Day for Knight
There are moments in Ray Wylie Hubbard's past he would prefer to forget, as well as some he honestly does not remember. But he offers one tale that he can recall from his lost years with neither embarrassment nor the barely concealed glee of the unreformed.
"I came out of a blackout, and there I was sitting in a Pentecostal church during the Sunday-morning service with two strippers on either side of me." He chuckles a bit at the memory, then adds in his typically wry fashion, "I guess I wanted to go in and hear the music."
Soon after Hubbard recounts this story, we turn off the highway and drive past a church. A little farther up the hill, we take a few more turns and climb the driveway to Hubbard's home in Wimberley, Texas. Ray and his wife, Judy, like to call their little hilltop refuge "Mt. Karma," a fitting name for their cozy, almost chic log-cabin house. From the sunlit dining room, where a few ornamental crosses hang on the wall, the view of the surrounding Hill Country feels beatific in the way the sensual curves of the land and the shimmering greenery suggest not only the notion of a higher power, but an aesthetically concerned one at that.
If Ray Wylie Hubbard had kept on going as he had been for the better part of the 1970s and '80s, he certainly wouldn't be where he is on this day -- in the crisp, clean air of a hill above Wimberley, sitting poolside with his wife and 6-year-old son, Lucas, nearby. Perhaps he might not even be proverbially here with us at all. Almost as if to atone for the one notable, if double-edged, accomplishment that launched him onto the Texas music scene -- writing the song "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" -- Hubbard transformed into the very nightmare he meant to parody.
Just as the song went from an off-the-cuff jab at good ol' boys on a bad night to an anthem for Lone Star beer-swilling fans of deep-fried Texas country, Ray Wylie forged a legend fueled by booze and cocaine that did his best-known song's subject one better, especially when it came to the line, "He's not responsible for what he's doing."
Hubbard was both the crown prince and court jester of honky-tonk anarchy, and the man who put the fright into what has become rightfully known as the "great progressive country scare," spawned in this state in the early 1970s by Waylon, Willie, Jerry Jeff, Ray Wylie, and the boys. And for all the gigs, and his stature as a flag-waving champion of C&W rebellion, he had nary a recording or song worth a damn -- at least in his opinion today -- to show for it, aside from he dubious honor of penning "Redneck Mother," which was all but an epitaph waiting for Hubbard to occupy the ground below its headstone.
Then, on November 13, 1987, his 41st birthday, Ray Wylie Hubbard got clean and sober. Five years later, he released what he no doubt considers his true first album, Lost Train of Thought. He followed Lost Train with four more releases that similarly clashed with his wild-man past. In less than a decade, he has fashioned a genuine oeuvre where the songs and the music are suffused with a heady ether composed of vivid poetics, the mythology of the old and new American West, an almost Eastern spirituality and mysticism, and the country-folk melodiousness of an artist weaned on a rock-and-roll sensibility. In short, he's the legend of the phoenix made human, arising from the flaming shambles of his life and career to become something as beautiful, graceful, natural, and fertile as the Hill Country vista his home overlooks.
It's no surprise that even while he was still on his decade-and-a-half bender Hubbard found his way to a church in the midst of a chemically induced blackout. Although "Ray carries water for no religious brand name," as critic Geoffrey Himes puts it in his liner notes to Hubbard's latest disc, Crusades of the Restless Knights, one detects the fingerprints of God, and the devil, in the music he makes today. From 1994's Loco Gringo's Lament through 1997's Dangerous Spirits to the just-released Crusades, Hubbard has tracked a hat trick of genuine art that carries an eternal resonance, as well as a profound sense of humanity. To anyone who might have come across the Hubbard of yore tearing his way through the biker bars and strip clubs of Dallas, where he grew up and lived until just a few years ago, this is nothing short of a miracle.
