Interview: Ray Wylie Hubbard Turns Friendships Into Powerful Musical Collaborations on ‘Co-Starring’
For decades, Ray Wylie Hubbard resided in relative musical obscurity. Though revered by a cult following of fans in the know, including a bevy of big-name country acts, he didn’t carry a whole lot of general name recognition.
“I mean, you know, I wrote "Redneck Mother" for Jerry Jeff Walker 30-something, 40 years ago,” Hubbard tells The Boot. That song, which both Hubbard and others have been performing for decades, is probably the closest thing he's ever had to "a hit."
“That oughta tell you where I’m at. I’ve never been a mainstream guy,” he adds. “I’ve always been pretty much to the edge. So I’m very, very grateful that I’m kind of getting a little bit of -- that it’s happening now.”
Over the past few years, Hubbard has been enjoying something of a renaissance in country music. In 2018, he joined the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. A year later, he made his long-overdue Grand Ole Opry debut, at the age of 72. He also co-wrote Eric Church’s “Desperate Man,” the chart-topping lead single from the latter’s 2018 studio album of the same name.
“I’ve always been pretty much to the edge. So I’m very, very grateful that ... it’s happening now.”
Church’s admiration for Hubbard is well-documented; the country star sat in with Hubbard during the singer-songwriter's induction ceremony performance at the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, too. But Hubbard had no idea he had a fan in the younger superstar until 2015, when Church name-checked him in the lyrics of his song “Mr. Misunderstood.”
“[My wife] Judy and I were watching Criminal Minds, and all of the sudden, Ronnie Dunn texts me and says, 'Eric Church just name-dropped you in a song at the CMA Awards,'” Hubbard recalls drily. “So I told Judy, ‘Hey, Eric Church is singing about me on the other channel.’ She goes, ‘Well, we’re not changing this channel until Spencer finds the serial killer.’ So I had to wait until the next day.”
Hubbard did more than just listen to the song, though: In the months and years that followed, he began to get to know Church personally. Ultimately, that relationship led to the two men penning "Desperate Man" together.
“[He was just so gracious and fun,” Hubbard explains. “I’ve found, really, that Nashville’s been very embracing. You know? It’s been so fun and interesting. Like I say, I’m very grateful for it.”
Hubbard’s new album, Co-Starring, is a testament to the power of his musical community, and to the sheer weight his name holds in Music City. The project’s tracklist is filled with an impressive cast of characters, from relative newcomers such as Aaron Lee Tasjan and Ashley McBryde to titans including Ronnie Dunn, Pam Tillis and Ringo Starr. Hubbard’s songwriting talents have long been self-evident, but the project, out Friday (July 10), shines fresh light on his knack for collaboration and his ability to pair a song with its perfect collaborator.
In the beginning, Hubbard says, he didn’t exactly set out to make a duets project, though. “It wasn’t a preconceived idea,” he explains. “I got to open some shows for the Cadillac Three, and I had this funky little song called "Fast Left Hand," so I called them up and said, ‘Hey man, you wanna go in the studio and track with me?’ And they said, ‘Sure.’”
That situation kept happening, over and over again, with Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown, Larkin Poe and Tasjan. Hubbard would either have written a song with an artist or simply have a song that reminded him of that artist, and, on a whim, he’d ask if they wanted to record it with him. People kept saying yes, and before Hubbard knew it, he had a body of work on his hands.
At a Nashville event in July of 2019, Hubbard ran into someone who passed along his project to Big Machine Label Group’s Scott Borchetta. The album sparked Borchetta’s interest, and he told Hubbard that he wanted to put it out on his record label.
“I went, ‘Well, you know, I’m kind of an old folk blues cat. I’m really not very mainstream at all,’” Hubbard remembers. “He said, ‘I really believe in your songwriting. I really believe in this record. I’d like to hopefully make more people aware of what you’re doing.’”
The album was already mixed, and Big Machine decided to put it out pretty much as it was -- a gratifying shot of confidence for Hubbard, who seems to have remained a little bemused by how much enthusiasm his new album is garnering from the industry. As he says, most of his by-then-lengthy career had taken place around the fringes of the genre.
Now in his early 70s, Hubbard is still experiencing career firsts, especially when it comes to being in the mainstream Nashville spotlight. "It was quite a thrill. We’ve just been really, really fortunate, and really happy,” the singer says of the recording process, both in terms of finding a label for his project and also in light of the wide array of artists who helped him bring the music to life.
“I’ve found, really, that Nashville’s been very embracing. You know? It’s been so fun and interesting."
Hubbard puts camaraderie with his musical peers at the center of every step of Co-Starring, and the singer’s friendships also play a hefty role in other elements of his career these days, such as his Grand Ole Opry debut.
“I was in the Nashville airport, I was walking along, and then I hear behind me, ‘Ray Wylie!’ I turn around, and it’s Pam Tillis,” he recalls with a laugh. “She goes, ‘I recognize the back of her head.’ We just kinda hit it off.
"And then when she was in Texas, we wrote some songs together, and went in the studio and recorded, and she said, ‘Have you ever done the Grand Ole Opry?’ And I said, ‘No, I never have.’ She said, ‘Well, let me see what’s going on with that,'" Hubbard continues. "Then all of the sudden I get this call to do the Grand Ole Opry.”
Of course, Hubbard didn’t make his debut alone: He called on Tillis to join him for a performance of “The Messenger,” and he asked Larkin Poe to take the stage with him that night, too.
In conversation with Hubbard these days, it makes sense that he would favor a duets project for his newest album. Musical camaraderie and community are deeply important to him, and as proud as he is that his “co-stars” joined him for the album, it’s even more meaningful to him that he has substantial personal relationships with them all.
“It’s just kind of a mutual respect there, or something,” he reflects. “I asked them to do this and they said, ‘Sure,’ and I’m so honored that they did. I’m very, very proud of it, as a matter of fact. And it’s not just because they played on my record. I value that I can call them friends.”