The singer/songwriter genre is one we think we know well. As a friend quipped recently, "I guess it's time to go hear a white guy with an acoustic guitar sing about his feelings." But the genre cliches don't apply when it comes to veteran songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Gaining notoriety over 40 years ago when he penned "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" — a sardonic character study, now ranked among the top 100 country songs by Rolling Stone magazine — Hubbard was instantly recognized as a writer of humor and wit, often grouped with the "outlaws" who were redefining country music at the time. But while the humor and wit are still very much with him, Hubbard's sound has grown in unpredictable ways.
"I started off in folk music," Hubbard told me. "Then there was that whole outlaw, progressive country sound. Then the movie Urban Cowboy came along and just screwed everything up, and it wasn't about the music, it was about the scene."
Nonetheless, Hubbard worked in that vein well into the 1980s, in the hedonistic spirit of an outlaw troubadour. But it all came to a head when Stevie Ray Vaughan convinced him to get sober. With this sea change, he not only took to the craft of songwriting with renewed determination, he rediscovered the blues.
"Before I got clean and sober, I felt very fortunate to have seen Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb over the years. But I never got into playing the guitar like that. So in my 40s, I started to really absorb those things they were doing, that dead-thumb style, that groove thing. First I learned to finger pick, then I learned open tunings, then I got a slide." Laying dormant for a few years, Hubbard reemerged in the early 1990s, and each successive album incorporated more country blues. By the early 2000s, that sound had become deeply ingrained in his songwriting. "Right now, it's a real good marriage," he says, "to have that foundation in folk music, where the lyrics are important, but then to lay that over a dead-thumb, low-down groove. To have a little bit more than just 'I woke up this morning, the blues squattin' on my face' kinda thing."
Hubbard's stylistic reboot reflects a debt to the Delta that he is quick to acknowledge. "The whole Mississippi thing, Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, all those cats, just — God, man!" Titles from The Ruffian's Misfortune, from 2015, pay homage to both "Mr. Musselwhite" and Jessie Mae Hemphill, aka the She-Wolf. "Oh God, Jessie Mae, I just adore her. Hopefully some young person will hear that song and find her and just fall in love, like I did."
But beyond the growing influence of the blues, in all its permutations, Hubbard's music can't be pinned down to a single genre. He may also dip into Appalachian folk or honky tonk, even revving up into full-on rock-and-roll. Two tracks from 2012's The Grifter's Hymnal feature piano work from Ian McLagan of Small Faces fame, and, as he says, "When he started playing, I teared up. I actually started crying." Hubbard honored another blues-ified Brit on that record, with a cover of Ringo Starr's "Coochy Coochy." When Starr heard it, as Hubbard notes, "He said, 'The drums are good on it! How 'bout if I sing?' So we sent him the track, and when it came back, I thought, 'I wonder if he doubled his vocal, like the Beatles?' — and he did!"
When he started out, Hubbard never could have predicted working with one of the Fab Four. "I was more of a desert-boot-and-corduroy kinda guy, rather than the Beatle boots, at the time." But such were the rewards of following his own star. He has remained staunchly eclectic, especially since releasing albums on Bordello Records, managed by his wife Judy. "She says, you write about Les Pauls or strippers or snake farms, or whatever you want, and I'll try to sell the damn thing," says Hubbard. "I feel very fortunate, you know, that I'm sleeping with the president of my record label." Ray Wylie Hubbard plays Lafayette's Music Room on April 20th.