“Sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump,” Ray Wylie Hubbard says. “I’m just hanging around, and things happen.”
Like Forrest Gump, the character played by Tom Hanks in the 1994 film of the same name, Hubbard has a history of seemingly stumbling into connections with famous people. His past albums have contained guest appearances by Lucinda Williams, Eric Church, Joe Walsh, Chris Robinson, Ronnie Dunn, Patty Griffin, Tony Joe White and Ashley McBryde, His newest album, Co-Starring Too, features Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Randy Rogers, James McMurtry, Hayes Carl and Wynonna Judd.
It’s easy to get the wrong impression from this roster of guests. While it’s true that Hubbard hasn’t chased after these big names, neither is it true that the collaborations were as accidental as Gump’s. When you’re 75 years old and have been releasing albums for 57 of those years, your music has a way of sneaking into places you’d never suspect. “When you put these records out,” Hubbard marvels over the phone from his home in Wimberly, “you never know who’s listening to them.”
A case in point is his unexpected friendship with Starr. “About eight years ago,” Hubbard recalls, “someone told me, ‘Ringo’s been talking you up on his website.’ I went to the site, and Ringo had written, ‘This is what I’ve been listening to: some mono Beatles tracks that George Martin sent me, the new Dylan thing, and this guy from Texas going, ‘Snake farm, ooh-woo-woo.’
“A few months later, my drummer Rick Richards and I are playing McCabe’s in California, and Brent Carpenter, the guy who does all of Ringo’s videos, is there. He says, ‘Ringo’s at the Greek Theatre tomorrow night, and he wants you to come.’ So we go, and I introduce Rick as ‘my band.’ Ringo liked that my whole band was a drummer. He asked me to come on stage and sing ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ with him at the end of his show.
“Six months after that, my wife Judy is opening the mail, and she says, ‘Damn, I have to lose seven pounds.’ Why’s that? I ask. ‘Because we’ve been invited to the wedding of Joe Walsh and Marjorie Bach.’ It turns out that after his divorce, Joe was living with Ringo and his wife Barbara Bach. When Ringo put ‘Snake Farm’ on, the two Bach sisters started dancing around, and when Joe’s eyes met Marjorie’s, the rest was history.”
Like Gump, Hubbard presents a mirror that allows other people to see themselves. In contrast to Gump, whose very blankness invited reflection, however, Hubbard presents a mirror crowded with paradoxical aspects to identify with. Hubbard’s song “Snake Farm,” for example, championed by Starr and recorded by Paul Thorn, Bobby Bare, Waymore’s Outlaws and many more, has something for everyone.
If, like Starr and Bare, you have a weakness for jovial humor, you’ll enjoy the song’s suggestion that the Texas tourist trap “just sounds nasty” and it “pretty much is.” If, like Hubbard’s Red Dirt disciples, you enjoy barroom sing-alongs, the song’s “ooh-woo-woo” refrain is hard to beat. If, like Thorn, you appreciate the more gothic aspects of Southern culture, the song’s python-tattooed, malt-liquor-swilling, ticket-taking protagonist Ramona is made for you. And if, like the song’s original producer, Gurf Morlix, you savor a greasy blues groove, this song boasts one of the best.
“Ray is deep down in the mud with those grooves,” says Morlix, who plays bass and/or guitar on six of the new album’s 11 tracks. “All the emotions are mixed in — it’s the lowdown rhythm of the earth itself. It’s the blues, of course, but it’s also that dirty beat. There are a handful of songwriters I know of who can approximate that same feeling with the rhythm, but none can write lyrics like Ray does. No one. Dylan could maybe come close, but … no … not even him.”
There’s a song on the new album simply called “Groove” that explicates the musical side of Hubbard’s appeal. Opening with the funkiest of bass lines by the late George Reiff and supplemented by Bukka Allen’s high-pitched organ squeal, the song practices what it preaches. The groove, Hubbard sings, “came about when a woman was walkin,’ sashayin’ down like she owned the street. A man with a guitar emulated that and fabricated a lowdown beat.”
Kevin Russell (Shinyribs) and the Shiny Sisters add giddy harmonies to the refrain: “It was a groove, oh, it’s a mighty thang.” Every instrument — even the voices of Hubbard, Russell, Kelley Mickwee and Alice Spencer — become percussion instruments. As Hubbard sang on his 2012 album, The Grifter’s Hymnal, “they laid down a groove like a monkey getting off.”
The roots of Hubbard’s two recent, guest-loaded albums go back to 2019. He was playing a show in Nashville, when Julian Raymond, an A&R rep for Big Machine Records, Taylor Swift’s original label and Tim McGraw’s current home, asked Hubbard what he’d been up to.
