RAY WYLIE HUBBARD IS READY. HE SAID SO AN HOUR ago over lunch at the Black-Eyed Pea. the restaurant named after a song on Hubbard’s first album, the record that might have put him up there a long lime ago if Nashville hadn’t mined it. But that’s another story. ? Yes, he’s ready. He said so again in the truck rolling out to his spacious, comfortable home in Baja Oklahoma, Carrollton. Houses with double fireplaces, huge bay windows and twittering alarm systems dot the neighborhood, an unlikely roost for an old honky-tonk warrior. The ladies jogging by in perfect running togs probably don’t know that the neighbor with the unusual hair once opened for Willie at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. back when the Austin outlaw music scene was so hot that Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan showed up to see what it was ill about. They probably don’t know about the time Willie’s road crew kidnapped Hubbard and partied all the way jo Chicago, and the drummer kept firing that little derringer at a Bible. But that’s another story, too.
Sipping coffee beneath his cathedral ceilings, Hubbard says l again: He’s ready. It’s an hourly affirmation, almost a verbal tic, a mantra he repeats whenever the conversation lags. He feels really good about things now. He’s got the clear head and the quiet mind, and he’s ready. This time it’s going to be different.
“I write the songs, I sing the songs, I’ve got the publishing, I’m the record company. I do the video, and I’m not under contract on anything,” he says. “But it’s just finding the right people to bring it up a notch, getting national distribution and some promo. If I can find that key person this year…I don’t know whether I’m getting mature or just getting tired, but I really think it’s starting to jell.”
He wants the right people to help him build on the solid work he’s done on Lost Train of Thought, the CD he recorded and produced last year. Lost Train contains some of the best music he’s turned out in 20 years as one of Texas’ premier live performers, a hard-working, often hard-drinking cult figure.
Things do seem to be looking up. Hubbard has spent the last five years free of all drugs except caffeine. In addition to his new CD, he has released the now-vital video, which Country Music Television may soon add to its playlist. Last fall, he was pronounced “on the edge” by the popular Nashville Network program “Crook and Chase”-and this time it was a compliment, meaning he was poised to break nationwide. For most of the ’70s and ’80s, the edge for Hubbard meant the outer limits of cosmic-cowboy music weirdness, the kind he turned out with his beloved Cowboy Twinkies, who are definitely another story.
He’s ready, but he needs to tell more people, the right people, that Ray Wylie Hubbard at 46 has a new attitude toward life and work and it’s yielding some great new songs. In a perfect world he would send Lost Train to the Supreme Ministry of Music, where wise and sensitive critics would hear songs like “Twist of Fate” and “Wanna Rock and Roll” for the gems they are. Buttons would be pushed, connections made and Ray Wylie Hubbard would be molten hot by the end of the week.
Yeah, Without a big record label behind him, however, he must depend on hit-and-miss local airplay and word-of-mouth among cult members and their converts. In the meantime he’s playing local gigs, clubs and private parties, and driving to Nashville on his own nickel to spread me word. And for what must be the millionth time, he’s explaining with grace and good humor how he came to write The Song that has been his calling card, his meal ticket, his albatross. That’s another story. One more time, now.
IT WAS A GREAT TIME TO BE YOUNG AND STUPID, HE LIKES TO
say. After graduating in 1965 from Oak Cliffs Adamson High School (also the alma mater of singers Michael Murphey and B. W. Stevenson), Ray Hubbard headed for North Texas State University to major in English. Summers he spent folk-singing in Red River, N.M., as one-third of a trio known as Three Faces West.
By night they’d sing, and by day they’d work the Jaycee information booth, stage fake gun fights or drive tourists around to see the sights. A favorite was the exact spot where Billy the Kid was shot. Once in a while a knowledgeable tourist would insist that the Kid met his end far south of Red River, but Hubbard was ready with an answer: “Sure, that’s where he got killed. But he got shot all over the place.”
In the mid- and late-’60s, Red River was a pit stop between Austin and Colorado for the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Murphey, Steve Fromholtz and Bill and Bonnie Hearne. “We’d play until around midnight, then go to somebody’s house and jam the night away,” Hubbard says. “Everybody was writing songs and stealing songs and raps. It was a neat era, a lot of energy.”
