When blackbirds show up in Ray Wylie Hubbard’s songs, they don’t leave the stage until they’ve spoken their piece.
In “All Loose Things,” the swamp-blues opener from Hubbard’s latest album, amid gamblers and pilgrims trapped in fits of lust and fury, the blackbird shows up to deliver an ominous warning: “The gods can’t save us from ourselves.”
“Going back when I was very young, reading all those classics, my dad was an English teacher, he’d read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ at night as a bedtime story,” Hubbard says. “Somewhere in there, he read ‘The Raven’ by Poe and I liked the raven talking, so often in my songs I have blackbirds saying profound things. If I ever get stuck in a song I think ‘What would a blackbird say?’”
Hubbard’s new record, “The Ruffian’s Misfortune” (released April 7 on his own Bordello Records), is 10 songs of raw roots music – folk, blues, country and rock all stirred together in his own style. In addition to the old classics, Hubbard finds inspiration for songs in the story of bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, his long-held reverence for hard-rocking women, whatever may come after this life, and an old picture he found of his wife Judy.
“There’s not really a concept, but there’s a thread that’s woven through all the songs,” Hubbard says. “As I’ve gotten older, I started thinking about mortality, and I hope God grades on a curve. Maybe I can get in with a C-minus, or end up in some celestial vocational school.”
The title “The Ruffian’s Misfortune” is the latest in a long string of evocative names Hubbard has pinned on his albums. It directly follows “The Grifter’s Hymnal” and previous gems like “Loco Gringo’s Lament,” “Snake Farm” and “Crusades of the Restless Knights.”
“I kind of got back into reading these cool old novels, from the 1800s, like ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ‘Last of The Mohicans’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’” Hubbard says. “I wanted a title like an old dusty book that you’d find in an old bookstore. Those books were just so cool and that’s the image I wanted to portray, something with that old Americana feel to it. The album title came up and just seemed to fit.”
There isn’t any particular starting point Hubbard can point to for the album, which is typically how he works, just one song after another. “I’ve been working on the songs since the last record. I just write,” he says. “After ‘The Grifter’s Hymnal,’ I didn’t know if I’d be doing another record or not. But I just wrote those songs because that’s what I do.”
Even as Hubbard, 68, has developed his own particular sound—a bit outlaw country in the 1970s, he turned a bit honky-tonk in the 80s, then to roots rock and the deeper blues-influenced grooves of his last couple records—he’s always been a folk singer at his core.
Hubbard headlines the first night of the 30th annual Tucson Folk Festival, performing at 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 2 on the Plaza Stage in El Presidio Park. Presented by the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association and always free, the festival features more than 120 artists from Tucson and around the country on five downtown stages.
“I still consider myself a folksinger even though I got a dirty groove going on,” says Hubbard, who was born in Oklahoma and moved to the Dallas area as a kid. “My first influences were the great folk songwriters: Dylan and the Cambridge guys, Eric Andersen and Towns Van Zandt and guys like him in Texas. I started off in folk music, playing all the folk clubs around Dallas and Houston that Townes and those other guys played.
“I always loved the idea of the folk music because the lyrics had depth and weight to it. I’ve never been a country singer, but I’ve been influenced by country music. I was never a rock ‘n’ roll guy but I enjoyed the rock records of the ’60s, like Neil Young and all that. I’m not a blues purist, but I feel very fortunate to have seen Lightin’ Hopkins,” he says. “I’ve been influenced by all those genres of music. It’s a very wide spectrum of music and hopefully it comes through.”
“The Ruffian’s Misfortune” comes at a career peak for Hubbard, who is publishing a memoir as well this year, writing of his early days, the road stories involving fellow musicians like Willie Nelson, and up to his network television debut, performing “Mother Blues” on the Late Show with David Letterman in January 2013, requested by the host himself. Written with Thom Jurek of the All-Music Guide, “A Life … Well, Lived” will be published this month.
“It’s got road stories and autobiography and song lyrics, plus what I’ve learned about songwriting, inspiration and craft and purpose. I’ve had a few people read the demo of it, so to speak, and I’m happy with it,” Hubbard says. “The hardest part was going through the wreckage-of-the-past pictures. There were a bunch of pictures from the 80s I didn’t want to put in. There’s one of me and Willie Nelson when I had a mullet.” Joking about taking the Letterman spotlight at 66 years old (with his now 21-year-old son Lucas, as usual, on guitar), Hubbard says “I didn’t want to peak too soon.”
“I feel like I’m still valid,” he says. “I’m very, very grateful as an old cat that I’m still gigging and I’m able to write what I want. A longtime ago I made this choice to do it and I’ve been very fortunate.” Tending to introduce himself on stage as “an acquired taste,” Hubbard says his career resurgence has come at least in part because he doesn’t have anyone but himself to answer to.
“I’m not signed to a publishing company where I have to write 12 songs a year. I don’t have to write songs to try to get other people to cut them. I can write about blackbirds talking and Charlie Musselwhite,” Hubbard says. “That’s a good place for a writer to be. I don’t feel like I have to write for someone or to fulfill a contract. I just can write. I get to write these gnarly, hopefully cool songs, and record them.”
Gnarly and cool is a fitting description for “The Ruffian’s Misfortune,” Hubbard’s songs filled with a motley collection of drifters, sinners, crapshooters, criminals, chick singers, bluesmen and beautiful women. “There’s a line in one of my old songs (“Ballad of the Crimson King”): ‘There are those condemned by the gods to write.’ I feel also that there those who are blessed by the gods to get to write,” Hubbard says. “It’s a funky place to be.”