LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Texas troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard will begin his Spring/Summer tour in support of his new album, The Grifter's Hymnal, currently at #2 on the Americana Music Association's radio chart, on May 31st in Seattle.
Whether you're short on time due to an impending apocalypse or simply need a tidy introduction to bring you up to speed on Texas troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard
And what it tells you about Ray Wylie Hubbard — who will shortly head out on the road for June, July and August tour dates across America — is, he's the kind scrapper poet with the devil-may-care wherewithal to write both lay down a groove like a monkey gettin' off" and shakes the mortal coil round my amaranthine soul" into the same song, and the lethal charm and chops to pull it off.
Words are funky," chuckles Hubbard, a voracious reader and seeker who draws as much inspiration from the likes of poet Rainer Maria Rilke as he does from Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. That 'amaranthine soul' line . . . I went somewhere and that word came up, and it means either purple or forever. And I thought, 'yeah, that's the kind of soul I've got.'"
The lay down a groove like a monkey gettin' off" line speaks for itself.
The album really does have a lot of attitude," Hubbard says proudly. We made it to play loud, and I think the sonic quality of it is just beautiful. Even if you don't like the singer or the songs, you'll like the way it sounds."
The sound he was aiming for — and bulls-eyed — recalls many of his favorite rock records of the '60s, with equal doses of Small Faces, Rolling Stones, and Buffalo Springfield. But take his characteristic self-deprecation with a pinch of salt, because for all his love of nailing down a groove (especially over the past decade of his career), Hubbard's ragged- but-right vocals and lyrical wits continue to get better and better with age. So, too, it seems, does his knack for tying his projects up with just the right title.
The whole idea was, I really like those words, grifter and hymnal," he says. The grifter kind of came out of the '20s, kind of like the con man in Paper Moon. He's not really a bad guy, because usually they would only grift people who maybe had it coming because of their own greed. I just like the idea of it — not that I'm so much of a con man, but . . . I'm 65 and still scuffling! I didn't want to peak too soon and I don't want to be a nostalgia act, so I keep trying to learn new things and make it work. The carrot's still out there for me." Hubbard's been chasing that carrot since the '60s, when he started his journey as a folk singer in his native Oklahoma before falling in with the wild and wooly cosmic/outlaw Texas country scene of the '70s — in large part by way of penning the immortal Up Against the Wall (Redneck Mother)," which Jerry Jeff Walker recorded on his seminal 1973 album Viva Terlingua!. Hubbard gigged constantly and recorded sporadically throughout the rest of the '70s and '80s, but it wasn't until he stumbled out of his honky-tonk fog" and into sobriety that his career as a songwriter's songwriter began in earnest, with 1994's Loco Gringo's Lament. He's moved from strength to strength ever since, recording a handful of acclaimed albums with noted producers Lloyd Maines and Gurf Morlix and cementing his standing as one of the most respected artists on the modern Americana scene.
The Grifter's Hymnal, like A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment before it, was co-produced by Hubbard and George Reiff, with tracks recorded at both Reiff's home studio in Austin and at the Edythe Bates Old Chapel, located on the scenic grounds of the Round Top Festival Institute halfway between Austin and Houston. George's musical knowledge is great, and he's an incredible engineer and incredibly open minded," raves Hubbard. And he really cares about arrangements and making each song work from beginning to end. For instance, he's a bassist — he's played with Chris Robinson, Joe Walsh, Kelly Willis, Jakob Dylan, the Dixie Chicks — and yet there's five songs on this album that don't have bass on them, which tells you that as a producer, he knows what's best for each song."
Reiff and Hubbard (acoustic, electric and slide guitar; harmonica) are joined on the record by drummer Rick Richards, legendary keyboard player Ian McLagan (Small Faces, Faces, Rolling Stones), and guitarists Billy Cassis, Brad Rice, Audley Freed, and Hubbard's 18- year-old son, Lucas. And, just for good measure, a Beatle: Ringo Starr contributes vocals, guitar, handclaps and shakers to the album's one cover, his own Coochy Coochy." I'm a grifter — I figured if I did a Ringo Starr song and sent it to him, maybe he'd sing on it!" Hubbard confesses with a laugh.
Actually, Starr has been a Hubbard fan since hearing 2006's Snake Farm, which prompted him to invite both Hubbard and Richards to his home in Los Angeles and to his all-star birthday celebration at Radio City Music Hall. He loved Rick," Hubbard says. He was introducing us to people like, 'This is Ray and this is his drummer. He travels with a drummer — not a bassist, a drummer!' And one afternoon at his house he said something about how he liked my songwriting, and I said, 'Well, I really like your songwriting, too.' And he said, 'Very few think of me as a songwriter, nobody ever cuts any of my songs.' And I said, 'I will!'"
