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Ray Wylie Hubbard 'growls' about Texas

By John Lupton, May 2003

Though his birth certificate says Oklahoma, if anyone doubts that longtime Austin stalwart Ray Wylie Hubbard, now 56, considers himself a Texan to the core, the closing track of his new Philo release, "Growl" will settle the issue. The tune is called "Screw You, We're From Texas," and in his characteristically unabashed fashion Hubbard makes it clear that being from Lone Star Land is as much a state of mind, even if "sometimes it's kind of deranged."

The album is well-titled, not only in recognition of the no-holds-barred, slice-of-life songs (all Hubbard originals), but also because, as he carries on a rambling phone conversation from his home in the hill country southwest of Austin, his speech still carries the engaging rasp - and wry sense of humor - that have earned him 30 years worth of loyal fans and a place on the long roll of great singers and songwriters to come out of Texas.

"(Being from Texas) really is an attitude, especially now some people say that Oklahoma is like Texas without the ego. Texas pretty much is an attitude thing down here. Especially in the music, you know, we take great pride in the wonderful songwriters and musicians to come out of Texas. It is pretty much an attitude as much as it is a state."

Though he moved with his family to northeast Texas at an early age, it wasn't much different from Oklahoma, geographically or culturally.

"A lot of my family's originally up in Paris, Texas, up in northeast Texas and southeast Oklahoma, that whole area up there, I had relatives on both sides of the Red River."

It was a rich musical environment to grow up in as well, not only because of the prominence of nationally-known Texans like Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills, but for lesser-known talents like the blind singer and songwriter Leon Payne, writer of "Lost Highway," a song which, to this day, many still mistakenly believe was written by Hank Williams. Payne made a formidable impression on the young Ray Hubbard.

"Well, just that I really liked his songwriting. I never saw him perform, but when I got involved in music in high school - I went to the same high school with Michael Murphey, who's now Michael Martin Murphey, he went there, and also B.W. Stevenson and then Larry Groce, who hosts Mountain Stage on NPR. I went to the same high school and got kind of involved in folk music, and then you discover Dylan and discover Woody Guthrie and then Leadbelly and Cisco Houston, and then, you know, to country music with Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams, and then you discover Leon Payne and all these wonderful writers. Like I said, I never saw him perform, I liked his songwriting. 'Lost Highway' is a song I've been doing since high-school."

It's a song, Hubbard agrees, with imagery and appeal that's difficult for young, aspiring musicians to resist living out.

"Someone was saying to me the other day, you know, there's no such thing as a 'Lost Highway,' you're just hanging out with bad company," he laughs, "but in a way it's that whole kind of romanticized version of the Lost Highway, of the songwriter's and Hank Williams' kind of outlaw idea...I just wrote about the honky-tonk kind of lifestyle because I was in it."

From his early days on the Austin scene in the 70's up to his recent albums, Hubbard's songwriting has been simultaneously amusing, earthy, mystical and literate, as apt to be influenced as much by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke as by his late friend Townes Van Zandt.

With "Growl" and its predecessor, "Eternal And Lowdown" (both on Philo, and both produced by close friend Gurf Morlix), though, he's plunged headlong into the darker underside of roots music, and the result is irresistibly "down-and-dirty."

"I really kind of like, you know, the grit. The grit and the groove is what I really kind of like writing, so it's almost kind of dark in a way that it's still got a little bit of sense of humor about it, I suppose. When I write, I really take my writing seriously, but I try to take myself lightly, things can work better that way. This whole record, when Gurf and I were getting ready to do it, writing these songs, I got back kind of into my folk-blues roots. When I was growing up in high school, and right after high school, I was so fortunate to have been able to have seen ' Ernest Tubb play. But then, I've also seen Lightning Hopkins, and I feel very fortunate to have seen Freddie King play, and you know, I've seen Ramblin' Jack Elliott. That kind of music somehow twirls around inside me. This record, I've kind of wanted to get back into that grit, kind of the country blues, you know, so I feel very fortunate to have been able see those guys play. Nothing I'm conscious of when I'm writing, it kind of comes out unconsciously when I write like that."

Whichever mode or tone he happens to be writing in, Hubbard continues to display a mastery of imagery, whether it's "Savannah stands in the doorway...she asks me if I want some" or the preacher heading down the road wondering if he's preached or been preached at or the family stuck at home on a blistering day because dad's got most of the old Fairlane's innards scattered across the yard, wondering how to put them back.

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