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Some of his attitude toward the past is no doubt peppered by regrets, as well as informed by both the sincere modesty and profound artistic ambitions he displays now that he's sober. But some of it is also, to stretch the metaphor, throwing out the baby with the whiskey and water.
"He was the funniest, the most talented, and the best showman," says Austin singer-songwriter, fiddler, and guitarist Mandy Mercier, who played with Hubbard in the mid-1980s, and became "romantically involved" with him at the same time. "The way he tells the story is that he didn't have the confidence to get out of the honky-tonks and play the solo songwriter shows he wanted to. I'm sure you've heard the legend of how he did a 45-minute set at the Kerrville Folk Festival, which I've also seen him do at Poor David's Pub, where he came out and just talked and didn't even play a song and got a standing ovation. Timing, pacing, how to tell a joke, how to get the audience on your side, all that -- a huge percentage of anything I may know about performing came from being in his band and watching him every night. It was like going to college.
"He was also incredible even when he was drunk," she adds. "I was with him one night in Houston when he was so sick from the flu, and he'd had some drinks, that on that particular night he was having trouble walking. He was lying down in the dressing room because he felt so bad. And then they said, 'OK, Ray, you're on.' And he leaped up, and I've never seen anything like it. He pulled it together and went out onstage at Fitzgerald's and was alert and articulate and charming and played great and sang his ass off. It was almost like that Shirley MacLaine thing, that spirits came into him."
But the spirits he was consuming began to change in their character. "I didn't think I was an alcoholic, because everybody just kinda did it," Hubbard notes. "You'd go to Willie's Picnic and drink a lot of Jack Daniel's and do cocaine and some amyl nitrate and some mescaline...It seemed like everyone was doing it. It was still recreational. I really didn't have a problem with alcohol or drugs. But somewhere in there it became maintenance. I don't remember when it happened."
And then came a point where "I had all the fun I could stand. It got to the point where I really knew I couldn't drink safely. I didn't know what was going to happen once I started drinking. I had no control over what was going to happen."
Hubbard pauses for a few seconds. "For a long time I thought cocaine was the answer to my drinking problem," he adds with a laugh. But neither alcohol nor drugs could finally stave the sorrow from a series of tragedies in his life. His mother was hit by a car and killed while walking in their Oak Cliff neighborhood. His marriage broke up. Then "my dad died and I got a little money, and it was like some demon was let loose on the earth," Hubbard says. "At this point, the alcohol and drugs had stopped working. So when they quit working, then I really started to drink and do drugs."
Even when he went into recovery, Hubbard says, he "didn't really want to quit drinking. I just wanted to quit the consequences -- that was my thinking." But after 10 days sober, he happened to run into Stevie Ray Vaughan, who had also recently sobered up. "I'd only met him one other time, and that was when the both of us were fried. But he took the time to talk with me and tell me about what he'd been through. And something clicked. It was the first time that I got a little hope that I didn't have to keep living the way I was living."
Hubbard says that his first year of sobriety was a tough one. About six months in, he met his wife, Judy, who was also in recovery.
"I liked him because he wore boots with Cuban heels and hung out in biker bars," she recalls, "but he also had good, old-fashioned values. I think he liked the fact that I had a big old Lincoln Continental and I could get him and all his stuff back and forth from gigs."
Even in her wild years, Judy Hubbard had displayed considerable professional savvy selling those Lincoln Continentals. She helped Hubbard organize his business and eventually became his manager. "She's got a great laugh, a great smile, and a great head for business," Ray says of "the woman who walks the walk," as he describes her on one album's credits. "And I like the fact that this is like a mom-and-pop business. And she's got some stories that would make mine pale in comparison. But I like that."
After a year of sobriety, Hubbard ran into Vaughan again at a Mexican restaurant in Dallas not long before the guitarist died. "It was only the third time I'd seen him. I told him I had a year sober. And he just got this look in his eye that was so compassionate. It was a very special thing to me. Besides being this incredible guitar player and musician, he was this incredible person who took the time to sit and talk with someone, and talk about what he had gone through. It was just one of a lot of things that gave me a lot of hope.