Ray Wylie Hubbard didn't set out to be the poster boy for honky-tonk mayhem and righteous substance abuse. What he actually started out being was a folk singer. Born in Hugo, Oklahoma, he was reared in Oak Cliff from the age of 8 on. During his junior year at W.H. Adamson High School, he formed a folk group called The Coachmen with two classmates. Later known as Three Faces West, they took up a summer residency in Red River, New Mexico, where they opened up a coffeehouse that "was the only entertainment in Red River. It was an incredible success," recalls Hubbard.
"I really liked that vagabond troubadour idea," he explains. "This friend of mine got Dylan's first album and hated it, and I really loved it, so I traded him for it. I would sit there listening and was just amazed."
One night in Red River during a picking party, Hubbard was sent out on a beer run. "There was this real hardcore country bar there called the D-Bar-D. I went into there to get the beer. It was this real tense situation. I came back to the jam session, and just started goofing around with this song." It was just a little joke for the coffeehouse gang about the folks in the bar across the way, those redneck mothers. "I think I started writing it about me -- I was born in Oklahoma. I'd heard this term, 'up against the wall.' It was what I'd like to have said. It's so vague to me. Even back then, when I first wrote it, it was such a throwaway."
But as Merle Haggard learned with "Okie From Muskogee," sometimes throwaway parodies -- in Haggard's case, a joke to amuse the band on the bus -- can take on a life all their own. "It was kind of an answer to 'Okie From Muskogee,'" Hubbard says. "Bob Livingston, the bass player, was up there in Red River at the time. The way I heard it, Jerry Jeff [Walker] was at the Broken Spoke [in Austin] and broke a string, and said, 'Bob, sing a song.' And Bob sang 'Redneck Mother.' It was so weird. It just got everyone's attention."
By the time Walker cut the song on his landmark ¡ Viva Terlingua! album, record companies were gambling on progressive country to be a coming thing, and Hubbard was able to land not one, but two major-label deals for the Cowboy Twinkies, the band he'd started with a young Okie guitar player he'd met in Red River, Terry "Buffalo" Ware. The first deal with Atlantic Records went south after Hubbard and the Twinkies fled Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama in the middle of the night after reaching an impasse with onetime Bob Dylan producer Bob Johnston. A subsequent signing with Warner Bros. resulted in an album recorded in Nashville, which was then sweetened and overdubbed for country radio consumption after the band left town.
"The first time I heard the album, we got a cassette of it, and we were out in the van in my driveway, which was the only cassette player I had that worked," he recalls. "It turned out so badly that we actually started crying, all four of us. About that time my mother came home from work. She walked up the driveway, and she knocked on the window. We rolled down the window, and we all had tears in our eyes. She asked, 'What are you doing?' 'We're listening to our new record.' There was nothing we could do about it.
"It just really broke our hearts. It was one of those things where I kinda withdrew. I was really plagued with fear and doubt and resentment the whole time. Basically after that, I just kinda drank a lot, did a lot of drugs, had a bunch of bands, and traveled. And did that for about 15 years."
During those years, Hubbard played first with the Cowboy Twinkies, then the Lost Gonzo Band, and later was backed by a group featuring Dallas guitar legend Bugs Henderson. He put out some albums and tapes on his own Misery Loves Co. label that he fails to even mention today.
"I was a working musician. Didn't really pursue recording," he says. "I was resentful and couldn't quite figure out why I wasn't doing well. I refused to go up to Nashville. Nashville didn't really seem to notice I had a resentment against them. They just went along without me. I could go play honky-tonks, but I was always kind of struggling."
Hubbard was able to survive in a bar band by going the redneck mothers in the audience one better. "We would do anything back then for a laugh," recalls Ware of his days with the Cowboy Twinkies. "One time we were opening for Waylon Jennings at the Sportatorium, and we went and got these siren helmets from Radio Shack. We came out onstage with these helmets on with the lights flashing, and people didn't know what to think. We really were fearless."
