Interview: Ray Wylie Hubbard Discusses Writing a Book, Spiritual Awakening and Country Music
It’s hard to imagine, but at 68 years old, esteemed songwriter and outlaw country music legend Ray Wylie Hubbard is creating some of the best material of his life.
In addition to releasing his latest album, the gritty The Ruffian’s Misfortune, last year, Hubbard also unveiled his unforgettable memoir, A Life … Well, Lived. Packed with a mix of autobiographical tellings and hilarious streams of consciousness, the book manages to capture what Hubbard’s fans have known for decades: The man is hysterical, honest and downright direct.
In the midst of his seemingly always-packed tour schedule, Hubbard took some time to catch up with The Boot about the new book and album. Chatting the morning after a show at Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe in Galveston, Texas — a club owned by Rex Bell, who used to play with Townes Van Zandt — Hubbard explains why he decided to write this book now, how he seems to be learning new things every year and what fans can expect from him in 2016.
It’s safe to say 2015 wasn’t too bad of a year for you.
Yeah, it was a good year.
Are you surprised you managed to release both a new album and a memoir within months of each other?
Well, it was kind of one of those things, you know: We knew the record was coming out, but we weren’t sure about the book. I was kind of dragging my feet. My friend, Thom Jurek, kept poking me with a stick, saying, “You need to get it done.” I mean, it was done, but it was just laying there.
We made a conscious decision that we were really going to get out and work this year, so we were all over supporting this record. We hit it pretty hard. Then the book came out, and people seemed to like it. It’s an easy, hopefully fun, read, and hopefully some people get something out of it.
It’s definitely fun, and I think what makes it stand out from other memoirs is the mix of straightforward autobiography and your unadulterated streams of consciousness.
I didn’t write the second thing that came to my mind. [Laughs] I just did it, you know? I wrote everything, but Thom definitely helped me organize things. He helped me give it a sense of real literature with that stream-of-consciousness stuff.
One of the difficult things about it was going through the pictures, the wreckage of the past. Like, I saw this picture and thought, “Oh how cool, it’s me and Willie Nelson, we’ll definitely put that in there.” And then I was like, “Wait a minute … we both have mullets!” [Laughs] It was the ‘80s, man. Of course we put that in there.
I learned quite a bit during the process. For me, I keep trying to learn new things. I learned fingerpicking at age 42, then I learned open tunings, then I learned slide guitar, then I got a mandolin. By learning new things, it gives the song a door to come through that wasn’t there before. If I hadn’t learned open D tuning, I wouldn’t have gotten “All Loose Things.” Learning to write a book, I kind of had to use parts of my brain that I wasn’t used to using.
Now that the book has been out for a few minutes, it’s safe to say the reviews have been unanimous in their praise. Looking back on the process, do you think writing a book is harder than writing songs?
It was easier because I didn’t have to rhyme in it. [Laughs] There are certain laws of music — which I break a lot — that are a bit more meticulous, but even writing the book … You know, writing a song, it’s kind of an anguish and a joy, and that’s how this was.
With each chapter, I tried to approach it with something like a punch line and something a bit more that was striking and important that would make you want to read the next one. It was similar [to my songwriting] in that it looks half-a–ed and thrown together and kind of squirrely, but I kind of like that. A lot of that was definitely on purpose.
Even though Thom has been poking you for awhile, have you always wanted to write a book?
Not really. I really hadn’t even thought about a book … I wrote Thom an email once about when Willie Nelson kidnapped me. I told him if he thought that was funny, what do you think about this? He told me it was really interesting and had a bit of a Tom Sawyer feel to it and told me to try writing more. He helped me put it all in order, sending me questions about the stories, and really helped me organize it. But no, I had never really thought about writing a book before he told me I should do it.
I love the Willie story, and the book is packed with similar tales. I found myself laughing out loud a lot of the time.
Well, these stories are all real. The Texas Redneck Games, that is exactly what that was. I was so embarrassed, you know, [my wife] Judy started off telling me this was going to be a whore dog gig. [Laughs] But the guys I played with, they loved it. It was pretty crazy. [Laughs]
I didn’t really want to go overboard with the drinking and drugs and that stuff; it was there, but I didn’t have to go into a lot of details. And of course, I was so grateful to Stevie Ray [Vaughan] for taking the time to come and talk to me. You know, he was the first cat that I knew who was sober and still had an edge. Most of my friends got sober and ended up on The 700 Club — I did not want to do that.
