A Conversation Starring Ray Wylie Hubbard

If you’re talking accomplishments, Ray Wylie Hubbard’s résumé checks all the boxes. Yet the legendary folk rambler has never been interested in accolades or personal achievements.

“I try to keep learning and doing new things. I don’t really go back and think in that way,” he says. “I just kind at look at well, here’s what I want to do next.”

At 73 years old, the longtime Texas native is making some of the most exciting music of his career – quite a feat considering Hubbard was a part of many notable songwriting scenes in the late 20th century and up through the past two decades when he’s released some of his most well-received albums.

As a young amateur in the 1960s, Hubbard studied blues and folk legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Woody Guthrie. In the 70s and 80s, he ran in circles that included the likes of Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Waylon Jennings. Subsequent years saw him launch into a solo career of his own, a period when he would pen some of his most iconic songs like “Mother Blues,” “Snake Farm” and “Conversation with the Devil.” Fast forward to 2020, and the culmination of vast influences from all roads of American music continues to surface in his new material.

Hubbard’s new album Co-Starring – his 17th studio release – arrives today on Big Machine Records. As its title implies, it’s a star-studded effort, featuring contributions from a large cast of highly-touted veterans, modern day axe masters, and rock and roll icons. With such a robust list of guests, it comes as no surprise that Co-Starring is a hard-rocking affair, a quality which came together rather organically in spite of the record’s many moving parts.

“As far as producing, like with Cadillac Three, Aaron Lee Tash, Larkin Poe and Tyler Bryant, I didn’t wanna muck it up telling them what to play,” adds Hubbard. “I just said here’s the song, this is kind of where it goes. It feels really empowering to get it all together.”

Of the many highlights, it’s hard not to point to the album’s gritty lead single, “Bad Trick,” a song that features Ringo Starr on drums, Joe Walsh on guitar and Chris Robinson contributing vocals, as the standout. “I’m so humbled by that,” he says. “To have a Beatle, an Eagle and a Crowe on one of your songs, I mean, who would’ve thought?”

The rest of the tracklist isn’t lacking for punch either. Hubbard teams up with Ashley McBryde on the rebel-woman anthem “Outlaw Blood,” croons with Paula Nelson and Elizabeth Cook on “Drink Till I See Double” and bashes away with Tyler Bryant on the electrifying “ROCK.” With a collaborative spirit and tenacious sound, each track offers a powerful interpretation on the wide-spanning influences of Hubbard’s musical journey and is a testament to his never-settle troubadour mentality.

As coronavirus keeps the music world operating from inside homes and behind computers, Co-Starring figures to garner some hefty buzz online, but that’s not stopping Hubbard from looking ahead. While touring is out of the picture for the foreseeable future, the snappy songwriter is already making plans for a Co-Starring follow up with a new army of special guests. If its prequel is of any indication, fans are in for a treat.

Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Ray Wylie Hubbard to chat about his new album, songwriting greats, a lifetime of making music and more. Check out their conversation below.

This pandemic is impacting everyone in different ways. Touring musicians have obviously taken a big hit. How has it affected your day-to-day life over the last few months?

Ray: Well, you can’t work the record as they say. You can’t do in-stores, release parties and everything, so that that’s changed drastically. We can’t go out and tour, and that’s been different, but on a daily basis, I’ve been writing, learning the new normal of Zoom and streaming. I’ve been writing songs on Zoom. I never had done that before. And that just kind of came up. I think I’ve written four in the last two or three weeks. It’s just getting used to it. As human beings we learn to adapt and try to make the best of a terrible situation.

It sounds like the upside of this is that you’ve become more technologically savvy.

Ray: Yeah. I’m an old cat, man. I still miss the rotary phone.

How do you think a younger version of yourself would have dealt with this virus?

Ray: I’d probably get screwed up, crawl under the bed and into a ball and just stay there. I don’t know, I’ve watched some of my younger friends like Hayes Carll and Matt King, how they’ve taken the technology and used it during this period of time. I think I probably would have eased into it, kind of like I’m doing now. I’d always just been kind of a bar band in my twenties and thirties and never was in the music business. I just floundered around with them. I got clean and sober at 42. I said ‘I want to try to be a real songwriter’ and actually took fingerpicking lessons to learn how to play like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. I learned open tunings, then mandolin. As an older cat here, I’m trying to learn new things. I think it’s important to keep learning no matter what your age is.

