At 70 years old, Texas singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard doesn’t have anything to prove. In the early ’70s, he started his career by writing an outlaw country classic—“Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” most famously covered in 1973 by Jerry Jeff Walker. In 2015, he penned a wry, self-effacing autobiography, A Life … Well, Lived. In between, Hubbard overcame a major-label debacle with Warner Brothers Records, got sober (with the help of famed bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, no less), transformed himself from a middling bar band rocker to a fingerpicking master, and committed himself to a lifetime of literate, mystical songwriting.
If his alluring blend of old-time Texas religion, New Age folksiness and soulful, grizzled gravitas seems sui generis, that’s because it is—very few musicians’ careers bridge the Western swing of the ’50s, the psychedelia of the ’60s, the cosmic country of the ’70s, the red dirt renaissance of the ’80s, the blues revival of the ’90s, and the amalgamated fusion of this bold, bewildering 21st century. “I’ve been doing this just long enough that I can set down and say it’s a very mysterious process,” Hubbard told Folio Weekly during a phone interview from his Texas Hill Country home.
Folio Weekly: You don’t tour as much as you used to, Ray, but you’ve got a long history of coming to the Sunshine State, right?
Ray Wylie Hubbard: I do. We’ve done a lot of festivals, some shows at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa … But you can’t just drop by Florida from Austin. It has to be your destination. Luckily, the audiences there have been knowledgeable about what I do. They’re not shocked at all. [Laughs.]
What’s your touring lineup these days?
I’ve been traveling with a young drummer named Kyle Snyder and my son Lucas as my full-time guitar player for the last four years. Really, I’m proud of the way he plays, putting some electric squall over my acoustic playing. He’s learned from a lot of cool Austin cats not only how to play with tone and taste but also how to keep your head screwed on straight. He’s got that old country/blues/roots vibe to him—he doesn’t show off with any look-at-me licks. And he’s a lot smarter and mature at 24 than I was even at 41, traveling around by the seat of my pants with a guitar and a sleeping bag until I came out of this honky-tonk fog I’d been in.
That’s when you got sober?
Yeah, and I didn’t become a real songwriter until my 40s. I went to high school with Michael Murphey, got to see Lightnin’ Hopkins as a kid, opened shows for Ernest Tubb and Gary Stewart, had the good fortune of getting to know Freddie King, and came up in this great little folk scene in Austin with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. I was a folksinger, never a country singer. So when I got clean, I really got into that fingerpicking dead-thumb groove, taking guitar lessons so I could have a good marriage with some lyrics that had a little depth to ’em.
It took quite some time to extract yourself from a record label that wanted to turn you into a country singer.
Of course. I’ve mentioned this before, but I sleep with the president of my record label—and it’s not Clive Davis, it’s my wife Judy, who says, “You write what you what to write and record the album you want, I’ll try to sell the damn thing.” I’ve never been a mainstream writer, and at my age, that’s a good place to be. So I can write about Spider John Koerner or the book of Genesis or why snakes hiss.
You embrace a unique view of spirituality.
I refer to myself as a spiritual mongrel. I don’t follow one particular dogma; instead, I try to live on spiritual principles that I’ve gleaned. My grandmother was Pentecostal, and I also had Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Christ and Baptists around me. So I grew up in that whole hootin’ and hollerin’ religious mold, which as a kid could be pretty scary. Somewhere in college I became agnostic, then when I got clean and sober I tried to live according to a spiritual awakening instead of a religious conversion. That’s where I’m at now.
Where are you at now when it comes to songwriting?
I’ve learned that it’s inspiration and craft. When the inspiration strikes, you gotta have the craft to get it done. When I sat down to write [2017 album] Tell The Devil that I’m Getting There as Fast as I Can, I did think I’d write a rock ’n’ roll fable about running out of time. I’m racing to the end—the old guy thinking about mortality. Then I had to figure out how to turn that into songs using open D or open G tuning. It’s a balance. But the most important thing I do is, after I write a song, I’ll do a little rewriting, sing it a few times, then go, “OK, thanks.” I don’t know who I’m thanking, but I don’t want to offend that muse or close that door of inspiration. It’s an old, weird habit, and I don’t know if it’s superstitious or what, but I say, “OK, thanks!” and go on to the next song.