Ray Wylie Hubbard's The Ruffian's Misfortune backs deep blues (“Down by the River”) with rich narratives (“Stone Blind Horses”). CMT Edge spoke with the Austin-area songwriter about escaping a “honky-tonk fog,” his writing process and the excellent new collection.
“He has a style that just seems to roll out of him,” folk-rocker William Elliott Whitmore recently told CMT Edge. “Those lyrics just seem to flow so effortlessly from him and they tell such concise story. Nothing seems pretentious. It's just natural.”
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
Hubbard: Well, they're all new songs. I have three co-writes with Jonathan Tyler (“Hey, Mama, My Time Ain't Long”), a young rock ‘n’ roll guy, and a song with the Dirty River Boys (“Down by the River”) and I have a co-write with Ronnie Dunn on the thing (“Bad on Fords”). All the rest are mine.
Explain the album title.
This is actually the middle part of a trilogy. The last record was called The Grifter's Hymnal. This one's The Ruffian's Misfortune. The next one I'm working on is called The Rogue's Ascension. They fit together. I have about four or five songs written for the next one. The albums are kind of a play on words. Misfortune. Missed fortune. I enjoy that. I don't know why, but it just feels right now.
The next album title sounds like it's wrapping up in a positive way.
Yeah, I hope so. I hope that's the way it comes across. This record has a foot in both worlds. It has some old dirty roots rock and blues and some downright country gospel, and it ends with folk rock.
There's a line in “Mr. Musselwhite's Blues”: “It's a savior if you've got the blues.” True?
Yeah. I feel very fortunate to have seen Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins and Freddie King. I got to hang out and meet them. That's always been a very precious moment in time for me. I started off in folk music in high school with Dylan, and then you get into Woody Guthrie and the Cambridge folk singers. The lyrics were very important to me, but then when you get into fingerpicking with the dirty Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker groove, it was natural to bring a marriage to the two. Hopefully, the lyrics have a little depth and weight, but you lay it down with a deep groove. It's a very natural place for me to be. Now that you brought that to light, the blues did save me. (laughs)
Explain how exactly.
Well, you know, I came out of this honky-tonk fog that I'd been in. I felt very fortunate to be around Austin during the progressive country scare, as Steven Fromholtz called it, and run around with guys like Jerry Jeff Walker and Michael (Martin) Murphey and Rusty Weir and that whole cosmic cowboy environment, but I kind of burned all my bridges. At 42, I didn't have much of a career besides playing shows at the airport lounge. Once I got into the fingerpicking and the deep groove, I actually was in the music business. (laughs)
That started in the '90s, right?
The first record that I really did where I could look somebody in the eye was (1994's) Loco Gringo's Lament. All the ones in my 20s and 30s had excuses duct taped to them. Now, learning how to play blues guitar, I actually have a career.
Explain what made Lightnin' stand out.
I was a Mance and a Lightnin' guy. Mance had such a personality onstage. He was a songster, but he told stories and he was funny and witty. Lightnin' was just dark and cool. Lightnin' would play these funky clubs. He'd follow full bands. He'd follow someone like Bugs Henderson … with a full band, and Lightnin' would just come out with his old Gibson and plug into an amp and as a solo act would just mesmerize people. He also had such an incredible charisma. Nobody will ever play like Lightnin', but to be an old cat playing in the ballpark is cool.
You make Mance and Lightnin' sound like a Beatles-versu- Stones debate in Texas blues.
Yeah, you kind of had to pick one or the other back in the day. I loved them both.
Back to today, did you bring 'Down by the River' to the Dirty River Boys?
They brought it to me. Of course, being from El Paso, they're very aware of the drug violence going on and the tragedy and horror of it. So, they said they wanted to write a song about that and I showed up with: “Undertakers look like crows/Red eyes dressed in black.” That was the impression I got. I brought that to the table, and they had a cool groove.
How did “Stone Blind Horses” come to you?
I'd had that melody a long, long time. I'd worked on that song with Ronnie Dunn up in Nashville, but we could never get the lyrics together. So, one night around 3 o'clock, I got in one of those frames of mind looking back over my life and thinking of where I was. I think the idea of that song is, “I hope God grades on a curve.” (laughs) I have some wreckage in the past, but now I 'm trying to live on certain spiritual principals like being honest and all that stuff. I was just thinking, “Here I am hoping someone will say a prayer for me because that's all I've got.”
Do words typically come out that fast?
It's a very mysterious process for me. It's such a joy and an anguish. You anguish over it to make it right. Some songs I work on for a month, two months. Sometimes you write it and just need a quick edit or rewrite and it's done. There's not one certain way.
That song reminds me of Cheatham Street Warehouse owner Kent Finlay, who recently died.
Yeah. In Buddhism, the term Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who helps others without selfish attachment. I think that's what Kent was. He helped a lot of young writers without doing it selfishly. He was just trying to get these young writers to be the best they could. He was a dear friend.
You help younger writers, too.
It keeps me on my toes to write with younger writers. I write with a guy like Jonathan Tyler or those cats from the Dirty River Boys or Hayes (Carll). I can't get lazy. I have so much respect for them as writers that I have to bring my A-game to the table. I really enjoy it. You say, “Hey, man, instead of making that E like that, try making it like this.” You see their eyes light up when you show them an old blues lick or a weird chord. I feel really fortunate.