In the 1970s, legendary Texas singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard helped to define the Texas Music sound. Part outlaw, part troubadour, part devil-may-care rogue, Hubbard has inspired countless musicians in his nearly five decades of music (and mischief) making. His influence is examined in Brian T. Atkinson‘s new book, The Messenger: The Songwriting Legacy of Ray Wylie Hubbard, available from Texas A&M Press. In this excerpt, Cross Canadian Ragweed co-founder and frontman Cody Canada discusses his friendship with Hubbard and what makes Hubbard’s music so special.
My older musician friends from Stillwater, Oklahoma, went down to Jerry Jeff Walker’s Labor Day party in Luckenbach one time. They came back ranting and raving about Ray’s song “Wanna Rock N Roll.” They were singing it at [Stillwater’s] The Wormy Dog. That’s when I really got turned on to him. I was eighteen or nineteen. I was fortunate that we met not long after. He said he wanted to write songs together, and I told him that I was really nervous to be around him. He said, “Well, you’re gonna have to get over that.” I never forget that. I use that with folks these days when they say things like that to me. “You’re gonna have to get over being nervous if we’re gonna get any work done.”
Ray brought the idea for “Cooler-N-Hell” to me when we were doing his Roots and Branches show at KNBT radio in New Braunfels. I was driving this candy apple red Camaro, and we were inside getting ready to do the show. He was talking about writing a song about a car. I said, “I got a Camaro,” and took him out back to show him. He said, “There it is, man. Candy apple red.” That song really just rolled off the tongue from there. It really started flowing once he had that line written: “A Sixty-eight Camaro, candy apple red / Four-speed transmission, chrome heads / Rev her up and she casts a spell / Some things here under heaven are just cooler-n-hell.”
Ray’s a really good cowriter. He cheerleads. You know he has the lines himself, but he wants to write with you. So, he’ll give you the, “You’re almost there. Keep going. Just a couple more twists and turns, and you’ll get it.” I’m sure he could just nail the song and walk away, but he really enjoys writing with other people. I’d give him a line on “Cooler-N-Hell,” and he’d say, “There you go. I knew you had it.” He’s so good about encouraging and helping you weigh options. “Maybe try a couple lines and see which is your best one.”
Going into Gurf Morlix’s studio to record that “Cooler-N-Hell” for Delirium Tremelo sreally brought me back to reality. Cross Canadian Ragweed went from recording in Denton to Cedar Creek [in Austin] and then to California to some bigger studios that the label was paid for. Gurf’s showed that you don’t don’t really need a giant, all-wood studio with acoustics everywhere. You can do this without spending all this money. I remember walking into Gurf’s with my guitar in a case, and he said, “You can bring one or the other in: The guitar or the case.” There wasn’t enough room for both in there.
Ray warned me long ago about volume onstage. He said, “You don’t need to be the loudest band on the scene. Eventually, your ears are gonna pay for it.” He was right. I listened. As far as playing with him, even now I look next to me and think, Wow. That’s Ray Wylie Hubbard playing with me. I can’t believe I’m onstage playing or that he invited me. There’s a lot of trust between us, and we were very straightforward with each other in the beginning. That’s what you get onstage with him: trust and confidence. That’s something a lot of us lack sometimes. There’s good days and bad days, but he showed me gratitude. You know, you could be digging a ditch. Get up there and strut your stuff.
I started playing “Wanna Rock N Roll” live with my friend Mike McClure from the Great Divide, and every time we were in the studio that song always came back up. We had enough original songs on Ragweed’s Soul Gravy (2004), but I always like to throw something in to show people my influences and where I come from. We did the song in one take because we’d already played it so much. You know, we were extremely busy at that point. We’d pop into the studio for a day get tones, record two songs, break down, then do it again. “Wanna Rock N Roll” was the last song recorded for the record, and it really was a labor of love. I called Ray, got his blessing to record the song, and whipped it out.
Ray taught me don’t take yourself so seriously. When I started out, there was no safety net, and I regret some of those songs. That was before I met Ray. I would belt it out, record, and move on. I’d listen to it later on my radio or in my car and go, “Man, I wished I would have tweaked it a bit.” Then I got carried away with being too picky. Ray told me one time, “Do it if it feels good. We were born with instincts.” I’ve carried that with me a long time. Ray really took me under his wing when I moved down to Texas and helped me shape what I’m doing nowadays and I do give him credit, but I don’t think I’ve given him enough. Now that I’m getting older, I think in terms of when you’re a kid and your dad tells you something. You’re like, “Eh. The hell’s he know?” Then you get older and realize he knows what he’s talking about. That’s where I’ve been with Ray over the last few years.
We talk about getting together for a cup of coffee every time we see each other, but we still don’t do it. He’s like, “Man, when I’m home, I’m home.” That’s how I am, too, but it’s nice to know that he’s there. Also, he hooked my kids up with meeting Joe Walsh a couple years ago in Houston. I got to do a pretty good-sized show with Joe in Las Vegas from that meeting. Ray’s the friend that keeps on giving for me.
We talk about a lot of music. We always go back to old blues, the music that formed us as musicians and made us do what we do. We also talk about cars, guitars, and kids. Now, his kid’s a grown man, but Ray was good to me when I first had kids. I always had questions for him: “How long is too long to be gone away from your kids? What’s too long at home when the family gets tired of you?” I hope I have the fans that he has when I’m seventy years old. We went on a whole month run lats month from Washington to Wisconsin, and there wasn’t one night that we didn’t play “Wanna Rock N Roll.” There wasn’t one night when there wasn’t someone with a Ray story to tell and the nice things he said about my wife, me, and our kids.
As much as Ray hated it before and then came to terms with it, “Redneck Mother” is gonna be his legacy. There’s so much more to his music when you dive headlong into it, but that song hooks people in. There are so many songs that are so much better than “Redneck Mother.” I’m not dogging the song. Everybody wants to have a tune that makes people laugh and makes the bar rowdy and fun. Hopefully, he won’t kill me for saying it, but his legacy will be “Redneck Mother,” and he should be very, very proud to wave that flag.
I had the great fortune of sharing a stage with Ray in Omaha, NE in the late ’70s, he later invited my lead guitarist and me to Dallas to hear him with The “Cowboy Twinkies” at Fannie Ann’s on Greenville Ave. The guy is a remarkable soul and an artist of the highest order! Thanks for the insightful article!