Giving credit where credit is due
Let me preface what I’m about to say by noting that what Ray Wylie Hubbard wants you to know, and what I want you to know, is that he’s more than The Guy Who Wrote Redneck Mother.
That doesn’t change the fact that the song that made him famous—as recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker—is part of an album that changed my life forever and imbedded three songwriters (later four, when I grew up and learned Guy Clark wrote “Desperados Waiting for a Train”) in my consciousness like a microchip implanted in my fevered mind. If you want to know Ray Wylie’s life story, Google is your friend, but this is a little bit about why he matters to me.
In the 1970s, my dad had the 8-track of ¡Viva Terlingua!, Jerry Jeff’s 1973 album, mostly recorded live in Luckenbach, Texas. He’d play it when the lights were dim and my folks had friends over, having a couple cocktails and laughing loudly. The music I heard through the speakers was romantic and real, to say the least. The sensibility of the lyrics reminded me a lot of my dad. Honest. And often funny.
I don’t know if I was four, five, or six when I first heard it. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but what I heard is what I wanted to be. I’ll save a song-by-song analysis for another time—perhaps over beers, listening on vinyl, in my living room, when you’re ready—because today we’re talking about Ray Wylie Hubbard. As I grew into grade school, junior high, and high school and explored every avenue of Music My Parents Did Not Listen To, I forgot about the album. I rediscovered the 8-track when home from college. It came roaring back into my mind like a muscle memory I couldn’t shake. I was, as Gary P. Nunn said on the album, “back in that place.” I showed it to my dad. I recall discussing how how great the dark Jerry Jeff tune “Wheel” and the album’s first track, the cosmic cowboy anthem “Gettin’ By,” were, as well as “Desperados.” Don’t worry, we’ll get to Ray Wylie.
Jerry Jeff, one of the best American songwriters in his own right, had an ear for excellence and was always certain to cover his friends’ songs and give them due credit. The album made two such songwriters famous. Gary P. Nunn was a member of Jerry Jeff’s Lost Gonzo Band at the time, and Gary P. sang “London Homesick Blues,” which he wrote, live on the album. Jerry Jeff made sure to holler his full name (“Mister Gary! P.! Nunn!”) on the record so we’d know who was singing (I later in life, a few days after playing at the Gin, had the privilege of meeting Gary P. and singing with him at the Broken Spoke in Austin, and he introduced me as “the Mississippi boy,” which is a good enough name-check for my memoirs).
And when Jerry Jeff sang “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,” Gary P. introduced the song by noting, “This song is by Ray Wylie Hubbard.” The record label wanted to omit the declaration, but Jerry Jeff insisted on leaving it on the record. The song is a satire of drunk goons who liked to kick the asses of hippies like the Lost Gonzos in the honky tonks where the two factions, at the time, were crossing paths.
For Ray Wylie Hubbard, the song has been an albatross at times, a calling card at others, and a nice source of royalties across the board. Much the same way Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” has been co-opted by conservatives who are mistaken about the song’s meaning, “Redneck Mother” is often perceived by frat boys and meatheads as a celebration of kicking hippies’ asses. But even as a little boy in the 1970s, I instantly understood the song’s intended irony and its assessment of the world around it. It’s part and parcel of why today I am a songwriter, and why I always check the songwriting credits on songs I love, to find out whose album I’m going to go find next. Jerry Jeff Walker (real name Ronald Crosby), Gary P. Nunn, and Ray Wylie Hubbard are why when I perform I go by the name Moon Pie Curtis. I had to have three names, and they had to come together and sound, well, gonzo.
Ray Wylie stumbled in capitalizing on his newfound notoriety from ¡Viva Terlingua! and suffered through 20 years of alcoholism before reemerging in the 1990s and finally making albums he says he’s proud of. He’s an elder statesman of the Texas songwriter realm and has been called the redneck Dalai Lama. The important thing is he’s a poet, and Oxford is fortunate to get the opportunity to hear him live, this Thursday, March 21, at Proud Larrys’, touring on his latest album The Grifter’s Hymnal. Shannon McNally opens the show. Tickets are $20.
Last week, an expatriated Oxonian living in Austin texted me from a Ray Wylie show to tell me that Hubbard’s on-stage banter and humor reminded him a lot of my father. Yep, that’s about right.
Here’s Ray Wylie (in the Dallas Cowboys shirt) with Jerry Jeff and the Lost Gonzo Band (and Leon Russell, et. al.) at Willie Nelson’s Second Annual Fourth of July Picnic in 1973, taking the lead on “Redneck Mother,” with Jerry Jeff joining in.
Here’s Hubbard more recently with “Snake Farm.” It just sounds nasty. It pretty much is.
And I’ll send you off with “Mother Blues.” Be careful of the things you wish for.