After decades operating outside the Nashville, Tennessee, country music mainstream, singer/songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard is nowadays in the thick of it.
Multi-million seller Eric Church is one of his recent friends and collaborators, as is Grammy nominee Ashley McBryde. New album “The Messenger: A Tribute to Ray Wylie Hubbard,” features the likes of Rodney Crowell, Bobby Bare, James McMurtry, Radney Foster, The Band of Heathens and Shinyribs covering highlights from his catalog. There is even a recently released biography that includes forewords from Hayes Carll and Jerry Jeff Walker.
The book is called “The Messenger: The Songwriting Legacy of Ray Wylie Hubbard” and includes deep praise from the likes of Steve Earle and Church, who in 2015 name-checked Hubbard in his song, “Mr. Misunderstood.”
Hubbard, who returns to Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center on Saturday, still wasn’t quite sure how he felt about it all during a phone call last month.
“It’s hard to explain, because I never had recognition like that before,” he said. “I’ve always been the one over here holding up my hand, going hey, here I am, overlooked, in a way. So it’s kind of a unique experience to have that even happen.”
Not that his work had been attention-free. Walker, on his recording of “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother,” insisted on introducing it with the line “this song is by Ray Wylie Hubbard.” That number became an icon of the progressive country era (it would be considered Americana today), but Wylie was not able to parlay the recognition into anything larger at the time. His mid-1970s project, Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies, mystified the Nashville establishment and wound up with an album so off that Hubbard couldn’t bear to tour with it.
Flash forward to July, and there was Hubbard — finally — on the Grand Ole Opry stage, playing “The Messenger” and “Snake Farm,” two songs among dozens that have solidified his reputation for both deep songcraft and humor. The story behind that appearance included examples of Hubbard’s self-deprecating wit.
“What had happened, about a year ago, I was in the Nashville airport and I hear this voice behind me going, ‘Ray Wylie,’” Hubbard said. “I turned around and it’s Pam Tillis. She goes, ‘I recognize the back of your head,’ which, there’s benefits to cutting your own hair, I guess.”
They got together later and wrote some songs, after which Tillis — who debuted on the Opry at 8, singing with her father, Country Music Hall of Fame member Mel Tillis — reached out to the powers that be and got Hubbard on the show.
“It was a thrill. It really was,” he said of the performance. “Somebody said, you know, 72, isn’t that kind of old to make your debut on the Grand Ole Opry? I went, well, you wouldn’t want to peak too soon.”
Hubbard was home in Texas with his wife and manager, Judy, watching “Criminal Minds” when he first learned that Church was giving him a shout-out. The verse in question is, “Now, your buddies get their rocks off on Top 40 radio / But you love your daddy’s vinyl, old-time rock ‘n’ roll / Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and think Jeff Tweedy is one bad mother.”
A text came in from Ronnie Dunn, of Brooks & Dunn fame, telling Hubbard that Church was dropping his name on the 2015 CMA Awards show. “I said, ‘Judy, Eric Church is singing about me on a TV show,’ Hubbard remembered. “She goes, ‘We’re not changing the channel ’til Spencer finds the serial killer.’”
A couple of years later, Hubbard joined him onstage in Dallas for a performance of Hubbard’s “Screw You, We’re From Texas.” They got to know each other, and Church told him one of his favorite records was “Loco Gringo’s Lament,” from 1994. The pair teamed up the next year to write “Desperate Man,” the title track of Church’s 2018 album. Hubbard is in the song’s music video, as well.
“It’s kind of like an old ‘Miami Vice,’ ‘American Made,’ ‘Blow’ kind of thing,” he said. “Everybody said we need somebody that looks like a ’70s drug dealer, and everybody said, well, get Ray Wylie to do it.
“They flew me up there and put me in a three-piece, bell-bottom, denim suit and a gold chain to do that video. It’s really really nice of him to do that, because I didn’t even think he knew who I was in the very beginning, but he’s been a great cheerleader for me.”
With cheerleading has come new opportunities. Hubbard, who was never part of a Nashville songwriter clique, has been writing with young performers including McBryde, Tyler Bryant and The Shakedown, Cody Cannon of Whiskey Myers and newcomer Lainey Wilson.
To Wilson, he said: “Do you have a problem singing the line ‘virtue is overrated?’ She goes, ‘No.’”
He let out a long laugh at that one — the laugh of a guy who has been an outsider to Nashville, but now gets to choose among invitations to collaborate. These are acts who want some of his hard-earned creative mojo, extended by decades after he got sober in the early 1990s.
Wilson, in a Facebook past, wrote in January: “Holy crap. I wrote with Ray Wylie Hubbard today & I peed my pants a little.”
Hubbard, who in this century has continued to release well-received albums including “Tell The Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can,” “The Grifter’s Hymnal” and “Snake Farm,” has more music planned. The next project will be full of new songs, with such acts as raucous country/metal band Cadillac 3, Tillis, Larkin Poe (who helped back him on the Opry gig), Carll, blues band the Peterson Brothers and former Go-Go’s guitarist Kathy Valentine’s band, The Bluebonnets (“Oh God, they rocked,” Hubbard said). He’s thinking of calling it “Co-Starring ... .”
“I’m just an old cat. I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s been a struggle,” he said. “There’s been [times] in the past when there was just nothing on my calendar, which is terrifying. To kind of have that validation … you’re writing some pretty cool songs that other people like. To accept the approval of others is something new for me.”
Of all the Ray Wylie Hubbard songs this reporter ever heard, “Conversation with the Devil” is the best. Highly recommended. You can find it on Hubbard’s 1999 album, “Crusades of the Restless Knights.”
