- Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
References to God, Lucifer and prayer populate the song titles on “Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can,” Wimberley singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard’s latest album. Preoccupations with such metaphysical matters are no surprise coming from Hubbard, who’s long been known to dig deep with his character explorations.
But he’s always leavened such weighty considerations with lighter fare as well. After all, this is the guy who first became widely known as the author of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Redneck Mother” anthem, as well as his own crazy “Snake Farm” salute to a Central Texas tourist attraction.
And then there’s “Screw You, We’re From Texas,” which has attracted such a broad cult following that it led to guest appearances on Hubbard’s new album by Nashville country star Eric Church and Austin psych-rock band Bright Light Social Hour.
Both artists, Hubbard explained by phone from a tour stop in the Pacific Northwest last week, had invited him in recent years to sing the song with them onstage at shows in Texas. That led him to recruit them when he started recording “Tell the Devil.” Church appears alongside Lucinda Williams on the title track, a song that Hubbard says felt central to the album’s spirit. “Those themes run through a bunch of the songs,” he says of the devil-and-deity duality.
One other key guest on the record is Austin singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, and the story behind her appearance is sadly beautiful. The closing track, “In Times of Cold,” was written after everything else on the album was completed. Hubbard took the tune to George Reiff, who’d produced Hubbard’s last two albums and had been scheduled to do this one before he was diagnosed in 2016 with an aggressive cancer that took his life this past spring.
“I played it for him, and he said, ‘Let’s record it,’” Hubbard says. “He was pretty weak at the time, but we set up a mic, and I just played it. And he goes, ‘You know, Patty Griffin would really sound good on that. I think I’ll call her.’
“About a week later, he called me up and said, ‘I got Patty on it.’ And then he sent it to me, and it broke my heart.”
The sweetness of Griffin’s angelic lilt provides a perfect harmony to Hubbard’s weary drawl: “I’ll not see my love again, and in times of cold, she’ll be alone as well.”
“He always would put the music first, because he cared so much,” Hubbard says of Reiff. “And I learned so much from him, too. Not just music, but how to handle yourself.
“I don’t think you could ever think of George not fondly. I don’t know anybody who would ever think of him any other way. So I dedicated the album to him.”
We spoke at length with Hubbard about many other aspects of his new album, which he’ll feature when he plays Aug. 10 at Shady Grove as part of KGSR’s “Unplugged at the Grove” series. He’ll also be at Waterloo Records for a free in-store performance Aug. 15.
American-Statesman: With songs named after the devil, Lucifer, God and prayer, are you trying to tell us something on this new record?
Ray Wylie Hubbard: It’s not really a concept album, but it does start off with my retelling the book of Genesis, and then it ends up with me pleading my case before the court of heaven. So it has kind of a beginning and an end, I suppose. But when I write songs, I don’t really think of it like that. … With “Lucifer” (the song “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels”), I kind of tell my own little story in there. I get to put my little digs in about Nashville, but it’s better if someone else says it, because there’s more authority if Lucifer says it.
The song “Spider Snaker and Little Sun” is a great song about Koerner, Ray & Glover, a 1960s folk trio that was largely underappreciated. Was that kind of the point?
The first time I heard (1963’s) “Blues, Rags and Hollers,” I went, “Whoa.” I just loved that record, and I still do. So it was just one of those things where I had the lick and was listening to them. They’re pretty obscure, but then on my other records, I wrote a song about Charlie Musselwhite, and I wrote one about Jessie Mae Hemphill. So I enjoy that. Someone listens to my record and goes, “Who are these guys?” And they go find those guys. That’s gratifying in a weird way because they meant so much to me.
The song “Open G” might be the first song I’ve ever heard written about a guitar tuning. What led you to that?
I was playing in open G and started coming up with that groove, and then I said, “Well, what’s this about?” And I went, “Well, let’s see, you take the E string” — and it just kind of happened. … I’d had the line for a long, long time about “shaking the jelly on the plate.” I can’t remember who told me about it, but when you play slide guitar, you want to keep that slide moving; you can’t just get it right over the fret and leave it. … And there’s certain words that are just really cool, too, that I enjoy; you know, “resonate,” what a great word. So it kind of fell into place, and I went, “Yeah, why not?”
I’ve mentioned this before, too, but I sleep with the president of my record label. Which is not Clive Davis; it’s Judy (Hubbard, his wife). She says, “You write whatever you want to write, and you make the record you want to make, and I’ll try to sell the damn things.” For a writer, that’s really a good place to be.
You recorded the song “Rebellious Son” with Bright Light Social Hour. How did that come about?
Well, I’d met them at a show or some fundraiser somewhere. And then they were playing outdoors at Stubb’s, and they called me up and said, “We want you to come down and sing a song with us.” And I said, “Well, man, I’m not that psychedelic type guy.” And they said, “Well, we want you to sing ‘Screw You, We’re From Texas.’” So Lucas (Hubbard’s son and lead guitarist) and I went out there and did “Screw You” with those guys, and I was just floored with their musical ability.
We kept in touch, and then I had that song (“Rebellious Son”), and it was kind of like that whole mythology of this dark mystic world, a “Game of Thrones” thing or something. And I thought, this is something that I know my guys could do, Lucas and Kyle (Snyder, his drummer), but to have Bright Light Social Hour come in — that’s where it needs to be. So I called them up, and we went into the studio with them. It’s the first recording I’ve ever done with a synthesizer (laughs). It just seemed to fit, the way they just took it to another place. They put me into their world of this cool-ass psychedelic rock thing.
Lucas has become an important part of your music. Is that a surprise to you, or did you kind of see that coming as he was growing up?
Well, I’ve never told him what to play, or even when to play. But being in Austin, he’s seen players like Derek O’Brien and Gurf Morlix and Scrappy Jud (Newcomb), just lowdown guitar players. He’s kind of hung around those guys and watched them; they showed him some licks and stuff. But he’s kind of developed his own style now.
I’ve never really forced him. He took a year off and went up to Beaver Creek (in Colorado), worked for the ski area shoveling snow and snowboarding for a year. And then he came back, and he’s been playing with me. He’s really turning into one of the guitar players like Gurf and Scrappy and (James) McMurtry; they’ve got a little more dirt and grease on them. I’m very proud of him, and he’s earned the gig; it’s not just nepotism. When he was little, I’d bring him out and show him off, and he’d play “The Thrill Is Gone.” But he listens, and besides learning licks, he’s also learning about tone, and I think that’s important, too.
You published your memoir, “A Life…Well, Lived,” a couple of years ago. Was it more fun than writing songs, or was it more work?
It’s different. Because it didn’t have to rhyme (laughs). But you’ve got to dig deep, I guess, and you anguish over it. Writing is like a joy and an anguish: You anguish over it, you want to get it right, and make sure it works, and then it’s a joy when you go, “OK, that’s good, that works.” So it was kind of both. I enjoyed parts of it, and some of it, I went, uhhh, boy, that just kind of brings back some bad stuff. But then once it was done, I felt really good about it. And then I wanted to put in Judy’s thing at the end that she’d written a long time ago, about her. So we put that as the afterword, to kind of validate it (laughs), that what I said earlier was, you know, pretty close to the truth.