“I’ve been making a record,” the singer-songwriter replied, “and I’ve got a song with a Beatle, an Eagle, a Black Crowe and a Was (Not Was) on it.” He wasn’t lying. The album he was cutting for his own label, Bordello Records, opened with the song “Bad Trick,” which featured help from Starr, Walsh, Chris Robinson and Don Was. “I’d like to hear that,” replied Raymond. That’s how the album, Co-Starring, and this year’s sequel, Co-Starring Too, both wound up on Big Machine Records rather than Bordello.
So it wasn’t like this Nashville major label paired Hubbard with a bunch of guest stars. The collaborations were the result of folks volunteering to work with Hubbard on a record intended for his own small label. And they do so because songs like “Snake Farm” stand out like islands in an ocean of mere cleverness and competence. The lyrics are so surprising and visual and the music so slinky and catchy, fellow musicians want to be part of those songs.
But as Morlix points out, that down-and-dirty feel is tightly connected to some very sharp lyrics. The friction between the melody and the syncopation in the instruments reinforces the tension between the humor and darkness in the lyric. And vice versa.
Who else could work the words “emulated” and “fabricated” into the same couplet of a blues song? Who else could transform Dante Aligheri’s and John Milton’s poetic explorations of hell into funky juke-joint numbers? Who else could write a duet for himself and Willie Nelson about two cowboys riding across a desolate landscape atop two “Stone Blind Horses”? The horses turn the corner, and a red-winged blackbird cries out “like he’s singing that I might die.”
Hubbard had recorded that last song on his 2015 album, The Ruffian’s Misfortune, but this tale of two old men riding sightless animals toward an inevitable end carries a lot more weight now that it’s being sung by its 75-year-old writer and his 88-year-old duet partner. Lloyd Maines’ steel guitar sounds like the “high, slurred whistle” of the blackbird, and St. Genevieve’s prayer for “the young wild cowboys, old drunks, paramours and thieves” is unlikely to change their fate.
“Like Tim Hardin’s ‘Reason To Believe,’” Hubbard says, “I’ve always had that feeling that unless you have a reason to keep going, you’re riding a stone blind horse. In the Lakota language, they refer to that sound a red-winged blackbird makes, as ‘I might die, I might die.’ I couldn’t have written ‘Stone Blind Horses’ 20 years ago. When you get older, you do get a sense of mortality. Death is closing in. OK, but what about today? We don’t know where we’re going; we’re trying to find that reason to believe. I can’t see it; I can only feel it. I try to treat each day with the respect it deserves. Because now I am — in the future I won’t.”
Even though he’s still alive, Hubbard is already on intimate terms with the devil. On his 1999 album, Crusades of the Restless Knights, he recounts a “Conversation with the Devil,” where the latter gives him a Dante-like guided tour of hell, pointing out “the politicians and cops on the take and all the mothers who wait till they get to K-Mart to spank their kids.”
The devil makes three appearances on Hubbard’s 2017 album, Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can. On the title track, the devil is the promoter of a show at Austin’s Continental Club, and the narrator keeps calling from the interstate to say he’s running late — not just for the show but also for every dream he’s ever had.
On the album’s first track, “God Looked Around,” Hubbard rewrites the Book of Genesis as a Lightnin’ Hopkins blues song, replete with Satan in a porkpie hat and a gigolo’s spiel. In a third song, “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels,” the narrator picks up Satan and his posse when they’re hitchhiking in Arkansas. Soon the group is gulping Seagram’s, talking about John Milton and Jimmy Fallon, and trying to get to Mobile before the cops can chase them down.
“I believe in spiritual awakening, not religious conversion,” says Hubbard, trying to explain his personal philosophy. “As an agnostic guy who believes in voodoo, you hope someone’s praying for you. I’ve resigned myself to the four possible outcomes: heaven, hell, nothing or reincarnation. All the comparative religions’ idea of hell is scary. I don’t know if I want to go to heaven because of the clientele. So I prefer reincarnation. I don’t understand it, but it’s as logical as the other three. I try not to steal anxiety from the future.”
Eric Church and Lucinda Williams helped Hubbard sing “Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can” on the album. Not many people bought Hubbard’s early albums such as 1994’s Loco Gringo’s Lament, but Church was one of them. The rare mainstream, male country singer with maverick artistic ambitions, Church is a big fan of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and their many Texas acolytes, Hubbard included. Hubbard was even mentioned in Church’s 2015, Top 15 country single, “Mr. Misunderstood.”