This was long before Willie Nelson brought about a harmonic convergence between hippies and rednecks by playing at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters. Ropers and dop-ers still glared at each other across the cultural divide. Excess hair, of which Hubbard had plenty, made a statement about music, Vietnam, Nixon, life itself. “There was a lot of tension then,” Hubbard says. “It’s hard to believe now, but driving through West Texas or New Mexico at the time, you’d put your life in danger going into a service station.”
To make matters worse, Merle Haggard unleashed “Okie from Muskogee” in the fall of 1969, scorning shaggy, flag-burning freaks with their “beads and Roman sandals” and pledging allegiance to Old Glory and the hard liquor God meant real men to drink. “Okie” was a middle finger waved in the face of the counterculture. And the musical answer flung back was “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.”
It happened one night in Red River, when Hubbard, Joe Ely and some others were jamming late. The beer was running low, so Hubbard went for reinforcements. He strolled into a store and an older woman asked him a familiar question: “How can you call yourself an American with hair like that?”
“I said I didn’t remember calling myself an American,” Hubbard says with a practiced grin. “I just came to get a case of beer. So we got into this little deal, and she said she was from Oklahoma. She had her son with her, a guy with a real burr haircut. I went back to the house, set down the beer and picked up my guitar. I told everybody I had run into this redneck mother down there, and I just started singing:
“He was born in Oklahoma…His mother’s name is Mary Jo Thelma Liz…He’s not responsible for what he’s doin’…’Cause his mother made him what he is.”
The next night at a club called the D Bar D, Hubbard gave the song its public debut. Filling time while another guitarist changed a broken string, he wandered into the story of his encounter with the Okies. “She was gonna whip me,” he told the crowd. “I think I could have taken her, but she had her boy with her.”
So “Redneck Mother” was born. The rest is still something of a mystery to Hubbard. During the first few years of the song’s life, he regarded it as a throwaway number not even worth rehearsing. He never sang it the same way twice; the now-famous chorus-“M is for the mudflaps on my pickup, O is for the oil I put on my hair”-underwent endless mutations depending on the town, the room and the band’s alcoholic content. Some who heard it smiled, some whooped, some sat on their hands.
“Redneck Mother” might have just drifted off into the ether, to be picked up light-years hence by extraterrestrials who would judge humanity by its lyrics: “He’s 34, and drinkin’ in a honky-tonk…Just kickin” hippies’ asses and raisin’ hell!” But the Fates had something else in store. The song transcended mere barroom life when Hubbard later played it with Bob Livingston, a bassist who later played it with Jerry Jeff Walker one night at the Broken Spoke in Austin.
“The hippies started yelling and the rednecks yelled back,” Hubbard says. “People started fighting and pouring pitchers of beer on each other. So Jerry Jeff said, lHey, I better learn this song!”
Walker added the song to his act and, in the summer of 1973, wanted to put it on the album that became the groundbreaking Viva Terlingua, recorded in Luckenbach. Texas. Livingston called Hubbard to ask for a second verse, which he quickly wrote over the phone: “He sure likes to drink Budweiser beer…Washes it down with that Wild Turkey liquor…He’s got an old GMC pickup truck with a gun rack.. .and a ’Goat Ropers Need Love Too’ bumper sticker.”
Hubbard had neither recorded nor copyrighted the song. But during the taping, Livingston paid tribute to the father of “Mother” by declaring, “This is a song by Ray Wylie Hubbard.” The label bosses told Walker that the intro should be cut, lest people think it was Hubbard and not Walker singing, “Jerry Jeff said he didn’t care,” Hubbard laughs. “And every time they’d play the song in public. Bob would say the same thing. That helped me get my name around.
