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Ray Wylie Hubbard: No nostalgia act here

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Talking to Ray Wylie Hubbard, you get a music education. That shouldn’t be surprising, given the fact that he’s been making music for nearly 50 years. But as he rides into New York City for a show at City Winery tonight, the 67-year-old Oklahoma native isn’t just telling stories of the good ‘ol days and reliving them every night on stage. Instead, he’s as vibrant an artist today as he was when he put out Three Faces West in 1971.

“I feel good that I’m not a nostalgia act,” he said. “I still do the old songs, but I feel good that I’m still writing valid songs, so that keeps me on my game.”

His most recent release, 2012’s The Grifter’s Hymnal, is as good a collection of songs that he’s ever done, and as he continues work on a new album expected to come out next year, he’s not content to rest on his laurels, adding new wrinkles like open tunings, slide guitar, and mandolin to his repertoire in order to keep things fresh.

“I get inspired by the artists and the musicians that I saw growing up, like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance (Lipscomb) and Freddie King and Townes (Van Zandt) and Guy Clark and Billy Jo Shaver,” he said. “Billy Jo is still writing incredible songs, and that’s the inspiration right there. Plus there are a lot of young guys coming up, so I’ve got to watch my back. (Laughs) I keep trying to learn new things too, and by learning new things, that gives the song a door to come through that wasn’t there.”

Some would say what Hubbard is doing is a lost art, the idea of continually learning and perfecting your craft even after your reputation and legacy is secure. But as he points out, there is some light at the end of the tunnel among the younger set.

“There are some really great young writers, and then there’s some that aren’t so great, but they’re sure making a lot of money,” he laughs. “There are a lot of young cats that I really, really dig. Of course they’re young for me – Slaid Cleaves and Hayes Carl, James McMurtry, and guys like that. And then there are these other young guys like Charlie Shafter and Javi Garcia and Shakey Graves, and they write from a place that the true poets know. Of course, there are also guys that learn three chords and do fraternity party rock songs. So it’s watered down some, but then I see a lot of hope with some really great young writers.”

And speaking of writing, Hubbard isn’t just working on a new album, but he’s also putting the finishing touches on his first book, tentatively titled A Life. Well, Lived.

“The book is written, so now I’m at the point where I’m doing the layout and going through the wreckage of the past pictures,” he said. “There’s one with me and Willie Nelson with mullets, and I don’t know if I want to put that in there or not. (Laughs) It (the book) is a little bit more than just my whole life. I talk about what I know about songwriting, which didn’t take too much, but about inspiration and craft and all that stuff. I’m happy with it, and it’s a fun read. It’s not Motley Crue. (Laughs) There’s a little of that, but it’s not that overboard.”

Given his storytelling gift when it comes to songs, the book should keep readers compelled from start to finish as well. But again, is storytelling the way Hubbard and his peers do it another art not appreciated these days?

“I used to go see Mance Lipscomb and he would tell these incredible stories between songs, and of course there was Townes,” Hubbard recalled. “When he was younger he was just a master of it. He was witty and humorous, and you felt like you knew him by the stories rather than just the songs. I’ve always admired someone who could do that. Those guys were great songwriters, and I think that the young kids, the college kids, are disillusioned with the mainstream, dirt road party, pickup stuff. So they’re willing to make the effort to seek out outlaw country on satellite radio. They’ll hear something and they’ll go ‘okay,’ and they’ll look for it. And when they discover Fred Eaglesmith or McMurtry, then they go ‘this is the real deal,’ and they become kind of enlightened by the music that has some depth and weight to it.”

Ray Wylie Hubbard is still the real deal. And he’s not about to stop anytime soon.

“I like to get up there and suck people into my psychosis,” he laughs. “And I still have fun with it. I also don’t mind being a little sloppy if it comes across. It’s performance, rather than perfection.”

Ray Wylie Hubbard plays the City Winery in NYC tonight, April 29. For tickets, click here

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