerry Jeff Walker recorded it and all of the rednecks started singing along. I don't know if it backfired or what."
Hubbard released a handful of albums in the years that followed, but was distracted by the field research onstage in beer-soaked roadhouses and even shadier places offstage. His musical output hit a wall. In the mid-'80s, he decided to close up the honky-tonk for good: "I had all the fun I could stand, so when I was 41, I got clean and sober."
While other artists reinvent themselves with a new ad campaign, Hubbard underwent a more deliberate transformation. "I made a conscious effort to become a better songwriter," he says. For the next four years, he took lessons to decipher guitar fingerpicking, studied the arcane math of music royalties and deepened his love of the written word.
Always a voracious reader, in conversation Hubbard makes passing references to comparative religions, philosophy, Joseph Campbell, James Allen's As a Man Thinketh, and one of his greatest influences, Rainer Maria Rilke. Unsurprisingly, Hubbard has earned more than one follower from the literary world. Pulitzer Prize-winner John Sanford is a fan, and horror master Stephen King has name-dropped Hubbard for years.
Hubbard says he's touched by this praise and sudden attention, but he's most appreciative of his casual arrival at this intersection of music, insight and gratitude. "I still feel valid," he says, "and I have no fear about writing. And that's a really great place for a songwriter to be."