Ray Wylie Hubbard is too, well, wily to buy the line about becoming an overnight success at 73. But his new affiliation with Big Machine Records and their July 10 release of his Co-Starring album make for hugely overdue mainstream recognition of a genuine American troubadour.
Hubbard only feels like a latecomer if you’re not aware of a track record that has won repeated acclaim from his peers for decades, but it does feel like he’s been catching up. In 2019, he played at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time, and this after the endorsement of a co-write with Eric Church, an avowed fan, on his No. 1 country hit “Desperate Man.” Church had already referred to him in the title song of his 2015 album Mr. Misunderstood.
The new record takes its name from its impressive bill of collaborators and admirers, which includes Ringo Starr, Joe Walsh, Ashley McBryde, the Cadillac Three, Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown, Larkin Poe, Chris Robinson and country long-runners Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn) and Pam Tillis. Also on board are Elizabeth Cook, Don Was, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Paula Nelson and Peter Rowan. The list is like a book of testimonials in album format.
Co-Starring represents a major-label return for Hubbard, who has had many recording homes, including at Rounder and Bordello, but first rode into view as an artist on Warner Brothers in the mid-1970s. By then, he had marked his songwriting card as the composer of the outlaw anthem “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” It was recorded in 1973 by fellow renegade Jerry Jeff Walker, part of the same New Mexico coterie, for his live MCA Nashville LP ¡Viva Terlingua!
“I’ve never been a mainstream guy,” Hubbard told The Boot recently. “I’ve always been pretty much to the edge. So I’m very, very grateful that…it’s happening now.” The Big Machine liaison opened up in the summer of 2019, when the singer-writer met BMLG supremo Scott Borchetta, who heard the record and told Hubbard he wanted to release it.
“I’m an old folk blues cat”
“I went, ‘Well, you know, I’m kind of an old folk blues cat. I’m really not very mainstream at all,’” Hubbard said in The Boot interview. “He said, ‘I really believe in your songwriting. I really believe in this record. I’d like to hopefully make more people aware of what you’re doing.’”
The native of Soper, Oklahoma, raised in southwest Dallas, made his first musical moves in the folk idiom in Red River, New Mexico, with a 1960s group called Three Faces West. It was Walker’s aforementioned cover that led Hubbard to the books of Warner Brothers, and the album Ray Wylie Hubbard & the Cowboy Twinkies.
The band were sometimes described as the first country-punk outfit, and their live shows were memorable to anyone who caught them. As Chris Tucker wrote in a dmagazine.com article in 1993: “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…imagine all that inflicted on a Hank Williams standard, and you’ve got the Cowboy Twinkies.”
One label to another
The LP sold respectably, but Hubbard disapproved of its production sheen, and declined to make another for Warners. Instead, he took the Twinkies to Willie Nelson’s short-lived Lone Star Records for 1978’s Off The Wall. Ray Wylie then recorded spasmodically for such labels as Renegade, Misery Loves Company and, later, Rounder/Philo.
All the while, his reputation ran ahead of his wider profile, but his relationship with alcohol began to get out of hand, until he turned his life around in his early 40s. By 2015, Ray’s adventures had merited a memoir, written with Thom Jurek and titled, with typical dash, A Life…Well, Lived. In 2017 he released the album Tell The Devil That I’m Getting There As Fast As I Can for Bordello. But as Co-Starring proves, Hubbard is far from ready for that particular encounter.
The new record began as a collaboration with the Cadillac Three, with whom he had guested on tour, prompting the album’s “Fast Left Hand.” To Hubbard’s pleasant surprise, subsequent invitations to a host of other artists were greeted with enthusiastic acceptance. Tillis, for example, joins him on two songs, “Mississippi John Hurt” and “The Messenger.” She also accompanied Hubbard when he played the latter song on his Opry debut, as did Larkin Poe.
“I write for the privilege of writing”
“I’ve learned that as a songwriter it’s pretty much inspiration plus craft,” he told American Songwriter recently. “You get the great ‘Ah ha’ moment, and then it’s the craft that determines what kind of song it’s going to be. One thing I’ve learned about songwriting is not to doubt it. I’ve never been one to sit down and write a song for someone. I write and then see what happens to it. I write for the privilege of writing and not thinking about its future.”
A paragraph in Hubbard’s autobiography seems to take on extra significance in the light of his eventual elevation to the status of an all-star album. “There’s a fine line that does not need to be crossed as far as getting your songs heard,” he wrote, “and that line is the difference between being persistent and being a pest. However, it’s okay to promote yourself…just don’t let anybody see you do it on purpose.”
Co-Starring can be bought here.