Way back during his boozy, rowdy, outlaw-country heyday in the 1970s, Texas-based singer/songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard probably never thought he’d be collaborating with a Beatle. But that’s what went down during the making of his latest album, The Grifter’s Hymnal, a raw and raspy collection of country, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll.
“I’d met Ringo Starr out in California a few years ago, and we got to talking about songwriting,” Hubbard says, speaking last week from his home in Wemberly, a small town 40 miles south of Austin. “He told me he really liked my songs. I told him that I really liked his songwriting, too. He said, ‘Really? No one ever thinks of me as a songwriter.’ I told him that when he did [1970’s] Beaucoups of Blues, there was a bonus track with a one-chord groove called ‘Coochy Coochy’ that I wanted to record. He said, ‘Well I’d love the hear that.'”
Hubbard and his bandmates — drummer Rick Richards, mandolinist Audley Freed, and bassist/producer George Reiff — cut “Coochy Coochy” and sent it to Starr in England. Starr liked what he heard so much, he added some studio embellishments of his own and sent it back.
“Ringo actually called me and said, ‘I’m thinking I might play a little guitar on it and sing a little. The drums on it are already so good, but I might play some shakers or something, maybe do some hand claps.’ I said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ He sent it back, and there it was. He played guitar on it, sang on it, did some hand claps, and one drum fill. It sure was a treat to have this iconic former Beatle on The Grifter’s Hymnal, but mainly it was great to have the original songwriter himself perform on the rendition.”
Even at 65, Hubbard is still obsessed with the art and science of songwriting. He started playing music as a Dylan-esque folk singer in the Dallas scene in the late ’60s, but his outlaw-country endeavors of the early ’70s helped put him on the map. He performed as a solo act and worked as a collaborating songwriter during his early Texas days. But after Jerry Jeff Walker recorded Hubbard’s song “Up Against the Wall (Redneck Mother)” for the 1973 album ¡Viva Terlingua!, Hubbard’s star began to shine. However by the 1980s, his work began to suffer as he struggled with what he refers to as a “honky-tonk fog,” but his head had cleared by the time of 1994’s Loco Gringo’s Lament.
“I learned that songwriting is pretty much inspiration and craft,” Hubbard says. “You might be inspired by an idea and then put it to some music, but craft can trigger the inspiration, whether you get a groove or a lick or something like that.”
One thing’s for sure, Hubbard’s not set in his ways, regularly trying out new tricks. “I’m an old cat, but I keep trying to learn new things, like finger-picking, open tunings, slide, and mandolin,” Hubbard says. “I love listening to all good music, from bluegrass and all these rap guys to old blues and new bands like the Kills. I know how hard it is to write a song, so I keep an open mind and try to listen to different styles of music. By learning new things, it gives the songs new doors to come through.”
Rubbing elbows with rock royalty from the British Invasion isn’t new for him, either. Legendary British keyboard player Ian McLagan (of the Small Faces, currently based in Austin) regularly jams with Hubbard. McLagan was even on hand during the studio sessions for The Grifter’s Hymnal. They weren’t exactly proper studio sessions, though. Hubbard and Reiff (who’d worked with Jakob Dylan, Charlie Sexton, the Mastersons, and others) assembled a mobile studio inside the Edythe Bates Old Chapel, a historic church located on the grounds of the Round Top Festival Institute, halfway between Austin and Houston.
“George knew of this old church out in Round Top that had been there since 1888,” Hubbard says. “It had been desanctified, so they let us in there. We just wanted to get into the process, and we wanted to get that feeling of a band living in a place and recording, much like the Stones did on Exile on Main Street. We wanted to get into the camaraderie and just play.”
When Hubbard and his longtime bandmates — plus additional guitarists Billy Cassis and Brad Rice — set up in the church to record, they stripped down their standard stage gear, bypassed their usual effects pedals, and plugged directly into their vintage amps. McLagan showed up with a basic piano and organ set-up, as well.
“We went out there to play simply, and the songs just fell into place,” Hubbard says. “The song ‘Ask God’ was actually the first one we recorded because we wanted to get the spirits right and let them know things were going to be okay to let us in there. It’s a pretty live take. I knew I was going to start it with the line, ‘Say my prayers to the old black gods.’ That’s what we did. We decided to keep things simple because we love those old albums by Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Muddy Waters, the way they sounded sonically.”