“It’s really weird. I’ve never had a hit record. I wrote this song that somebody else cut that was never a single and never got a lot of airplay. And it became this catalyst, the definitive progressive country thing. It’s always been this bastard child. I say I wrote ’Portales’ and ’Texas Is a State of Mind’ and other stuff. And they say they wanna hear ’Redneck Mother.’ “
LABELS LIKE HEAVY METAL. GRUNGE ROCK. NEO-TRADITIONAL.
polkafunk-speed-metal and progressive country are useful to those who sell and critique music, not those who make it. Ask Ray Wylie Hubbard to define his style, or measure out just how many cups of country he mixes with how many splashes of rock, and you get a polite, rambling 2.000-word monologue that lets you out by the same door you entered. As with most performers, be they ballerinas or wide receivers, me magic is in what he does, not in what he says about it.
That goes double when you’re talking about a band like Hubbard’s original Cowboy Twinkies. If you were lucky enough to catch them at ’70s nightspots like Whiskey River, Fannie Anne’s, Faces or Mother Blues, you remember the spontaneous combustion. Music happened on stage that was never captured on vinyl.
The Twinkies in full flight defied classification, which is what happens when you run a steel guitar through a Leslie speaker, add vibes, bongos and congas, mix an electric saw with heavy reverb and toss in a theremin (the thing that goes oooWEEooo on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”). Imagine all that inflicted on a Hank Williams standard, and you’ve got the Cowboy Twinkies.
“Some people say we were the first country-punk band,”
Hubbard says. “We’d come out and do country stuff, but we’d also do [Led Zeppelin’s] ’Communication Breakdown’ and Hendrix’s version of ’The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ” We’d be doing “Silver Wings’ by Merle Haggard, and the guitar man would do the break in feedback. We’d either piss people off or they’d love us. You couldn’t ask for more than that.”
Pat Toomay, then a defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, got his first glimpse of Ray Wylie Hubbard in his pre-Twinkie days at the old Rubaiyat, an Oak Lawn folk club where Hubbard often did a solo act. Toomay helped launch the Twinkies by offering them gigs at the Handlebar, a club he owned with teammates Charlie Waters, Cliff Harris and others. “I still remember the first time I heard him do ’Redneck Mother,”” says Toomay, now a Dallas screenwriter. “1 never laughed so hard in my life.”
The Texas tide was rising, and with the success of “Redneck Mother” it looked like Ray Wylie Hubbard would be one of those riding the wave. Toomay became the Twinkies’ unofficial and then official manager, and soon afterwards landed an offseason job as a regional promotion director for Warner Bros. Records. It looked like a record deal was just a matter of time. On the strength of a demo tape cut in an Austin studio, the band drew the attention of Atlantic. Discreet (Frank Zappa’s label) and Warner Reprise. (Toomay remembers when he and Hubbard were summoned to New York for a sit-down dinner at the Central Park penthouse of a top Atlantic official. When they met at the airport, Toomay says, Hubbard had packed nothing but a toothbrush in his coat pocket.) Finally they set up a tentative working agreement with Atlantic. That’s when the troubles began. Hubbard says.
“The damn thing was, everybody said they loved the tape. So I said great, release it. Let’s go. And they said, ’Oh, no, no, you cut it in Austin, Just think what you can do with real studios and real musicians.’ “
So the band went to studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., to record-and argue with their producer. Hubbard wanted that Viva Terlingua feel-“that attitude and energy, not just meticulous correct notes.” Above all, he wanted to cut “Redneck Mother” live.
“I wanted to just go in some bar somewhere and let it happen.” Hubbard says. But the producer had his own ideas: They’d cut in the studio and then he’d dub in the crowd noises-good noises, mind you. from Bob Dylan’s Isle of Wight concert. Says Hubbard: “I told him he was missing the point. It wasn’t going to do any good to have 50,000 people yelling ’Baaahhhb!’ You gotta hear beer bottles breaking.”
Toomay was at the Cowboys’ training camp in California when he began getting calls from a worried Hubbard. The studio pros wanted to use the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, not the Twinkies, but Hubbard was adamant. “He just wouldn’t do it,” Toomay says. “He had depended on these guys, and he just couldn’t.”
