Ray Wylie Hubbard has risen over the last decade to elder statesman stature within the Texas music scene as well as earning his place as one of the most esteemed songwriters within American roots music. It's an accomplishment that actually surprises him. “For so many years I was this wild child of progressive country. I wasn't even thinking about the future, much less anything like a legacy. And now here I am at 58, still doing it,” he notes with his typically wry bemusement. And, it should be noted, despite Hubbard's characteristic modesty, he's doing it better than ever, if also as well as anyone does contemporary folk spiced by blues, rock and country these days.
So now, after delving deep into what he calls the “greasy” spirit of the blues on his last two albums, Eternal and Lowdown and Growl, Hubbard takes time to reflect on where he has been, where he is today, and where he continues to go on Delirium Tremolos . Taking its title from an expression coined by his pal and producer Gurf Morlix for the little musical twists they like to throw into their work together, it's a collection on which Hubbard celebrates the centrality of the song within his musical journey over the course of more than four decades.
“I wanted to do an album of really cool songs, whether I wrote them or not,” Hubbard explains. The theme of the collection is set by the two opening numbers, “The Beauty Way” and “Rock and Roll Gypsies,” both of which explore the trail of the itinerant musician that Hubbard has followed. The first, written by Eliza Gilkyson, who guests on vocals, takes Hubbard back to his days as a budding folk singer with its allusion in the first verse to her father, folk music veteran Terry Gilkyson, an early influence on Hubbard. The second is a number by Oklahoma songwriter Roger Tillison that Hubbard first heard many years ago and since then has “always sung around the house just because I like what it says about this way of life.”
Another number, “Drivin' Wheel” by Canadian songwriter David Wiffen, also takes the artist back to his roots. It's a song that Hubbard has loved and occasionally performed since he first heard it on a Tom Rush album back in 1970. In a fashion, Delirium Tremolos recalls Rush's influential albums of that era, when he mixed his own songs with those of fellow talents like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and others. To wit, these days Rush performs Hubbard's “Dust of the Chase,” which its writer revisits here as well.
The musical past that helped form the artist Hubbard became is also visited on “Roll and I Tumble.” Again, it struck him when he heard the song on an Alan Lomax folklore collection sung by Rosalie Hill, who happened to be Mississippi Fred McDowell's neighbor when Lomax was recording him. And it has resonated with Hubbard ever since.
From that foundation, Hubbard moves into the realms of his contemporaries as well as the artists who have followed in his wake. “Torn In Two” is a favorite of his written by Morlix. And James McMurtry's “Choctaw Bingo” is “a song I should have written,” chuckles Hubbard. “I have these relatives in Southeast Oklahoma who are just like the people in that song.” McMurtry joins Morlix on electric guitar on the track to turn it into a two-gun six-string rumble.
Then there are representatives of the booming young Texas and Oklahoma music movement that holds Hubbard in high regard as a musical forebear. He recently co-wrote “Cooler-N-Hell” with Cody Canada of rising Okie country rockers Cross Canadian Ragweed on a cold tour bus parked at a gig they played together in the Colorado Rockies. And Jack Ingram joins Hubbard on “Dallas After Midnight,” a song from his wilder years “back when I thought it was cool to be bad ass.”
The past and present mix on “This Mornin' I Am Born Again,” which is a Woody Guthrie lyric set to music by Hubbard's Philo/Rounder label mate Slaid Cleaves. It's a cappella arrangement was suggested when Cleaves broke a guitar string at the start of the song during a tour of Europe with Hubbard. And indicative of the admiration and affection accorded Hubbard by generations of fellow artists, he's joined on Delirium Tremolos by such contemporary Austin-based talents as Patty Griffin and Bob Schneider alongside veterans like rock keyboard legend Ian McLagan, respected Texas songwriter Kimmie Rhodes and modern bluesman Ray Bonneville.
Becoming a respected musical figure wasn't even in Hubbard's sights when he started out in music. Born in Oklahoma and reared in Dallas , he was inspired to play and write by a Bob Dylan album on which he wore out the grooves by spinning it endlessly. But it was more the sheer fun of performing and the attendant lifestyle that made music an all but default career choice.
Then a song he wrote as a joke, “Redneck Mother,” became a 1970s Cosmic Cowboy anthem after Jerry Jeff Walker recorded it. It was Hubbard's entrée onto the performing circuit and a Warner Bros. record deal. But the label fumbled the music on his sole recording with them. And while Waylon, Willie, Walker and the boys rode the progressive country wave to national renown, Hubbard ended up an also ran, albeit one known for the rowdiest live shows within a scene that was hardly sedate to begin with.
But the fun, the wild life, and the substances that fueled it lost their allure for Hubbard by the close of the 1980s. Waking up from his years of rocking, rolling and raving, newly clean and sober, he took a cold hard look at what to do with the rest of his life.
The choice he made was to perfect the art he had used as a crafty way to make a living and have a high old time for a good couple of decades. Reemerging in 1991 with the album Lost Train of Thought , Hubbard signaled that he was now a songwriting force to be reckoned with. Over the five albums that followed, he became known as a master of everything from the poetic and poignant to the gritty and greasy.
Here in the new millennium, Hubbard now finds himself “one of the leading lights among Texas singer-songwriters,” as the Associated Press declares. But never one to collect laurels, he sees his career in far simpler terms. “The one thing I've always been able to do is go out there with my guitar and pay at least some of my bills,” Hubbard demurs. Yet that focus on the fundamentals continues to fuel his quest to make the most of his talents.
Delirium Tremolos also addresses the basics: great songwriting - no matter who the writer is - and its role in Hubbard's ascension to distinction as an eminence grise among contemporary singer-songwriters. And with its display of appreciation and vision, it only whets the appetite for all that is still to come from Ray Wylie Hubbard.