Part thoughtful poet, part down-and-dirty rocker and all freewheeling storyteller, Ray Wylie Hubbard comes to Oklahoma City this weekend performing the roots-music gospel according to his “Grifter's Hymnal.”
The Oklahoma-Texas music icon is playing a two-night stand Saturday and Sunday nights at the Blue Door, and he promises “the whole history of Ray Wylie Hubbard” — for those keeping score, that covers about 40 years of music-making — with an emphasis on songs from his latest album.
“It should be a rip-roaring time. I mean, that's such a fun, great crowd 'cause they listen but then they laugh. They're rowdy when they need to be, but then they're very knowledgeable about the music and very respectful of it,” Hubbard said in a phone interview last week from Austin, Texas, about 30 miles from the small town of Wimberley, where he has made his home for 15 years or so.
The same could be said of Hubbard, who will turn 66 next month but continues to tour, write and record — via his own label and publishing company, no less — at near-breakneck speed. Although he is most often associated with Texas country music, the singer-songwriter takes along the imprint of his formative years in Oklahoma no matter how fast or far he goes.
“You just can't get away from it. I'm very proud of the fact that I have roots in southeastern Oklahoma growing up there. I really do take pride in that. I love it,” said Hubbard, who was born in Soper and raised in Hugo before his family moved to Dallas when he was still a boy.
It doesn't take long listening to Hubbard talk, sing or play to realize that he loves rock ‘n' roll with that same deep-rooted passion. Whether you like it twangy, rootsy or bluesy, he and a group of like-minded musicians throw it down on “Grifter's Hymnal,” one of my favorite albums so far this year.
“We went in there with kind of the idea of like real guys playing, trying to make some of those albums that we really like, like the early Buffalo Springfield or the early Beatles or the Crowes or the Stones. These were like guys who went in the studio and played. I mean, I probably should but I don't use Auto-Tune. I just open my mouth and let it happen and that's what you get,” Hubbard said laughing. “We went in there with the idea of just making kind of a roots/country/blues/rock record. We plugged directly into the amps, didn't use pedals, didn't use Auto-Tune and just played. And I think it comes through on the album that's it's real kind of raw and unpolished, but in a cool way.”
Often cited as an influence or just a cool guy to hang out with by young players on the Oklahoma-Texas music scene, Hubbard wrote or co-wrote all 12 songs on the spring release except Ringo Starr's barnburner “Coochy Coochy,” and the Beatle even croons along with him on the cover.
“We were out at the studio and I had a resonator and Audley (Freed) had a mandolin and I think Rick (Richards) had a kick drum and a bird feeder he was shaking. We just turned on the machine and cut it, and we sent it to him. And he called me and said, ‘I want to sing on it and play shakers on it. I don't have to play drums.' ... I didn't expect that at all,” Hubbard said. “He's a Beatle, but also he's a great musician and loves music and musicians.”
Again, the same goes for Hubbard, whose “Grifter's Hymnal” opens with the fire and brimstone of “Coricidin Bottle,” which couples his son Lucas' scorching electric guitar with wicked-smart lyrics like “I got a coricidin bottle that I use as slide/And a woman sweet as a tootsie roll/When she kissing and licking and cussing and a grindin'/Shakes the mortal coil round my amaranthine soul.”
“I feel very fortunate to have seen Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and Billy Joe Shaver and to be influenced by writers like that. But I also saw Len Hopkins and Freddie King, you know. So when I write songs, it has to have the groove but then hopefully it has lyrics that just have a little depth and weight, more than ‘I just woke up this morning and had the blues,'” he said.
“That's a great thing to be a writer to remove your fear and doubt when you write and just write. Having my own label, it gives you that freedom to write so you're not in a box. That's why I can write song on there that are very spiritual and gospel like the song ‘Ask God' and then turn around and write a song about a stripper and a Les Paul.”
For the record, he's referring to the largely autobiographical “Mother's Blues,” a tribute to the legendary Dallas club that is fairly representative of the gritty, slightly grimy and often dodgy songs in his “Grifter's Hymnal.” His songs boldly address sex, death, politics and religion, and in the gospel according to Hubbard, that's the way music should be.
“That's the great thing like I say about the whole Texas and Oklahoma scene. You've got these young guys that are just playing it. You know, they're dangerous. ... It should have a bite and an edge and some dirt on it,” he said. “Man, I love music like that.”