So Hubbard called the record honchos and told them things weren’t working out. Atlantic released him, and within a few months Toomay had arranged another deal with Warner Reprise. Fearing he would miss his chance. Hubbard agreed to some compromises and the band headed for Nashville. They laid down the basic tracks and were planning to return for recutting and polishing-or so they thought. Hubbard did come back to redo one song, but he had a sinking feeling about the process. “I was losing control of the situation,” he says. “I just felt like the train was rolling and I wasn’t on it.” His intuition was dead right. The record company, hurrying to make a September deadline, abruptly decided that things were perfect enough and released the album.
Hubbard didn’t own a cassette player, so when he got his copy in the mail he and the other band members went out to his van. They slid in the tape. To their surprise, the First song had several girl singers chirping in the background. So did the second. And the third. A couple of tracks still carried Hubbard’s reference vocals, not the final lyrics. It was that old Nashville sound. And it was a botch.
“Man, this still hurts to think about it,” Hubbard says, shaking his head. “We couldn’t believe it. What had happened to that piece of our soul we’d worked on down in Austin? First we started laughing. Then we just started crying, all of us.”
In a real sense, Hubbard never recovered from that blow. The Twinkies were still a hot live act, but they couldn’t capitalize on their record. They didn’t even want to acknowledge it was theirs. “It was so bland, and our shows were so wild,” Hubbard says, wincing like it all happened yesterday. “I’d go to radio stations and hand it to them kind of sideways. I don’t really blame anybody. Now 1 can see that they were just trying to make it more commercial, but we had this image of what it was supposed to be like, like what Austin and Texas were at the time, and they just didn’t understand that in Nashville.
“Willie and Waylon [Jennings] knew how to work in that framework and get what they wanted,” he says. “We didn’t understand how to do it. It’s like what happened to a bunch of people at that time, like Rusty Wier, Gary P. Nunn, the Side of the Road Gang. It just never went on to the level I thought it would.”
Ironically, the Nashvillized version of the album enjoyed decent sales. Warner wanted to do another-but this time, no Twinkies. Hubbard insisted on full-tilt Twinkie or nothing. “These were guys who would go back to back with you, like you were at the Alamo,” he says. “If you said something bad about the drummer, you had to fight the whole band.”
“His attitude was admirable, but that’s the way they do things,” says Pat Toomay. Soon afterwards, he and Hubbard had a friendly parting. “I couldn’t do much more,” Toomay says. ’These opportunities don’t come along that often. The way these cultural machines work, they put the spotlight on you and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Hubbard and the Twinkies cut another record a year or so later, this time on Willie Nelson’s short-lived Lone Star Records. It was thrown together with manic haste, but the result was at least a close neighbor to their stage act. Buoyed, they went on tour with Nelson, doing 38 cities in 45 days. They killed the crowds, but bad luck dogged them. Due to slipshod distribution, the new record arrived in each city about a week after they were gone. Eventually the Twinkies broke up, victims of the entropy that seems to set in when talented people find their way blocked. Hubbard went on to make a lot of good music with some great players, including the amazing Dallas guitarist Bugs Henderson. But the wave had passed, leaving him on the beach. Now he believes it’s building again. And he’s ready,
“I just really haven’t had the right catalyst there to take what I do to the record companies and do it the right way,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I was thrust in mere before I was really ready, you know. Right now, I feel like I’m ready to get into the music business for the first time.”
THE TITLE OF HUBBARD’S NEW work. Lost Train of Thought, carries numerous shades of meaning. Along with the cover photo-Hubbard in Stetson and sunglasses, sitting in an old-time railroad car-it links him to the hoary train-pain-rain tradition of country music. But the title also makes a dark joke on a career that has seen him lose many a train of thought, and take years to pick it up again.
Hubbard’s 11 original songs (two were written with longtime guitarist Terry Ware, a former Twinkie) run the gamut of style and mood-from gentle steel guitar to thundering drums, from buoyant optimism to rage and mayhem. The opening song, the bouncy “Here Comes the Night,” celebrates those giddy moments of unearned joy (“My day job’s nothin’ but a memory,..Here comes the night, my baby ’n’ me”). “These Eyes,” a moving duet with Willie Nelson, praises devotion and fidelity; it’s a song that would sound natural coming from Porter Wagoner or any other pillar of Nashville’s ancien régime.
