Down in Austin, Texas folks have always known that if local hero Ray Wylie Hubbard was ever given a proper platform for his maverick talent, great things would happen. You will never hear anyone weave such ingenious, wit-laden poetry into songs about on life, music, guitars and tone like this man can. Amid odes to Les Paul goldtops and stripper girlfriends, Fender tweeds and ‘sanctified J-45s’ is Down Home Country Blues, which signals his intent – ‘I’m partial to ol’ Hooker, singing the Crawlin’ King Snake, and I can say that Muddy Waters is as deep as William Blake. So listen up!’
‘I really do believe that,’ confirms Hubbard. ‘Muddy’s writing reaches in and just grabs your soul and shakes it. I’m a great believer in honouring the roots and I write about what interests me. I’m just in love with old guitars and old tube amps, so I write about what I enjoy.’
Hubbard is a veteran of the ‘outlaw country’ or ‘progressive country’ scene of the ’70s, but his unconventional country blues never quite fitted with the needs of the mainstream. ‘I was really in a folk rock group – Three Faces West with Rick Fowler and Wayne Kidd, who played what they coined “cosmic cowboy music” – and all of a sudden that outlaw country thing just exploded. I was still playing folk songs, but I was now playing in honkytonks and beer joints,’ he explains.
A record label keen to exploit the movement signed Hubbard, resulting in the album Ray Wylie Hubbard And The Cowboy Twinkies (1975). Ray now calls the record ‘unfortunate’. ‘They put girl singers and steel guitar on every track trying to get it right for country radio,’ he sighs. ‘It broke our hearts because it just wasn’t us. I called my lawyer and said, “What can I do?” He said, “Well, you could start drinking, because there’s nothing else you can do.” So I did!
The next 20 years saw Hubbard playing any bar or honky tonk that’d have him, while striving to release his own albums. It was a hard road, and drink and drugs were taking their toll. Then came a meeting with a local legend. ‘I was 41, having some bad problems,’ Ray admits. ‘Stevie Ray [Vaughan] had gotten sober – we didn’t really know each other, but he came down with another fella and took the time to sit down and talk to me. He gave me a little hope.’
Ray’s focus had always been on his lyrics and singing and he’d never really worked on his guitar playing. With Stevie’s advice onboard and clean and sober for the first time in years, he decided if he learned to fingerpick properly it might give his writing a new spark. ‘I called a guy in Dallas, Sam Swank. He got my thumb and my fingers going where they’re supposed to be and I started writing these new songs that became the Loco Gringos Lament album.’
Released in 1994, the record was a turning point; Hubbard now regards it as his first proper solo album. Then came the open tunings and the slide, and soon enough the Ray Wylie Hubbard we hear today was born. ‘I realised I could find the groove, like Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Mance Lipscomb. I sat down and studied that style. That old line about Lightnin’ – it’s true, he’ll start doing a 12-bar and next time around he’ll do a 13-and-a-half-bar and then a 15-bar.
Lightnin’ changed chords when he wanted to, and I’m going “Yeah! Okay!” I had that foundation in lyrics and folk music, but now I finally was able to get some grease and groove to go with it.’
The latest album, The Grifter’s Hymnal, has double helpings of both with Stonesy swing to spare and a barrage of cultured yet bawdy bar-room stanzas – and Ray’s choice of guitars reflects his renegade character.
‘I can’t write mainstream country or pop. My songs kind of lend themselves to unusual, gnarly guitars,’ he explains. The opener, Coricidin Bottle, features a very rare and eccentric Gibson: ‘It’s a 1929 HG-22 that Gibson was using to try and compete with the resonator guitar. It has a round soundhole but four f-holes as well. It’s incredibly funky and I love it.’
The bulk of the recording was done in a 19th century church in Round Top, Texas called the Edythe Bates Chapel. Guitarist George Reiff, who shared production duties with Ray, captured some robust, emotive sounds. ‘Even if you don’t like the singer you’ll like the way it sounds,’ Ray recommends. ‘I think the sonic quality is just beautiful. We had room mics; it’s all pretty much live. We wanted that “divine reverb”.’
George, Audley Freed, Brad Rice and Billy Cassis and even Ray’s son Lucas all added guitar on top of Hubbard’s swaggering bottleneck. ‘We wanted an old Jimmy Reed or Slim Harpo feel, where they just went in and did it. We’re big fans of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, all those cats. We wanted to honour that tone. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of groups doing that today. Even when they try to get retro, the tone just isn’t fucked up enough!’
Hubbard first tried DeArmond pickups when he heard Lightnin’ Hopkins used them and his devotion has grown with every passing year. ‘DeArmonds are like bread and butter, I love ’em – even on acoustics. It would have been a completely different album with PRS or some other new guitar. I’m not dissing them, they have their purpose, but for me that wouldn’t work.’ The guitar on New Year’s Eve At The Gates Of Hell is a case in point – a 1959 Martin D18E. ‘I’ve had that guitar for probably 30 years.
The only other one I’ve ever seen is the one Kurt Cobain played on MTV Unplugged and he had the DeArmond pickup on it too,’ grins Hubbard with approval. ‘They only made 301 of them from 1958-’59 because they sound horrible unplugged, maybe because of all that metal... but then they didn’t sound that good plugged in either! But DeArmonds are wonderful for slide. It’s a kinda one trick pony but it’s a good trick, a very unique sound.’
Ray favours open D and open G for slide and he finally got around to removing his low E string, Keith Richards-style. ‘That’s how I did South Of The River and Gates Of Hell. The weird thing is those songs are in the key of D and I’m in open G with the low string off… it just seemed to work. On South Of The River we wanted that Exile On Main St acoustic sound, so I’m playing a ’67 Gibson Hummingbird that I borrowed from a music store. Hummingbirds have such a great midrange without that low end, so it was perfect.’
Hubbard is addicted to one particular guitar shop. ‘Hill Country Guitars near Wimberly, Texas is one of my favourite places in the world. They’re one of the biggest Collings dealers but they have all these great old guitars too. I just found a ’59 Gretsch Duo Jet. I couldn’t afford it so I called Joe Walsh and said, “Hey, I’ve found this old Duo Jet. I thought of me first but I found out it was $6000, then I thought of you.” He said, “I want it!” so I got it for him… but he’s gonna let me play it.
‘I tell my wife Judy that being middle-aged-crazy means I don’t want a Porsche or a younger girlfriend… I just want all those guitars I used to have. Back in those days we didn’t know those guitars could have been a retirement plan so the ’50s goldtop, the ’54 Tele and the Martin have all gone by the wayside. I still have some really incredibly nice guitars – I’ve got some Gibsons and a ’67 Gretsch Country Gentleman – but the ones I had in my youth, somehow they just got away from me.’ Ray Wylie Hubbard sighs. ‘I kept my old vinyl collection, though. Like a bunch of old girlfriends, I just ended up with them!’