By SCOTT CUNNINGHAM // Venerable Texan plays Mississippi Studios Thursday night
A line in Ray Wylie Hubbard's song Mother Blues goes "And the days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well, I have really good days."
If my recent conversation with Hubbard is any indication, most of his days at this point in his life are really good ones. We recently talked at length about last year's release "The Ruffian's Misfortune", songwriting, and reinvigorating a career that had fallen on hard times while he was in his forties.
"I feel very fortunate to sleep with the president of the record label," Hubbard says, "which is really good for me because she'll say 'you write the songs you want to write, you record them how you want to record them, and I'll try to sell the damn things.'"
The president of Bordello Records, his label, is his wife Judy. Not having to worry about the external expectations of a record label, or what a label might do to the songs, has freed Hubbard to focus his energies on the craft of songwriting.
"For me, that's a really good place to be where I can write these songs not thinking about their future, not writing songs thinking about trying to get somebody to cut them or write the songs because I've got a publishing deal."
"Inspiration is 'Aha, that would be a good idea for a song.' You drive by a snake farm and you go eww. Ok, there you go. Never second guess that inspiration."
Hubbard refers to craft as the technical aspects of songwriting: key, song structure, rhythm, and melody.
After becoming clean and sober in his forties, Hubbard rebooted his career by essentially starting over and learning from scratch. His starting point was learning the dead thumb style of fingerpicking, similar to the accoustic sound of Lightning Hopkins, where the thumb pounds out a bass line (usually the root of the current chord) while the first three fingers play melody on the first three strings.
He then moved on to pick up open tunings, slide guitar, and even the mandolin. Consider these the tools with which a songwriter works.
"I've also learned that the craft will trigger the inspiration. By learning new things, that gives the song a door to come through that wasn't there before."
"A lot of the times it's like Roger Miller said, it's like an old cat having kittens. You just crawl off under the porch and do it," Hubbard says.
His lyrics are masterfully crafted, evoking comparisons to his Texas counterpart and friend James McMurtry. Getting lyrics right, though, takes more work than most realize.
"There's times where I've just sat down and written a song, but it's a very mysterious process, kind of an anquish and a joy. You anguish over it to make sure its right and works and feels good. Then it's a joy when it's done."
The powerful nature of words isn't lost on Hubbard, either.
"You go back to Street Car Named Desire and all of a sudden you see Marlon Brando in this torn t-shirt. He's just this guy, but his words are from Tennessee Williams. I can put on this persona of a rootsy, gnarly guy but try to say something that's maybe a little profound."
Loud and shredded seems to be the first place young guitar players go in their careers. But, there's a big difference bewtween technical proficiency and setting words to music with a specific vibe, a lesson that took a long time for Hubbard to really grasp.
"I let the songs speak for themselves. Have good tone, but have some taste in what you're playing where you don't have to play all these look at me, look at me, look at me licks and keep it really busy. I like to let the songs breathe, but still have that deep groove."
The aforementioned Mother Blues is an excellent example of Hubbard's current style (watch it below). Lyrical content carries the song, but check out the minimal approach with the guitar. Watch the thumb pluck out the bass line, see how little movement there is in his fretting hand. And yet, the song drives along with a great feel, more driving than one might expect. Tone and taste, indeed.
Simplicity and minimalism are the hallmarks of Hubbards approach. Don't misunderstand, though, as creating music as good as Hubbard does is by no means simple.
One way to think of it is reducing the clutter around the songs and his life in general. He will often start writing a song in the key of E, which lends itself easily to the dead thumb technique. A capo on the third fret effortlessly changes the key to G.
When he appears at Mississippi Studios on Thursday, it will be as a three piece. His son Lucas will join him on guitar and Kyle Snyder on drums.
A three-piece sans bass? Just part of the de-cluttered approach.
"You look at ('The Ruffian's Misfortune'), there's like five songs on it that don't have bass. I enjoy that, that you don't have to completely throw everything on there."
"I've been very fortunate to be able to write what I want to write and not have to depend on Nashvile or publishing companies, or any of that stuff. I've been able to make a living by writing what I want to write and performing. I feel very fortuntate."
RWH BOOK: I'd be remiss in this preview if I didn't mention Hubbard's autobiography that was released last fall. Hubbard takes the reader on a musical journey that is as memorable as any I've read. Don't overlook the chapter where he is kidnapped by Willie Nelson.
ON TOUR: Ray Wylie Hubbard appears Thursday, August 25 at Mississippi Studios. Doors for the 21+ show are at 7:00pm. Tickets are still available.