Hubbard grows more somber and skeptical on side two. “Rockabilly Rock” is roots music, recalling the “teen-age rampage” sel off by early rockers like Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. The other songs deal with lost love and damaged hearts, from the haunting “Portales” (a remnant of Hubbard’s New Mexico days) to the anguished “Twist of Fate,” the tale of an embittering divorce: “The judge gets my paychecks and my alibis…I get the pain, my kids get the lies…” The record closes with “Wanna Rock and Roll,” a bubble-gum title that hides a story of passion, betrayal and murder.
As much as he wants to look toward the future-and hurry it along-Hubbard knows that part of his appeal lies in his colorful, often self-destructive past. “Here’s a chance to relive your wasted youth,” he joked recently, introducing “Redneck Mother” at Fort Worth’s White Elephant Saloon. The crowd laughed, but the words were spoken by one who has been there. It wasn’t just his music but his life mat made Ray Wylie Hubbard a demigod in the pantheon of Texas music.
“Willie was the old one, Waylon was the mean one, Jerry Jeff was the drunk one, David Allan Coe was the cussin’ one, and I was the wild one,” he says with a rueful smile. “They always said, ’Don’t dare Hubbard, ’cause he’ll do it.’ “
And if nobody dared him, he’d dare himself, like so many other musicians who have sacrificed livers and brain cells to their art. It’s Margarita ville, not Tofuville. Hubbard grew up idolizing Hank Williams, who died from whiskey and pills before he was 30.
“You’re 26 years old, and you’re playing Willie’s picnics,” Hubbard says of his early days. “There’s beer, hippies, mud, naked women. Why would you want to do anything else?”
But years passed and Hubbard, like his famous redneck, was 34 and still drinking in a honky-tonk. “I kept doing the same things and expecting different results. When you’re 21 or 22, you can play an Austin club, close it down, get a case of beer, take a couple of white crosses and drive all night to Colorado. Then you sleep a couple of hours and you’re ready to play again. Well, I was still doing that when I hit 35.”
Hubbard’s world fell in during his late 30s. He divorced. His father died. He had run through most of the money he made during the good years with the Twinkies. Nights of drinking for fun turned into days of drinking to maintain. He stopped caring about his music. It was too much even for an old friend like Bugs Henderson, who quit the band.
“I just hurt a lot,” Hubbard says. “I was just drinking to get through a day. I started having blackouts. My mind would leave, and then it would come back and I’d have no idea what my body had been doing.”
Five years ago Hubbard, then 41, made the break with alcohol. He’s stayed sober with the help of a 12-step program, some musician friends who had made die same passage and his second wife, Judy Stone. The two met in 1988 at Poor David’s Pub, where Hubbard was playing. Whether drinking or not, he’s always been a talkative, engaging performer, and he was in rare form that night.
“Everybody was in a real goofy mood,” says Hubbard. “I can’t remember anything 1 said, but I went off on some real tangents and Judy liked it.” When he was coming out of the dressing room, she blocked his way and playfully refused to let him pass until he asked her out. So he invited her to another gig the next night. “She walked in and started grinning, and I started grinning. It just felt right.”
Humor bonds the couple, who married in 1989 and are expecting their first child in June. When the expectant mother tells someone the news, Hubbard is likely to quip, “At least we know whose it is this time.” drawing a laugh and a good-natured slap from Judy.
“You know, people always say that a sense of humor is important to a woman,” Hubbard muses. “I never really believed that. I thought it was a Porsche, or a great body, or Tom Cruise looks.” He jokes that they’ll give the baby “a real ’90s kind of name. You know, maybe Wylie Ice or something. I was going to name my first son [Cory, now 14] Lake Ray, but we thought it might get confusing.”
Hubbard eventually reached the point where he was scared to keep drinking, but he was also scared to stop. “I didn’t really know that I would actually have fun [without drinking]. ’ thought. God, it’s gonna be so damned boring. I didn’t want to be one these reformed people you see on ’The 700 Club.’
And he worried about staying sober when his workplace was a bar. Temptation was everywhere; his first gig after swearing off liquor was a big New Year’s Eve party at a hotel. The contract carried the note he had always loved to see: “RFB”- room, food and booze provided free.