You’ve talked about how learning new playing styles and techniques in middle age correlated with further developing your songwriting. You’ve now put out multiple albums in your seventies. What have the past few years taught you?

Ray: This last record, Co-Starring, that wasn’t something that I planned to do. It just kind of happened. I ran into Tyler Bright, so we went to his little studio, we wrote a song and recorded it. Then I ran into Larkin Poe and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this song, would y’all track it with me?’ They said yes. Same thing with with Pam Tillis. I ran into her at the airport. I started getting all these tracks and went ‘Hey, I’ve got an album.’ It wasn’t something preconceived in my head. So, I’ve learned sometimes, I like not planning too far in advance. It’s taking the action and just leaving the results up to the universe, you know what I mean?

In a way the concept behind Co-Starring is a metaphor for your career in the sense that your records are often a melting pot of American music. Do you think of yourself as naturally having an inclusive mindset when it comes to bringing together different artists or different styles of music?

Ray: I grew up in the late in the late 60s when there was the big folk boom. You’d discover Woody Guthrie, then the Cambridge songwriters and then you’d run into Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, just incredible songwriters. I also had the good fortune as a young man to see Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddie King before they were seen as the top. So there’s influences of folk, country and roots rock and blues just throughout my life. The album’s kind of all over the place. I feel very fortunate that each artist on each song was perfect for that style. Larkin Poe, Tyler Brown has got the rock thing and of course, Ringo and Joe with “Bad Trick,” Ronnie Gunn on “The Messenger,” he’s got that great sincere country voice. I find myself just taking in and living in different worlds musically. I’m not just locked into one thing.

As someone who writes and creates at a frequent pace, you must have your sights on what’s ahead of you as much as what’s in the rearview mirror. Still, you were a part of some pretty cool scenes in the ’70s, 80s and 90s. Is there a point in your early career you go back to in your mind more than others? 

Ray: That whole progressive country, outlaw music when Willie Nelson’s house burned down in Nashville and he moved to Austin. Jerry Jeff Walker moved there and Michael Murphy and Rusty Wier. Guy Clark and Billy Joe Shaver and Townes. Suddenly it was just that era. It was very progressive, you know, because you had Willie Nelson who had been kind of a staff Nashville songwriter. He came and got Mickey Raphael, a blues harp guy, playing with him. Then Michael Murphy, a folk singer, he got Leo LeBlanc playing steel guitar and put a band together. Jerry Jeff would have been a folk singer. All of a sudden they got John Inmon, a rock and roll guitar player. But I think the thing that I really look back fondly on that era is all those cats were really fantastic, powerful songwriters. That’s the thing that still impresses me today. Those guys had such great songs. That was a very special time.

Artists like Guy and Townes are revered to this day. In your mind, why do you think their work holds up so well?

Ray: Oh, gosh. Guy, Townes and Billy Joe Shaver, that’s kind of the Holy Trinity of Texas songwriters. That’s the bar that you have to aspire to. You want to try to write as good as those guys. I still go back and listen to those records, they’re timeless. “Randall Knife” can still bring me to tears and I’ve heard it 150 times. Same thing with Townes. A lot of his songs are really dark but they’re very powerful. I feel very fortunate to have done gigs with those guys.

Someone like Townes almost transcends what it means to be a songwriter. It was all about the art as opposed to getting famous. What’s your take on that ideology?

Ray: With Townes and Guy, they weren’t just songwriters. That wasn’t just what they did, it’s who they were. It’s the jacket and the badge they wore. It’s like they didn’t have a choice, you know? There are those condemned by the gods to write, and Townes was condemned. I don’t think he would’ve had it any other way. He had to be a songwriter.

Refocusing on the album, the tracklist is loaded with a pretty spectacular supporting cast. I’m sure you were thrilled to be able to work with so many great people on this record. What’s one collaboration you were especially excited about?