So, yeah, I put that in there, but I also wanted to talk about how important it was to change the way I thought, trying to set the goal of what I want to do: I’ll never be Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, but I really want to write songs that their audiences might like. I write without compromise … I write whatever the hell I want to write.
You cover a wide spectrum of stories throughout the book. Is there a standout to you?
It was a joy and an anguish, especially the Texas Redneck Games. It was a funny story, but when I pulled up there, there were locusts and four-wheelers. I knew it would be bad but didn’t know it’d be that bad. But I enjoyed writing that one — like I said, it was a joy and an anguish. That’s a favorite.
But there were a lot that brought back great memories. When Lucas was born, Judy asked what I wanted to name him, and I said, “Luke 15:21″ — you know, the Prodigal Son. She kind of said, “Well …” [Laughs] It was one of those moments that I still remember very fondly. It was strange and weird and cool.
Speaking of Lucas and the Book of Luke … A lot of the stories in your younger life have this common thread of you making deals with God to get out of sticky situations. If there is one today, what’s your relationship like with God, so many years after all those deals were made?
Well, I prefer spiritual awakening to religious conversion. I don’t go to church, but I try to live on certain spiritual principles: being honest, not holding resentments, trying to show courage when I need to. My relationship with God is kind of in the corner of my eye: I don’t look directly at it. [Laughs] It’s over there, but, you know, I don’t want to believe anymore than I have to or be any “good-er” than I want.
Because of getting sober and doing the 12 steps and all that stuff, I do have a relationship that works for me. I don’t know if it’ll work for anyone else.
One of the stories that stuck with me was about the Ronnie Dunn session. The way you describe it — Stones-y, Black Crowes-y — I kept thinking, “Why haven’t I heard this yet?!” And then you answer my question in the book: It’s never been released. Does that happen to you a lot, where you work with musicians but the work never makes it out of the studio — and do you think this Dunn session will ever see the light of day?
It’s happened in the past. The thing with Ronnie Dunn, that was such an incredible experience. He came to Austin, we went in there and cut it, and it’s pretty sloppy in a cool kind of way. But then he called me up and said he had another thing going on, and that was kind of that. It happens.
I’ve done some work on records that I’m very proud of that haven’t come out. I hope someday that one will be released. You know, if the doctor ever tells me I have two weeks to live, then I’ll bootleg it. [Laughs] I’ll put it out there and let him sue my heirs.
Perfect, just leave it to Lucas.
It was a fun experience, but it’s one of those things that I have to let go. It used to be a thing where I would really gnaw on resentments and all of the “if onlys” and “what ifs.” In my 20s, I would just sit around and plot. [Laughs] I’ve learned to let that go and just understand that it happened and see what comes of it.
I do enjoy writing with other people. It’s like you get a free song that maybe you weren’t going to write. You run into someone, and you get a bonus.
Near the beginning of the book you explain the offensiveness of you being called a Texas country songwriter. What’s your view of the current state of country music? It seems like it’s always evolving …
Or devolving, yeah.
I’ve never been a country singer. I started out with folk music, [Bob] Dylan and Eric Andersen and Michael Murphy and Townes and Guy and those guys. Those were the guys I aspired to write like. I’ve never been a country singer. I wrote “[Up Against the Wall,] Redneck Mother” as an answer to “Okie From Muskogee.” Even when Willie and Jerry Jeff [Walker] did that aggressive country thing, I was in a band called the Cowboy Twinkies, so that should tell you something.
I never felt a part of country music — you know, the whole thing. I love knowing those guys, but I was never in that business. “Texas country songwriter,” that’s just not what I am. I don’t really even think about it that much. [Laughs] You see these billboards in Texas for radio stations that play the latest hot country, and I’m like, “Thanks for letting me know that I don’t want to listen to you.” [Laughs]
People ask me who I listen to, and I say, “Well, actually, I listen to friends of mine.” Sam Baker, McMurtry, Jon Dee Graham, Aaron Lee Tasjan — they are people who I think I can call friends of mine, people I could call and ask a favor. These are people I feel very fortunate to know.
An album, a book, tons of concerts … What’s next for you?
Well, I’m probably going to do one of these instructional videos. I’ve had a number of people ask about my fingerpicking style, that old kind of dead thumb thing that I do. People ask about my songwriting, too, so that’s all probably coming sometime soon. I’ll try to do it myself, just a DVD about how I learned to fingerpick and then the songwriting side of it. That’s the next thing.