Coochy Coochy" (which first surfaced as a Starr B-side in 1970) provides The Grifter's Hymnal with one of its lighter moments, but it fits right in as part of an album that above all else is a celebration of getting one's rock 'n' roll ya-ya's out. Admittedly, Hubbard notes that a handful of the songs kind of mention God or salvation," while Lazarus" and Moss and Flowers" both address mortality and the haunting Red Badge of Courage" offers a somber meditation on the psychiatric battle scars of war. But sonically, the spirit of the album is best summed up by the call to arms he issues in South of the River": Wake that thing up and put some clothes around it/You lost your prescription, I found it/You need some good rocking, nothing painful . . .
That's not to say The Grifter's Hymnal is all about good times, even when it rocks. New Year's Eve at the Gates of Hell" revisits the songwriter-as-Dante motif of one of Hubbard's most popular (and funny) anthems, Conversation with the Devil," although this time around he turns up the heat and drags a former record-industry business associate down with him, just to watch him burn. Hell, it seems, hath no fury like a call-it-like-he-sees-it grifter/poet/artist screwed. Some of the songs should offend the right people, I hope," Hubbard says with a devilish grin. Or offend the wrong people, let me put it like that." Hubbard stirs up even more smoke — but holds the venom — on the nearly six-minute- long Mother Blues," an exhilarating, mostly factual account of his days paying his dues in a storied Dallas nightclub that hosted all-night parties stocked with dealers, gamblers, strippers, young white hipsters and grizzled black blues legends. That's one of the songs his son Lucas plays lead guitar on, which was only fitting given that the boy's mentioned in the last verse, along with his mother and Hubbard's wife/manager, Judy. (Unbeknownst to Hubbard back in the day, Judy was employed at the time as Mother Blues' teenaged door girl.) It's an epic story song, destined to be a crowd favorite at shows for years to come — and not just because it features what is arguably Hubbard's best (and certainly funniest) line to date: We hit it off like a metaphor."
That line is pure Ray Wylie, but he credits his wife with the song's even more memorable endnote. I heard her say one time that the days she keeps her gratitude higher than her expectations, she has really good days. I filed that away in my head, and it came back to me when we were playing this song live one time, before I really had an ending for it. I told the crowd, 'I'm really grateful to you all for showing up, and I'm grateful for being here with Rick and my kid . . . the days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations are really good days.' And it seemed like the right way to end the song."
It's a theme that comes up again two tracks later, in the chorus to Count My Blessings." For a 65-year-old rock 'n' roll grifter obsessed with the blues, blackbirds and all manner of scoundrels (himself included) having to dance with the devil, Hubbard has no qualms admitting that he's got an awful lot to be thankful for — not the least of which being the opportunity to make records like this one, with longtime friends (Reiff and Richards), personal heroes (McLagan and Starr), and, of course, his boy.
Truth be told, he can't even gripe about current label, Bordello Records, at least not if he knows what's good for him: his wife Judy is the president.
This really was a very special record to me," Hubbard says. It wasn't easy, and some of it really was a struggle, but it was fun. I think each record to me has been a struggle in a way, and I like it that way. I like it that they're all hard to do, because I think that makes them all have more value to me. It makes me kind of reach for a better part of myself. It keeps me from settling."
RAY WYLIE HUBBARD ON TOUR:
- Thurs., May 31 SEATTLE, WA Tractor Tavern
- Fri., June 1 PORTLAND, OR Mississippi Studios
- Sat., June 2 EUGENE, OR WOW Hall
- Tues., June 5 VIRGINIA CITY, NV Red Dog Saloon
- Wed., June 6 WINTERS, CA Palms Playhouse
- Fri., June 8 FELTON, CA Don Quixote's
- Sun., June 10 SAN FRANCISCO, CA Caf Du Nord
- Thurs., June 14 BELTON, TX Schoepf's BBQ
- Fri., June 15 CORSICANA, TX The Remington
- Sat., June 16 GREENVILLE, TX Hunt County Fairgrounds
- Wed., June 20 WASHINGTON, D.C. The Hamilton
- Thurs., June 21 ASHLAND, VA Ashland Coffee and Tea
- Sat., June 23 STAUNTON, VA The Mockingbird Roots Music Hall
- Sun., June 24 CHARLESTON, CA Mountain Stage @ Cultural Center Theater
- Fri., June 29 AUSTIN, TX Threadgill's World HQ
- Fri., July 13 SAN DIEGO, CA Acoustic Music
- Sat., June 30 DECATUR, TX Bono's Saloon
- Thurs., July 19 TELLURIDE, CO Sheridan Opera House
- Fri., July 20 DURANGO, CA The Abbey Theater
- Sat., July 21 COLORADO SPRINGS, CO Stargazers Theater & Event Center
- Sat., July 28 SAN MARCOS, TX Texas Music Theater
- Tues., July 31 SAN ANGELO, TX San Angelo Acoustic Concert Series