Ray: To have a Beatle, an Eagle and a Crowe on one of your songs, I’m so humbled by that. Back when I was in high school and The Beatles came on Ed Sullivan, I mean, who would’ve thought? And then, of course, Chris Robinson has the most cool rock and roll voice I know of. They’re all special to me but that one is pretty unique. To even have one of those guys on it would be cool, you know, but to have all of them on it? It’s way beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I met Ringo out in L.A. about five or six years ago. I was playing McCabe’s out there in Santa Monica. I’m friends with Brent Carpenter, who does all his videos. He said Ringo’s playing the Greek Theatre and he wants to meet you. I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yes, I gave him your Snake Farm record.’ So I went out there and met Ringo and he was just so gracious. He said, ‘Hey, come out and sing with my friends for the encore.’ Later on, I got a text from him saying, ‘Hey, come to my 70th birthday party at Radio City Music Hall.’ Backstage he asked what I was doing and I told him I told him I was making this record. He said, ‘If you need a drummer, let me know’ and I thought he was just kidding. And then I wrote this song “Bad Trick” and thought boy, that’s got a classic Ringo groove. I sent it to Brent Carpenter, it was just me and a guitar. He said be in L.A. next Wednesday at two o’clock. I flew out to L.A. and went up to his house and he played drums on the track. I asked him who’s gonna play guitar and he said, ‘How about my brother-in-law?’ Sure enough, he got Joe Walsh to play on it.

The album really flexes an affinity for hard-nosed rock and roll. You also produced this record yourself. How did it feel seeing that electric sound take shape around the collaborations?

Ray: It feels really empowering to get it all together but as far as producing, like with Cadillac Three, Aaron Lee Tash, Larkin Poe and Tyler Bryant, I didn’t wanna muck it up telling them what to play. I just said here’s the song, this is kind of where it goes. Not comparing myself to a great producer but I think a lot of times, they get out of the way and let the musicians just use their capabilities to find and dictate what they’re going to do. The more I think about it, I just didn’t have that many suggestions. It does have kind of an old school roots rock feel. Some of my favorite records were the first Beatles records, the first Stones records, the first Buffalo Springfield record. ‘Cause you could tell it was real guys really playing, you know? I think performance is more important than perfection.

Throughout CO-STARRING, you really lift up the voices of some talented women both by way of guest appearances on the record and some of the song topics. It almost seems like the women you worked with for these tracks embody the strength and toughness of the characters they are singing about. What made you most excited about those songs?

Ray: It kind of goes back. I’ve always wrote songs about the woman who has an independent spirit, that image of a woman who’s empowered, like with “Rattlesnake Shakin’ Woman.” That song came about really strange. Peter Green, in the original Fleetwood Mac, had a song called “Rattlesnake Shake.” It was just a cool rock song. I was playing that with Tyler Brown and got this idea of this rock and roll woman with attitude. I appreciate that in women. That sense of empowerment about them, ones that speak their mind – like my wife, Judy. I’ve told people this before. If it wasn’t for Judy, I would have everything I own in a shoe box. I’d be looking for a happy hour cake. I try to honor that idea of a badass woman. So that’s how that thing came about with the rattlesnake shakin’ woman. It’s a long way to get there, but sometimes I enjoy doing that.

Is that the greatest freedom of being a writer?

Ray: I feel very fortunate to sleep with the president of my publishing company. I’m not writing songs trying to get somebody to record them, you know? If I’m going to write about Mississippi John Hurt, maybe nobody really knows him, but I can just write a song about him. I’ve never been a mainstream writer. I just never put myself in a position to write for other people. I never could get that mindset. I regret that, but I’m not writing for other people because like I said, I kind of got no choice.

You’ve been performing and writing songs for over half a century and you’re still here, still creating. More recently, you wrote a screenplay, published your autobiography and last year, made your Grand Ole Opry debut. Out of all your accomplishments this past decade, do any stand out as a personal favorite?

Ray: I did the Grand Ole Opry when I was 72 and someone said, ‘Man, 72…isn’t that kind of old to be making your debut?’ I said, ‘Man, I didn’t want to peak too soon.’ I think that’s the thing. I keep learning and doing new things. I don’t really go back and think about my accomplishments in that way. I just kind at look at well, here’s what I want to do next. I’ve had some amazing stuff happen in the last 10 years that I never thought. Letterman, Fallon, Coleman, but I don’t really think about them a lot. But the Grand Opry was special.

What does legacy mean to you? What do you hope for yours, if anything?

Ray: Well, I hope I leave a good one, you know? I really do. I take my songwriting seriously, but I take myself lightly. So that works better than me taking myself too seriously. Maybe people will say something like, ‘This cat, he did alright. He wrote some songs.’

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Photo credit: David McClister. Purchase and stream Ray Wylie Hubbard’s new album ‘Co-Starring’ out everywhere today.

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