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Crafty Inspiration: Ray Wylie Hubbard Does It His Way

Decades before the internet allowed country and Americana artists to build audiences without mainstream backing, Ray Wylie Hubbard staked his claim to independence. Now those same digital tools—and the vocal support of popular younger artists—point fans of all ages to Hubbard’s music.

The 70-year-old songwriter’s best-known composition, “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,” was popularized in the early 1970s by progressive country singers Jerry Jeff Walker and Bobby Bare. Warner Bros. came calling soon after, leading to the Dumpster fire that was the 1975 album Ray Wylie Hubbard & the Cowboy Twinkies.

Hubbard’s songwriting on the album was spot on, specifically on closer “Belly of Texas.” The problem, according to Hubbard, was a meddling producer who added steel guitar, backup singers and other “Nashville sound” elements behind his back, changing the mood of what was supposed to be an intimate-sounding folk-rock record. It was the type of big-label horror story that necessitated outlaw country and punk.

Every subsequent release since Hubbard’s ill-fated major-label debut has been released by independent labels, with his wife Judy’s Bordello Records issuing his music since 2006.

“I sleep with the president of my record label, and she said, ‘You write whatever you want to write about and record the album you want to make, and I’ll try to sell the damn thing,’” Hubbard says. “For a writer, that’s a great place to be. I’m not writing to have a hit record or to even be on the chart.”

Hubbard has learned new ways to exercise his creative freedom. After age 40, he took up slide guitar and mandolin. He also sharpened his grasp of 12-bar blues, allowing him to delve into the Lone Star State songbook’s chapter on Lightnin’ Hopkins.

“I’ve finally learned after doing it enough that songwriting is inspiration plus craft,” Hubbard says. “You get the ‘aha, that’d be a great song’ when you drive by a snake farm or think about a drunken poet. You get that inspiration, and then you apply it to the craft, whether it’s going to be 12-bar blues, a folk song or whatever. It’s kind of an anguish and a joy. You anguish over it to get it right, and then it’s a joy when it works.”

By writing what he knows, as opposed to what someone else thinks will sell, Hubbard ends up with lots of songs about his deep love of music, signaled by some good old-fashioned name-dropping. He sings the praises of the 13th Floor Elevators on 2003’s “Screw You, We’re From Texas.” His latest album, 2015’s The Ruffian’s Misfortune, features songs about Mississippi blues legend Charlie Musselwhite (“Mr. Musselwhite’s Blues”) and rock guitar hero Joan Jett (“Chick Singer, Badass Rockin’”).

Modern-day outlaw Eric Church tipped his hat to the old tradition of name-dropping in country songs with his 2015 single “Mr. Misunderstood.” The song lists Hubbard, along with better-known songwriters Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy, as key influences on Church’s musical growth.

“The first time I met Eric Church, I asked how I’d ended up in that song,” Hubbard says. “He said that they were writing it, and on the turntable was Elvis Costello, me and Jeff Tweedy. So, he just put that in the song. He said he’s a big fan of my writing, so he wanted to let his audience know about me. Ever since that song came out, I’ve got a few hits on my website. It was real nice of him to do that.”

Hubbard says his next album is being mixed now, and lacks only one harmony part that will be sung by Lucinda Williams. Whether they’ve been along for the ride all along or looked him up at Church’s behest, fans know to expect two things when the record arrives later this year: a continuation of an outlaw’s independence—and a few name-drops, too.