He laughs, remembering the sight that greeted him at the hotel. “I showed up about 8 o’clock, and some girl in a formal dress was already drunk, crawling down the hall and throwing up. That actually helped me that night. I figured that could be me. Or I could wind up with her!”
Happily, Hubbard has none of the self-righteous smarminess of some reformed drinkers. He and Nelson are scheduled to play a March benefit for the Ethel Daniels Foundation of Dallas, which helps young people quit drugs, but don’t look for him on “The 700 Club.” Unless someone presses him, he doesn’t discuss his drinking at all, except obliquely in a recent song called “Didn’t Have a Prayer.” After booze “tore my soul and turned against me,” Hubbard wrote, he found himself at a crossroads. But the answer, for him, was not the familiar turn to Jesus. “I’ve been straight five years,” he says, “and during that time I’ve been to church three times. I got married and buried two people.”
The song serves as a bookend to an early Hubbard song, “Lowlife Companions.” He recently added a new verse (“I got my degree in honky-tonk school…The first rule is, there are no rules”) and offered it to Jimmy Buffett. who is planning an album of party songs. With the help of old friend Tony Joe White, who wrote “Rainy Night in Georgia” and had a ’70s hit with “Polk Salad Annie,” Hubbard is getting serious about writing and selling songs, not just playing them. There is no age limit for songwriters, he notes.
In mid-February he set up a showcase at a Nashville club, hoping to lure and impress “the right people” from the industry. He’s confident that Lost Train of Thought carries solid material, but he knows that his stage work packs a punch of its own.
“I’m going to have to show them that what we’ve got is a viable…product,” Hubbard says with a grimace. “I hate that word, but the live show is part of it, a real good selling point.”
And so, too, is The Song, his personal contribution to the Texas time capsule. A few years ago, Walker’s Viva Terlinguo went gold, having sold more than 500,000 copies. “Redneck Mother” has been recorded by Bobby Bare, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, a German band named Islem Hillbillies and many others. From time to time Hubbard still gets stray royalty checks off “Redneck Mother,” little telegrams from the man he used to be.
“That song is my jacket, as they say in prison. It’s what I did. and it’s what I’ve gotta wear,” he says with a bemused smile. He believes he has done and will do better music, but he knows the bastard child will always be part of him, as will the freewheeling outlaw days. “You’re a young kid, and like the song says, there ain’t no signposts along this highway. And if there had been, I wouldn’t have listened. What happened happened. Now it’s over, so what do I do?”
Mostly he works, playing the Three Teardrops Tavern, the Ozona Grill, private parties, a “Texas cruise” in early February. He refines his songs and sharpens his guitar skills, aiming to do more solo gigs in the future. “There’s a lot more I want to learn about finger picking and song structure,” he says. “It’s funny. I’ve been play ing in honky-tonks for 25 years, and two years ago, when I was 44, I took my first guitar lesson.”
And he waits for the right people to listen to his CD or catch him at a club some night. “I know I screwed up and there’s probably some people in the business I owe amends to. but I’m hoping to be judged on what I’m doing now.” he says. He looks into the distance, a tinge of sadness in his voice–but only for a moment. Then he laughs, and the old mischief is back. “Hell, I never burned that many bridges. You know, a couple of times I’d fall into me drums, but people would stand up and cheer.”
Above all, he keeps his spirits up. He believes the categories are loosening enough to admit an old outlaw who is leading a new life. He hopes that young people struck by Randy Travis and Garth Brooks will go beyond what they hear on the radio and dig down toward the roots, where they’ll find Marshall Tucker and the Allman Brothers-and Ray Wylie Hubbard.
“They’re gonna run out of everybody else,” he grins. “And when they do, I’m going to be there, and I’m going to be ready this time.”
Arts & Entertainment
The sunshine returns, as does the warmer temperatures, just in time for a very packed weekend of entertainment.
Commercial Real Estate
The elimination of parking minimums could be one of the most significant new drivers in restaurant and other retail development in decades, writes Herb Weitzman.