“As you get older, you kind of think about your own mortality. I’ve had a bunch of friends who have passed away and so I’ve started to think about that. I’m at that point where I kind of hope God grades on a curve. I’m not a saint and I’m not Attila the Hun, but maybe somewhere in-between.”
His thoughts on longevity aside, Ray Wylie Hubbard was the perennial late bloomer. Although his recording career dates back nearly 40 years, to his 1976 debut album Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies, he’s quick to insist that he really didn’t start to flourish until he was in his mid-forties. By that time he’d already transitioned several times, from folk enthusiast to alt-country pioneer to honky-tonk hero. However it wasn’t until his string of ‘90s recordings, beginning with Loco Gringo’s Lament in 1994, that Hubbard, newly sober for the first time, hit his stride and began making records on which he could stake a reputation.
“I never really had a music career in my 20s and 30s,” Hubbard explains. “I was just kind of floundering around. I was writing, but I never was recording. So Loco Gringo’s Lament was the first record I did where it didn’t come with excuses taped to it. It had mandolins and fiddles and accordions and it was a real folk rock thing. I was 45 years old and I didn’t know if I would ever get another record deal.”
In a very real sense, Hubbard was starting over. “I don’t know if I reinvented myself, but I kind of got into being a real songwriter in my 40s,” Hubbard recalls. “I learned to play guitar all over again, took lessons and learned fingerpicking. I got into country blues – Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Doc Watson and that sort of thing. Lyrics are very important in folk music, so it was kind of a good foundation to start out in folk and then build in that finger picking technique with that deep groove. So like I said, I don’t know if I reinvented myself but I’m in a comfortable place now.”
Hubbard’s new album, slyly titled The Ruffian’s Misfortune, deliberately retraces an archival sound that effectively emulates those who initially established the template. “We went into the studio trying to capture the vibe that was prevalent on the Beatles’ first record, the first Rolling Stones record, the first Buffalo Springfield record,” he explains. “They didn’t have a lot of pedals. They didn’t have a lot of time. They’d go in there and plug directly into the amp. They didn’t change their drum heads. They didn’t even change their strings. And so what you hear is real guys and real playing. We didn’t use a lot of gadgets either. We used old amps and even left the hum on (laughs). When you listen to those old ‘60s records, you could hear the amps buzz. You could hear the string noises. It added to the reality of it and added to the beauty of it.”
Hubbard’s recording methods were honed while revamping his career in the ‘90s, thanks in large part to the oversight of producer Gurf Morlix, who remained behind the boards on many of those seminal efforts. It’s a dusty, dirty sound –gruff for the most part and uncompromising to say the least. While the intention might have been deliberate, in practice, their methods all but ensured the results.
It also helps that he records for his own independent label – run by his wife, no less – and that he’s not under any pressure to attain a certain sales strata. As a result, his criteria is narrowed considerably.
“I just try to write some good songs and make the best record I can,” Hubbard insists. “I can’t recommend this for everybody, but sleeping with the president of the record company helps. She tells me, ‘You write your songs and I’ll try to sell them.’ So I have that freedom to write whatever I want. That’s a great place to be, to be able to tap that freedom so some publishing company doesn’t have to get their cut. I don’t have to write a love song for Kenny Chesney or somebody else to record. It doesn’t really matter to me if people understand what it’s all about it or not, as long as it sounds good.”
In a sense, Hubbard’s attitude parallels a view that’s prevalent in Americana realms these days. Make the music for the sake of the music, not for any purpose other than to share it and reinforce the communal bond. It’s a populist notion that Hubbard has been quick to embrace.
“It’s really good that roots music is getting recognized and gaining traction,” Hubbard observes. “You talk about bluegrass, and suddenly a guy named Sam Bush is getting known outside that genre and they know him in L.A. and they know him in the rock clubs. Same thing with a lot of these guys. It has to do with the emergence of the whole Americana thing. It’s a combination of bluegrass, blues, folk and roots rock, and yet it also has to have something about it that makes it good. There’s a certain integrity about it. The types of people who are making it are artists, not necessarily celebrities. They’re not doing it because they want to be rock stars. They’re doing it because there’s something they want to share, something they want to express.”
To hear Hubbard talk about it, it becomes clear that music is more important to him than ever, and that at age 68, he considers himself a part of a tradition passed down over the decades. “I think the music we’re discussing here is the kind that touches all of us in a way,” he suggests. “It touches our humanity. Once people become aware of the Americana genre, then all of a sudden they’re going to seek out. Of course, the whole O Brother Where Art Thou phenomenon brought a lot of that music to the mainstream. Once people hear it, they can’t go back (laughs). Once you hear someone like Lucinda Williams and Nanci Griffith and Doc Watson, it’s hard to listen to the stuff that’s coming out of the Nashville corporate record labels. This is the real deal. This music is significant.
“Here’s a little story for you,” Hubbard offers. “When I was recording one of my early records with Gurf, I was playing some slide guitar. My slide hit the neck and made this kind of plunk sound. So I stopped, and Gurf asked me what I stopped for. So I said, ‘The slide hit the wood. And he said, ‘Lightning Hopkins wouldn’t have stopped. But the Eagles would have!’ It wasn’t a putdown of the Eagles. It was more like what kind of record do you want to make. The point is, the performance is just as important as perfection. Some of those albums, they may not have been perfect, but the performance worked. So we went in with the idea to make a record where people might not like the singer or the song, but hopefully they’ll like the sound.”