Or maybe just full of nervous bravado. "My career was like drinking and music," Hubbard says today. He's reluctant now to play the songs he did in the old days, and he winced at a recent Austin show when calls came from the audience for "Oak Cliff Surfer Girl," a talking surf-rock blues based on an actual prom date of his teen years. When he played Gruene Hall last Memorial Day, and the place was jammed with well-lubricated young bucks and betties anxious to hear the guy who wrote "Redneck Mother" for current frat boy fave Jerry Jeff Walker -- forcing Hubbard to sing Gary P. Nunn's "home with the armadillo" song, "London Homesick Blues" -- he later was quick to apologize for the "miserable" gig. Even though his honky-tonk years were peppered with blackouts, he treats his musical legacy from those days as something he wishes he could also forget, doing his best to gloss it all over in interviews.
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.
"After that first year, it was kind of amazing to me. I was 43, and some real crucial things happened that turned my life around. After I got clean and sober, then I got to the point where I didn't know what I was going to do. I looked back over my history. I wasn't really a songwriter; I'd written 'Redneck Mother,' and Jerry Jeff did it. I really wasn't like a real musician; I just played guitar. I wasn't really like a performer; but I could get up on stage. In this period of time since high school, I'd always had a band and had just been kinda the singer. And I'm not really a great singer. So I just kinda sat around, like, well, what am I going to do now? I was pretty much dead in the water as far as pretty much any career."
Hubbard also explored how his fears and low self-esteem had held him back, locking in with the line about how "our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures" when he read Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. He overcame his embarrassment with his rudimentary guitar skills and started to take lessons. He abandoned his resentment of Nashville and played a showcase for some record labels there.
Even though he didn't get signed, "I drove back, and had this most incredible feeling. The deal wasn't to get a record deal. The deal was to get over the fear and doubt. That was the accomplishment. So then I got back, and it was like, wham...now I know what I have to do, and have to do it myself. So I went in and did Lost Train of Thought."
He played South by Southwest and was offered the chance to record again by some independent labels. He cut Loco Gringo's Lament for the San Marcos-based Dejadisc imprint, and made a record that was as much an epiphany for him as it was for the listener. "It was the first time I could take it and hand it to someone, and say, here it is," he says proudly. "And whether they liked it or hated it, it didn't matter, because I knew that I was finally able to get it the way it sounded it my head, the way I wanted it to sound.
"The songs were strong, the playing was good, and it sounded like a record," he continues. "I don't know any other way to explain it, but when I finally got it and listened to it by myself, I thought back to all the sordid, underfunded projects and dead ends, and I finally realized that this was it -- being clean and sober and making this record was exactly what I started out trying to do back in high school. The record came out and validated everything I knew that I hopefully was capable of. I always hated it back in school when they said, 'Ray has a lot of potential if he would only apply himself.'"
At the end of a live concert broadcast on Austin's KGSR-FM a few weeks ago, Hubbard introduced his encore song -- a sublime rendition of the late Townes Van Zandt's "Snowing on Raton" -- with a talk about the "holy trinity of Texas singer-songwriters: Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Billy Joe Shaver." Although Van Zandt can hardly be replaced, ever since Loco Gringo's Lament, Hubbard has been writing songs and making records with the sort of eloquence and grace that qualify him for that pantheon's empty space. You can find it in songs like "The Real Trick," in which his dour observations still bear a glimmer of hope, one that almost acts as a counterpoint to Van Zandt's fateful sense of doom: "We are all lengthening shadows cast by a sinking sun / So we need to find this reason to believe in something / Or someone but it is hard to believe with just faith alone / We feel betrayed by life when the life we betrayed was our own."
As the interview winds down, Lucas is trying to drown the fire ants throughout the yard with a garden hose. Judy is inside tending to the final details surrounding the release of Crusades of the Restless Knights and working on booking the tours to follow. And Ray, well, he's simply looking forward to tomorrow, something he never much did all those forgotten yesterdays ago.
"I feel very comfortable with the future, which is something I've never been before," Hubbard says. "There was always this fear of impending doom. Well, now, I'm OK."
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