“Judy and I were watching Criminal Minds on TV,” Hubbard recalls, “and I get this text from Ronnie Dunn who says, ‘Eric Church just name-dropped you on the CMA Awards show; turn it on.’ I tell Judy and she says, ‘We’re not changing the channel till Spencer finds the killer.’ A while later, I got a call to meet Eric in Dallas and sing ‘Screw You, We’re from Texas’ with him. Soon after that, I flew up to Nashville on his dime, and we went to a funky cabin in the woods to do some songwriting.”
Once they sat down in the cabin with their guitars and notepads, it was no longer Eric Church the star; it was just two songwriters trading ideas, “the same as writing with Hayes [Carll] or Slaid [Cleaves],” Hubbard says. Church said, “I want to write a song called ‘Desperate Man.’” Hubbard blurted out, “Once I went to a fortune teller, and she said, ‘You’ve got no future.’” Church replied, “That will be the second verse.”
Church released “Desperate Man” in 2018, and it became a Top 10 country hit. Hubbard has released his own version of the song on Co-Starring Too, with the Band of Heathens supplying the harmony vocals. Church likes the new version, telling Hubbard, “It put the needle in the groove.”
But Hubbard’s success as a writer on the country charts hasn’t mellowed his attitude toward the Nashville music establishment. On the new album’s “Fancy Boys,” he describes the devolution of country music like this: “Hank Williams died on New Year’s Day in a Cadillac Fleetwood, and now fancy boys prance around on stages where Waylon once stood.” This caustic chorus is supplemented by four verses, sung in order by Hubbard, Carll, James McMurtry and Dalton Domino.
“That song has got some attitude,” Hubbard explains, “something that Hayes, James and Dalton have in spades. Each verse had to be a different guy, and those were the three ruffian guys I needed for that song.”
“I first saw Ray at a club called the Old Quarter in Galveston, where I was bartending,” remembers Carll. “He had style, was funny as hell and played interesting tunings with mesmerizing fingerpicking patterns and greasy blues licks. The songs were next-level. It was the coolest show I’d been to at that point in my life.
“After the show I introduced myself, and soon I started getting to open for him here and there,” Carll continues. “He was incredibly generous in every way imaginable. I didn’t know much about life on the road, the craft of songwriting or how to keep a crowd entertained. He was encouraging and helpful and soon became a mentor. Soon after that, he released Eternal and Lowdown — that album was a game-changer for me.”
“You don’t turn down a Ray session,” adds McMurtry. “As a teenager, I was a fan of the outlaw scene of which Ray was a big part. I wore out a vinyl copy of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua, on which Ray was verbally credited as the writer of ‘Redneck Mother,’ so I knew he’d made a mark on the world. I didn’t become familiar with the rest of Ray’s work until the mid-’90s, when Ray and I were alternately working the road with the same rhythm section, Ronnie Johnson on bass and Ron Erwin on drums. Those boys had some stories.”
Like Hubbard’s best songs, “Fancy Boys” hides an undercurrent of dark irony under a series of jokes. The end of the final verse is a wicked jab at country radio playlists: “Willie said roll him up and smoke him / It’d be easier with a bong / Just throw my ashes in the face / Of who’s got this week’s number-one country song.” Yeah, it’s funny to think of Willie Nelson’s incinerated bones tossed toward the stage during the CMA Awards finale, but if you think about it too long, it’s heartbreaking that it’s come to this.
“Hayes is fearless when he writes,” Hubbard says admiringly, “but he writes with a sense of humor. McMurtry says things that are interesting, like, ‘Mama hasn’t seen the stars since we got the satellite dish.’ It’s tragic that she doesn’t go outside anymore, but it’s also kind of funny. Like Warren Zevon, Randy Newman and Shel Silverstein, they can write with humor and also with something that can break your heart. You look at Johnny Cash, an icon, but he not only did ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ but also ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ It’s important to recognize both the tragedy and humor in life, because both are there.”
Hubbard is under no illusion that his new album is going to top the country charts, but maybe it will be heard by some unexpected listeners and lead to more unthought-of collaborations. At the very least, it should do well enough for him to make the next album and sell out Gruene Hall. It will keep the family business going: Ray Wylie will write the songs and sing them; his wife Judy will handle the business; and their son Lucas will play lead guitar on stage.
“If it weren’t for Judy,” Hubbard admits, “everything I own would be in a shoebox, and I’d be looking for a Happy Meal. I don’t know how to deal with publishing and agents. I’ve got my boy playing guitar with me, and he’s turning into a hot-shot guitar player. They keep me dog-paddling in this show-business ocean. I may not reach shore, but I’m not sinking.”
Lead photo by David McClister