Q&A: Ray Wylie Hubbard talks 'dead thumb' guitar playing, working with Willie Nelson, and more

Long before the release of his newest album, "The Ruffian's Misfortune," Texas-based songwriter and guitar-slayer Ray Wylie Hubbard joined the pantheon of country-blues rock gods he so often enshrines in his songs. "Misfortune" is a hearty stew of gritty, greasy blues licks grounded in Hubbard's gothic-inflected folk songwriting. The idea of bad luck—or bad choices, depending on how you look at it—and redemption runs through the whole album, or, as Hubbard put it in an interview, "If there's a theme to the album it's that I hope God grades on a curve." He conjures a world inhabited by down-on-their-luck cowboys, drunks, bar singers, punks, strippers, gangsters, car thieves, gamblers, hookers, and cops. Hubbard himself is the antithesis of the cookie-cutter modern country or "folk" star—a scruffy lightnin-struck lowdown cat in purple-tinted round frames and a scarf, playing the kind of music that fans of Bob Dylan and fans of Weedeater could equally enjoy. I talked with Hubbard about his new record, his songwriting and influences, and his connection to honky-tonk legend Gary Stewart.

City Paper: Tell me about your new record, "The Ruffian's Misfortune," and how that came about. It has a very gothic feel to it, and lots of birds.
Ray Wylie Hubbard: This is second album of a trilogy. The first one was "The Grifter's Hymnal," this one is "The Ruffian's Misfortune," and the next one—I already have four or five songs written—will be called "The Rogue's Ascension." So it all kind of fits, I like these old titles from old novels from the 1800s from Hawthorne and Poe: "The Count of Monte Cristo," "The House of Seven Gables." "The Ruffian's Misfortune," to me, sounded something like that. My father was an English teacher at a school in southeast Oklahoma, he was a teacher and a principal and coach, because it was one school where first through 12th grade was in this one building. First grade had like eight kids, it was a real small school up there. So when I was young, he would read to me like "The Tale of Two Cities" and "The Raven." This whole new record starts off with blackbirds singing. So I'm big fan of "The Raven," it still influences me, it scared me when my dad read it to me as a kid. It was terrifying. So I like birds and animals that talk.

I feel very fortunate that I don't have to write for a publishing company to try to get a cut. I'm not like those Nashville cats where I have to write a song and see if I can get Kenny Chesney to cut it or write a song because I owe a publishing company 12 a year. I can't recommend this for everybody, but sleeping with the president of your record label—and I'm not talking about Clive Davis, I'm talking about my wife Judy—which is really cool because she says you write whatever you want and I will try to sell the damn things. So that's a good place for me because I can write about blackbirds and scarecrows singing a Kevin Welch song, I have that freedom. I think the writers that I really like, like James McMurtry and Gurf Morlix and those cats, I feel very fortunate that they can just write, they are not in a box to write for any particular reason except to write the best song they can.

CP: There's a song on there about the blues legend Jessie Mae Hemphill, how did you get turned on to her?
RWH: I got turned on to Jessie Mae along time ago, I found her and just loved that dead-thumb style of playing. I started off playing folk music in high school. I went to high school in Dallas with Michael Murphy and B.W. Stevenson and Larry Groce, who's now host of Mountain Stage. So I got involved in folk music through Dylan, of course, and through Dylan you discover Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and Jimmie Rodgers, and then the Cambridge folk guys—Paul Siebel and Eric Anderson and Tim Hardin and that whole folk scene. That's where I started off so I have that foundation. And then in my 40s, somewhere in there, I wanted to learn to fingerpick and play guitar like Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, because I'd seen those cats when I was younger but I never could play like that, I never could quite figure it out. So when I was 41, I came out of this honky-tonk fog I'd been in and said, OK by God, I'm gonna try to do this and I got real into guitar and trying to learn fingerpicking like Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' and Jessie Mae, what I call that "dead thumb" technique where you keep that old E-string going. Right now it's a really good place where I feel like I've got that foundation in folk music and I can take those lyrics and throw them on top of a deep groove. Like I said, I'm not writing songs for a publishing company or trying to write hits, I just write about what I admire and talk about guitars and amps and I'm very grateful. I'm not a full-tilt pure blues guy or a full-tilt rock guy, and I've never been a country guy or a real folk purist. But I've been influenced by all of that music. I'm an old cat, so I feel fortunate to have seen Lightnin' and Mance and Freddie King, but also saw Ernest Tubb and Gary Stewart and Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. And the rock guys, The 13th Floor Elevators and ZZ Top; before they were ZZ Top, they were the Moving Sidewalks. So I've seen all of that and I love it all.

