Ray Wylie Hubbard doesn’t care much for being a part of the action. When the 70-year-old Texan isn’t playing a gig, he’s at his log cabin in Wimberley, a bucolic town of a few thousand people outside Austin on the edge of the hill country. Having rescued the place from abandonment 20 years ago with his wife, he stays busy laying sheet rock, hanging dry wall, and visiting his neighbors, the singer-songwriters Kevin Welch and Slaid Cleaves.
But while Hubbard, ever the iconoclast with his circular John Lennon glasses and wispy, long gray hair, moves at his own pace, one thing he never stops doing is writing. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve never been a mainstream writer. I can always write about whatever I want to,” says Hubbard, who published his autobiography, A Life…Well, Lived, in 2015, in his gruff, gravelly drawl. “I just write these songs and I don’t have to worry about what’s gonna happen to them. It’s a good way for a writer like me to be.”
On his new LP, Tell the Devil I’m Getting There as Fast as I Can, released August 18th on Bordello Records, Hubbard conjures a dark, funny and predictably profane cast of characters, from tattooed ladies to ghosts to obscure bluesmen and recovered alcoholics. Built around the interplay of the gritty guitar work between him and his son Lucas, it’s an album of dark and light, good and evil, with God and the devil offering equal measures of provocation, ridicule and temptation.
“You get to be my age and you start thinking about mortality, so there’s a lot of those themes in the songs. I hope God grades on a curve,” Hubbard says thoughtfully, with a chuckle. “Maybe a C-minus will still get me in or something.” That mortality is a very real specter too, a fact underlined by his decision to dedicate the album to his longtime producer, George Reiff, who died of cancer earlier this year. Sober since he was 41, Hubbard describes himself as a “spiritual mongrel,” poring over texts from Christianity, Buddhism and Native American religions. “I read about this stuff and it just kinda shows up,” he says. “But I still enjoy being a smartass.”
That sense of humor comes through from the opening track, “God Looked Around,” an account of man’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden reimagined as a breakup song between God and Satan. The sacred mixes with the superstitious and sacrilegious on “Dead Thumb King,” where Hubbard draws on the hoodoo and lore of the blues-at-the-crossroads to construct an unholy creed. The blues pop up again on “Spider, Snaker, and Little Sun,” an ode to Minneapolis blues trio Koerner, Ray & Glover.
“I feel fortunate for being able to see and hang out with guys like Townes [Van Zandt], Guy Clark, all those cats likes that. Then I also got to see Lightnin’ Hopkins and Ernest Tubb, so it was a really great foundation,” Hubbard says, insisting that it’s all rock & roll to him. That he ever wound up associated with country music, outlaw or otherwise, seems almost like a fluke, a byproduct of Jerry Jeff Walker making Hubbard’s song “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” famous. “I really don’t know that I’ve ever been on the Texas Music Chart, or whatever that thing is,” he says.
Hubbard makes sure to poke fun at his outlier status on one of the album’s hardest-rocking tracks, “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels.” Driven along by Lucas’ crunchy slide guitar and drummer Kyle Snyder’s loose groove, it’s a story of the devil mocking Hubbard’s musical ambitions, complete with a reference to his 2010 appearance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. “Why go to Nashville knowing you never, ever gonna be mainstream?” he sings. “It’s better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
The song may praise the virtues of Texas, “where they dig roots and blues and country music that’s real,” but Hubbard says he’s not exactly boasting about not having tried to make it in Music City. “I have a lot of respect for Nashville,” he says, admitting that he probably wouldn’t have been cut out to make it there. “I don’t know that I could’ve ever got into writing differently, trying to write commercially or for whatever would sell.” In fact, he’s proud to say that he’ll be making his first-ever appearance at the Ryman Auditorium on August 31st – “I’m gonna try and leave a stain,” he says – opening for rebellious Nashville trio the Cadillac Three, who personally requested the Texas icon.
“I listen to Ray Wylie every time I come offstage on the bus. He’s one of the most prolific storytellers I’ve ever come across,” says the band’s frontman Jaren Johnston. “I remember the first time I heard ‘Snake Farm’ and his version of ‘Choctaw Bingo,’ I went home and wrote five shitty songs trying to do what he does. The Ryman is a stage for great storytellers, and he’s one of the best.”
Themes of religion and temptation come together most fully on the album’s centerpiece, “Tell the Devil I’m Getting There as Fast as I Can,” a song about “a woman who can out-cuss any man” and living and surviving life on the road – the only compass that Hubbard has ever truly known to follow. With guest spots by Eric Church, who name-dropped Hubbard on his 2015 song “Mr. Misunderstood,” and longtime friend Lucinda Williams, it’s one of several songs on the record to feature cameos from other artists, including Bright Light Social Hour and Patti Griffin. “I’m very surprised I didn’t have to use guilt or shame to try to get ’em on there. Which I wasn’t above, I just didn’t have to,” he says.
Ever the lone wolf, though, Hubbard can always get by on his own. “I’m at that age where I’ll play through whatever amp I don’t have to lift. Put ’em in back and I’ll just plug into it,” he says. He may not hit the road as often as he used to, but when he does he keeps things simple, playing solo or, when he’s able, with Lucas and Snyder. “I learned to get the gig and then get the band. If you get a band, you gotta support the band. So [sometimes] I just say, ‘Well, I’m gonna do it myself.'”