Music History

Playing With a Beatle, an Eagle and Willie, Ray Wylie Hubbard Is More than Music's Forrest Gump

Life has been box of really fine chocolates for Ray Wylie Hubbard, who says he's a lot like Forrest Gump.
Life has been box of really fine chocolates for Ray Wylie Hubbard, who says he's a lot like Forrest Gump. Alan Messer
It’s safe to say that any musician working today would be thrilled to be on a first name basis with a Beatle. A casual exchanging of text messages, an occasional backstage meet-up or even the chance to record a song with one of the storied Fab Four sounds like a pretty righteous checkmark to make on the ol’ rock 'n' roll bucket list, doesn’t it?

Texas icon Ray Wylie Hubbard thinks of it as just another day.

A few years ago, Hubbard began writing material for his 2020 album Co-Starring, his debut LP for major Nashville label Big Machine Records. He and wife Judy, who is also Hubbard’s business manager, had written a track called “Bad Trick,” and the song made its way to Ringo Starr, who liked what he heard.

“All of a sudden, I get a text from Ringo, who I had known for a few years at that point,” Hubbard says. “He texted, ‘Hey, if you need a drummer for that song, I’ll be out in L.A. next Tuesday at 2 o’clock and I’ll play drums on that track.’ So, I flew out there and it’s just him and me in the studio. He asked me who I had to play bass, and I said, I really didn’t have anyone, so he called [legendary super-producer] Don Was to come in on bass. Then Ringo asked me who I had to play guitar, and I said, well, I don’t know, so he said, ‘Well, I’ll get my brother-in-law.’”

Ringo's brother-in-law is Joe Walsh of the James Gang and the Eagles. But because there just wasn’t quite enough rock royalty on the track, Black Crowes lead singer Chris Robison ended up singing on the song.

To be fair, it’s not as though Hubbard has simply lucked into a world where a song can go from his pen to an all-star production in L.A. He says he’s “a lot like Forrest Gump,” but the fact is, Hubbard’s long been one of the big dogs, and he’s earned that status.

Although he spent many years recording albums for an array of independent labels and even his own, Bordello Records, this isn’t Hubbard’s first foray into the major label world of country music. He released albums in the ‘70s on Warner Brothers and an imprint of Mercury. His 1978 Off the Wall LP includes his take on “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” the tune that made him famous thanks to Jerry Jeff Walker including it on his seminal Viva Terlingua LP in 1973. It has aggressively followed him around for the decades since.

As the '80s rolled into the '90s, Hubbard continued releasing albums, but he also continued living out the outlaw lifestyle with which his music had become synonymous. Substance abuse kept him from being the type of artist he wanted to be, although he was still a name any proper honky-tonking, beer-joint fighting Texan knew intimately.

But that wasn’t enough for him then, and the version of Hubbard we know today as an influential, skilled storyteller and blues-grooving bandleader has only blossomed in recent years.

“When I got clean and sober, I said to myself, ‘Well, you know, I really want to try and be a real songwriter,’ and as I’ve gotten older, I keep learning new things, and that’s very important to me.”

Hubbard’s prolific run of albums since the beginning of the new millennium have been reliably stellar. The tunes that elicit the loudest cheers of any modern day Hubbard concert are typically cuts such as “Snake Farm,” “Cooler-N-Hell,” “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and the singalong anthem “Screw You, We’re From Texas,” which are all songs Hubbard released after he found sobriety.

Co-Starring included collaborations with other stars on several more Hubbard originals. Established country artists including Ronnie Dunn and Pam Tillis, along with buzzworthy new school names Ashley McBride and the Cadillac Three joined on the fun for that album.

His new record Co-Starring Too is another collection of original songs, with collaborations with marquee artists including Wynonna Judd, Randy Rogers, James McMurtry, Steve Earle and even hard-rock singer Lzzy Hale of Halestorm.

“When I got clean and sober, I said to myself, ‘Well, you know, I really want to try and be a real songwriter,’ and as I’ve gotten older, I keep learning new things, and that’s very important to me.” – Ray Wylie Hubbard

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There’s also a legendary collaborator on the new album that, especially for any artist steeped in the Texas country tradition, might just be every bit as major as a Beatle. But this beloved Lone Star hero is nothing short of a longtime friend for Hubbard.

“I wrote ‘Stone Blind Horses’ a while back and put it on an album [2015’s Ruffian’s Misfortune], but always had it in the back of my mind that I would like to have Willie Nelson sing on it,” he says. “So, I called him and asked him to sing on it, and he said yeah, and he recorded his part and sent it back to us, just like that.”

Oh, and Ringo is on the new record, too. He and Rock Hall of Famer Ann Wilson of Heart team up with Hubbard on the new song “Ride or Die.”

Getting so many well-known, accomplished and busy performers to quickly agree to play on Hubbard's last couple of records has been rewarding, even thrilling, he says. It’s not a stretch to think that younger artists such as Cody Canada, Wade Bowen or the Band of Heathens would think playing on a Ray Wylie song is every bit as cool as it is for Hubbard to have Ringo or Willie on one of his.

All of that is a testament to the quality of his work, sure, but also to the way in which he turned his life around so many years ago and has kept things moving in the right direction.

“I had no idea I’d be playing music this long,” he says. “You know, I’m an old cat. My knees are 75 years old, but in my head, I’m just 25 and it’s still a joy to play and a joy to work, to write these songs.”

Ray Wylie Hubbard performs on Saturday, March 19, at the Granada Theater.
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Kelly Dearmore