CP: Did you know Gary Stewart? He's one of my favorite country singers.
RWH: Yeah, in fact I've got a Coricidin bottle that Gary Stewart gave me, it's in a pill bottle and on this pill bottle it says "Duane Allman's Slide - Gary Stewart." Gary gave me that and he said he got from Duane Allman. I don't have any proof of that except for the signature on it from Gary, I never take it out of the house but it's in a funky old pill bottle. That was 1998, and Gary, sometimes you couldn't always believe what he said. We were always drinking back then, but somewhere in Dallas he said "here" and gave it to me, it's one of my prized possessions. On the pill bottle it says "may cause drowsiness or dizziness." Everybody thinks of Gary as that country guy, 'Drinkin' Thing' and all that. But he could play some slide and get down and do that southern rock Allman Brothers stuff and just nail it as good as anyone.

CP: You have another song on the album about female lead singers, 'Chick Singer, Badass Rockin'.' What inspired you to write that?
RWH: Well Sylvie Simmons, I read her book on Leonard Cohen, "I'm Your Man," and just loved it and then got in a correspondence with her on Facebook. So when I started writing this song about a really wild young female rocker, the Joan Jetts and Chrissie Hyndes and the young girls I know here like the Trishas and Carolyn Wonderland. They are not doing this to be a celebrity, they are not doing it to be Taylor Swift or Madonna or Katy Perry, they are doing it because they have something in them they want to write and rock. There are some girls down here in Austin, Carolyn Wonderland is a badass guitar player, she's great. So in that song, I was reading the Sylvie Simmons book and I said, I'll just throw that in there, why not? (laughs) It's kind of fun sometimes. You never know where the inspiration is gonna come from and you hope someone will say, "Who is Kevin Welch or Sylvie Simmons?" and then start digging on them.

CP: Did  you ever live in Nashville and try your hand at traditional country?
RWH: No, I wrote '[Up Against the Wall], Redneck Mother,' man. (laughs). Never been a Nashville cat. Like I said, I started off in folk music and kind of had a folk rock band and then all of a sudden Willie moved to Austin and Jerry Jeff Walker and Michael Murphy and the whole progressive outlaw country thing happened. But I was a folk guy and I wrote 'Redneck Mother' as kind of an answer to 'Okie from Muskogee' and 'Fightin' Side of Me,' it was a hippie song. And then Jerry Jeff cut it, and for some reason rednecks with big ol' beer guts started singing along and it was strange that it happened. So I've never been a country singer at all, even though I was influenced by country music, the good stuff.

CP: And you were signed to Willie Nelson's short-lived Lone Star Records?
RWH: Yeah. Somewhere around 1978 Willie's contract with Columbia was coming to an end and Polygram was courting him and offered him his own record label. So he got all his buddies like me and Billy Calvary, and I was the first record they were gonna put out. He called me up and asked if I had anything ready to go, and I said, Well, I got a bunch of demos, and he asked me to get 'em together. So I put all of them together and mixed them in on a Friday and borrowed a shirt on Monday, took a photo, and met the guy at the airport and gave him the mixes and the photos to put out an album. Well, about four months later he re-signed with Columbia, and so Polygram had no use for his hoodlum friends so they stopped the deal. So Willie called me up and said the record executives left with all of the money and so you can play all of my picnics from now on, so I been playing his 4th of July picnics about the last 30 years (laughs).

Ray Wylie Hubbard is performing at 8 p.m. tonight at the Creative Alliance.

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