By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
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Country icon George Jones famously asked "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" back in 1985. For the most part, modern Top 40 country isn't terribly interested in the footwear of elder greats, given the way radio playlists have tossed aside so many aging legends over the past 20 years or so.
Standing in stark contrast is the manner in which the young, up-and-coming generation of Texas-based stars revere the trailblazers who provided inspiration to chase their own dancehall dreams. One such giant is the grand, mystical shaman of Texas music, Ray Wylie Hubbard.
With a fiery, authoritative new album of bluesy grit, The Grifter's Hymnal impresses yet another generation of music lovers. With songs Hubbard co-wrote with younger artists such as Charlie Shafter and Liz Foster, one thing's for sure: Grizzled vets of the Texas scene and sorority girls with Josh Abbott T-shirts are both going to find something to love in this collection.
The 65-year-old Hubbard doesn't have to ask who will fill his boots anytime soon. The fact that he's embraced the Lone Star youth as much as they've clung to his every word has easily bridged a gap.
New Braunfels-based troubadour Drew Kennedy, who just released Fresh Water in the Salton Sea, says his lessons from Hubbard began on the practical end of the artistic spectrum.
"He actually gave me a finger-picking lesson while I was still in college in Virginia," Kennedy says. "After being introduced, Ray asked me about my music and my style. We spoke for a few minutes, and then he asked, 'You do any finger-pickin'?' I said, 'No, that stuff is way over my head.' So he grabbed a Sharpie from a desk and a legal pad, and then sketched out a visual representation of a finger-picking lesson. It was one of the most unadulterated displays of creative benevolence that I've ever experienced."
Perhaps the hottest of all Hubbard disciples and co-writers these days is Hayes Carll. For Carll, whose own writing has often been compared to Hubbard's, it's not the music as much as his general personality that impacted him most.
"From the first time I met Ray, he's shared his wisdom, humor and time with me," Carll says. "Knowing him has made me a better songwriter, performer and person. I'm not saying he's taught me everything I know about this job, but he did teach me most of the good stuff."
Joshua Jones, owner of Shiner Records and Dallas' KHYI-FM 95.3, has tapped Hubbard for production jobs with young artists on the Shiner label. It's clear to him why Hubbard's mojo works so well.
"Ray has a coolness that transcends his age," Jones says. "He's maintained a bad-ass edge without forfeiting kindness, and he really takes a genuine interest in talented young songwriters."
One of the last bands Hubbard's produced, Fort Worth's The Will Callers, got to bask in Hubbard's aura for a while as they recorded their upcoming Shiner Records debut. Lead singer Jake Murphy glows yet keeps things simple when describing his ultimate producer choice.
"There is only one word to describe working with Ray," he says. "Cool. He just oozes it."