Hubbard said that he got his inspiration from a 1930 printing of “The Divine Comedy,” also known as Dante’s “Inferno.” It’s author Dante Alighieri’s 14th century classic descent into Hell and Purgatory, with Virgil as his guide, and later into Paraside, with Beatrice giving him the tour.
“It’s way over my head, but the whole idea of Virgil going down into hell … I love the way that he was able to mock these people by having them in hell. I was re-reading that, and it’s got the old wood cuts in it and everything. And then all of a sudden I woke up in the middle of the night and kind of went in this old loft and kind of wrote the whole thing, except I wrote the last verse first, which is really weird.
“Then I wrote the first verse, and after that, it was just fill in the blanks. … ‘Some get spiritual 'cause they see the light and some 'cause they feel the heat,’ I’m like, OK, that’s how it ends. Then how does it start? “I had a dream last night.”
And I got to put some little digs in there. I kinda enjoyed that. And that old line everybody loves, ‘I didn’t used the cocaine to get high, I just loved the way it smells.’
“I could probably do the first verse and that verse, and the audience would be [satisfied].
“I think I spent a couple of hours on it and went back to bed, and got back up and went, ah, ok, then rewrote a little bit of it.”
A more recent number, 2017’s “Spider, Snaker and Little Sun” is about a Minneapolis folk/blue trio from the 1960s, Koerner, Ray & Glover. “Spider” John Koerner, Dave “Snaker” Ray and Tony “Little Sun” Glover, had given a young Hubbard a fresh perspective on what folk music could be, and he paid tribute in song on his most recent album.
“I started off likin’ folk music, of course,” Hubbard said. “I went to school with Michael Murphey (who, coincidentally, played the Harvester in May), and he was the first guy [I knew] that came out and said, this is a song that I wrote. Oh, a songwriter. So I started running around with the folkie guys, and at the time folk music was pretty much Peter Paul and Mary, and then of course Dylan, everybody found Dylan. As a writer, you go, that’s way cool.
“But Spider, Snaker and Little Son, you know, I heard that, I went whoa, that gave me hope, ‘cause I’m not a great singer. But boy, there was such an energy and such a belief. And what they were doing was … they just nailed me.
“Blues, Rags and Hollers” and follow-up “Lots More Blues, Rags and Hollers” are still in Hubbard’s record collection.
“I’ve mentioned this before, but I sleep with the president of my record label, which is my wife, Judy. It’s not Clive Davis. And so Judy says, you write what you wanna write, and you make the records you wanna make, and I’ll try to sell the damn things. So then I can write about Charlie Musselwhite or Jessie Mae Hemphill or Spider, Snaker and Little Sun, 'cause they mean so much to me and influenced me. So maybe I can do that and turn on some of these young kids who are like, who the hell is this, and maybe they'll google them and go wow, and it will, I don't know, mean to them as much as it does to me.
"I knew nobody in the world would ever record that, or no publishing company ... so I can make the records however I want to do it."
He made odes on Hemphill and Musselwhite both on 2015 album "The Ruffian's Misfortune." He doesn't just listen to those blues geniuses. Hubbard, the self-styled "Dead Thumb King," can play really good blues. As a young man, he saw the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb playing in Texas music venues. When he dried out at age 41, he started digging more into what they were all about, from a playing standpoint.
"I didn’t have a career," he said. "I mean, I was 41. It was over. It was done. Everything was young guys. I never was Nashville country anyway, but there wasn’t much of a folk scene going on or anything really happening. Everything was Garth Brooks and Clint Black, young country guys. I was dead in the water. So finally I just said, hmm, well, I sure would like to play guitar like a couple Lightnin' Hopkins licks. So I started taking guitar lessons, finger picking, and I really got into it. And I said, well, nobody could ever be Lightnin’ or Doc Watson, but if I could just get into that … so once I got into it, it was like a jacket I want to wear. So I got into that whole Lightnin’ dead thumb thing.
"I feel very fortunate that I started out in folk music where the lyrics are really important. And then to take the lyrics of folk music and lay that on a deep groove. I feel real comfortable there, and it seems to work ... In fact, I open all my shows with a Lightnin' Hopkins lick, and it means the world to me, that I was able to learn it. I don't play it as good, as cool as Lightnin,' but I open every show with this little Lightnin' Hopkins lick, then I go into "Rabbit," or whatever, "Snake Farm."
He studied with Sam Swank, in Dallas, "an incredible finger picker," whose money gigs included Olivia Newton-John, Hubbard said. "He got me puttin' my thumb and my fingers where they're supposed to go and when they're supposed to be there."
The techniques he learned from Swank and developed on his own have come into play with his songwriting.
“By learning new things, it gives a song a door to come through that wasn't there before," he said. "If I hadn’t learned how to play in open D tuning, I wouldn’t have got "Ask God" or "Train Yard Blues," you know what I mean."
These days, he's out playing his red dirt Dalai Lama blues in a trio that includes his son, Lucas Hubbard, on guitar (drummer Kyle Snyder rounds it out). Check out the cool story of how Lucas came into the world, on this video.
Lucas, 26 and a member of his dad's band for at least seven years, grew up around his Hubbard's music. He had plenty of other influences that made him the tasteful accompanist he is today, Hubbard said.
"He had the good fortune to hang around and do sessions and do gigs and meet people like Buddy Miller and Gurf Morlix and Stephen Bruton and even Joe Walsh," Hubbard said. "Even when he was a little kid, some of these cats would show him things. He's had a lot of better teachers than me, and he's really stepped up. It really is a treat. He didn't get it just because of nepotism. He owned the gig."