By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
The Hill Country opens out between Austin and San Antonio, stretching in the spring like a long, green sleeping woman, the Blanco and Guadalupe rivers washing out the roads winding through Dripping Springs, Manchaca and Driftwood, small towns where ranchers, farmers, artists and musicians have taken their leave of the lawyers and media wonks who've begun to overrun the freshly hip city limits of Austin.
Ray Wylie Hubbard lives in Wimberley, Texas, just above the scrub-oak-laden banks of the Blanco, in a once-abandoned log-frame house that, with his wife, Judy, and child, Lucas, he's restored to that generous, woody, high-ceilinged space of Southwestern homes. Above the living room, he's fashioned a small loft: late at night, with his guitars, harmonicas, notepads, books -- Rilke, Joseph Campbell, Zen literature -- and a few candles, he studies on the slide guitar and writes songs.
Given his years in the Texas "progressive country" movement -- "progressive" as in velocity of substance abuse -- Hubbard should have burned out, vanished or just died, ending as little more than an asterisk to a footnote of the '70s country-rock scene. He didn't. He took a cue from Stevie Ray Vaughan, got clean as East Texas rain, built a family and dropped the Lost Gonzo-outlaw-"play 'Redneck Mother' again!" madness. His '90s recordings, beginning with Loco Gringo's Lament, Dangerous Spirits and, most recently, Crusades of the Restless Knights, have established him as one of the most artful and spiritual -- without hokey holism, with only from-the-gut clarity -- songwriters in Texas. And that's as good as saying anywhere today.
Crosses, bibles, baptisms, drifters, poets and preachers populate his songs. Their figures are iconic but true-to-the-truest-life -- like Diego Rivera's murals, had Rivera heard the music of Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson and Townes Van Zandt. Hubbard fits in that tradition of blues-tested lyricism, and though his songs speak for themselves, get him cornered and he'll talk.
Well I seem to be haunted by these ghosts
And I can't decide which ones grieve me most
Not wanting to remember or I can't forget
I am dusty with these old regrets
"That's the idea that you have this wreckage of the past," he says, "those things that haunt me some times, those things I wish I'd done different or better. But when I think that way, I know I'm asking the wrong question."
Always before us there have been true believers
Rising up from the rank-and-file drums
Now for a short time we gather small treasures
And after the harvest there is sweet kingdom come
"Those are some of Alejandro Escovedo's bands: The True Believers, Rank and File," he explains. "I did a gig with him, and we were driving home when that first line just popped in my head. I said 'Wow, that's Alejandro, but what happens after that?' I called Lisa Mednick and asked her what happens after we gather small treasures. She said, 'There's kingdom come,' and I said, 'What is that?' She called up a friend who was Catholic and asked him what it meant, but I don't remember what he said. It didn't matter; I just used the phrase."
It is a cold dark rain that keeps on fallin'
on the just as well as the unjust
If it don't, blame it on a lack of trust
"I read somewhere in the Bible that the sun shines on the just and unjust. I took that and turned it into rain. The way I look at it is that rain will fall on the just; there's gonna be sorrow for the good people. Of course, I had to plagiarize the Bible and change it around. I just couldn't leave well enough alone."
I've worn out my welcome in certain small circles
in Spanish bordellos and Confederate states
but there is an angel in leather and kindness
and she whispers my name and smiles at my fate
"For a time, I did wear out my welcome. People would say, 'Here's Ray. Come on in, Ray.' I'd drink all their whiskey, do all their dope and wear out my welcome. And I didn't have many people praising me in Confederate states, either, you know, like in Nashville. I'd worn out my welcome in both worlds; I couldn't even hang out in a Spanish bordello. When you're 86'ed from the whorehouses and from Nashville, you know you've hit hard times.
"But then there's this angel," he continues, "kind of sensual, very kind, a tarnished angel. In the song, I'm this messenger/songwriter guy, and this angel is smiling at my fate. I don't know what kind of smile it is -- a smile of grand destiny or a smile of sympathy -- that I'm gonna lay down under a tree and die."
Yes, Ray Wylie Hubbard could have died. He chose rebirth, and to write and sing instead.
Since working on Crusades with Lloyd Maines and rebuilding his artistic reputation in Texas, Hubbard has also become a much-requested producer. "The trick to producing is," he says with a wink, "you gotta have a really good Rolodex, call the right players, sit around and say, 'Well, what do you think?' And then, every now and then, 'Atta boy!' That's all there is to it. The main condition I have is that the songs be there. I've turned down a few people. I thought they needed to write 300 or 400 more songs."