Ray Wylie Hubbard with special guest Kelley Mickwee
Ray Wylie Hubbard
Whether or not you subscribe to the adage that the devil always has the best music, you can take it on faith that anytime he pops up for a cameo in a Ray Wylie Hubbard song, the results are gonna be pretty damned entertaining. And as any fan of the Hubbard cannon knows, Old Scratch pops up in his songs a lot — nearly as often as all of Hubbard’s wise-cracking black birds, lyrical and musical nods to Lightnin’ Hopkins, bad-ass women (usually Hubbard’s own wife, Judy), and a myriad of other grifters, ruffians, and scrappy cats of the gnarly and general lowdown variety. Somewhere or other on just about every Ray Wylie Hubbard album, the devil always gets his due — and he’s now even worked his way up to top billing on the acclaimed songwriter’s latest, Tell the Devil I’m Getting There as Fast as I Can (due August 18, 2017 on Bordello Records through Thirty Tigers).
Now, don’t get the wrong idea here. Hubbard’s not some faddish heavy metal occultist on an Aleister Crowley kick; “I don’t really go that far or study it or anything,” he says with a chuckle. Nor is he under the spell of any liquid, powder, or other chemical that a tee-totaling churchgoer might flag as the devil’s influence: Hubbard shook off all of that stuff 30-some-odd years ago, when the wayward ’70s progressive country refugee stumbled out of his honky-tonk fog and discovered that both his life and art were a helluva lot greener on the sober side of the fence. What it really comes down to is the fact that there’s just something about the cut of the fallen angel’s jib that’s tickled Hubbard’s muse ever since 1999’s uproarious “Conversation With the Devil.” And much like his sheepish excuse in that song that “I never used the cocaine to get high, I just liked the way it smelled,” Hubbard just gets a kick out of hearing — or rather, making — the wily (Wylie?) fiend talk.
“You kind of give him a personality, you know?” offers the 70-year-old Oklahoma-born troubadour from his log-cabin Shangri-la in Wimberley, a Texas Hill Country hamlet just outside of Austin. “Like in [the new album’s] ‘Lucifer and the Fallen Angels,’ you pick up this guy hitchhiking to Mobile, Alabama, and he’s just this colorful kind of smart-ass, funky cat. It reminds me of A Streetcar Named Desire, where you’ve got Marlon Brando as this brute in a torn T-shirt, but what he’s saying is brilliant, because his words are from Tennessee Williams. I always enjoy that.”
And because he’s an equal opportunity kind of deity casting agent, Hubbard has just as much fun playing around with the voice of the devil’s arch nemesis, as heard here on the album-opening “God Looked Around.” The Biblical story of creation has been recounted many times over the ages, but only in Hubbard’s hands does it stomp like a prison field holler with the Almighty mumbling “Well shucks, let there be light” and “well there it is, for what it’s worth.” You better believe he sticks to the whole Original Sin and kicked-out-of-Eden plot, though, and not just to land his punch line about why all snakes “to this day they slither and hiss.”
Later, in the song “Prayer,” Hubbard sings about getting “perplexed and overwhelmed” anytime he attempts to “unravel the sacred,” but his big-picture focus and artistic sense of direction has never felt truer. Although Tell the Devil I’m Getting There as Fast as I Can isn’t a concept album, per se, its songs fit neatly together to chart a Dante-esque journey from Paradise Lost all the way to the final reckoning of “In Times of Cold.” “There’s a definite beginning, middle, and end to this record,” says Hubbard, who’s joined on that last song by the ever-exquisite Patty Griffin. “It starts with ‘Genesis,’ and at the ending, there I am trying to plead my case before the court of heaven, hoping I’ve got a good lawyer.”
That wry Ray Wylie wit, which filled every page of his compulsively readable and hair-raisingly candid 2015 memoir A Life … Well, Lived, can be found in spades here, too, along with heaps of the patented “grit ’n’ groove” that’s been a Hubbard hallmark and one of the most oft-imitated but never-equaled signature sounds in all Americana, going back to 2001’s Gurf Morlix-produced Eternal and Lowdown and especially since his vicious “Snake Farm” first reared its lethal head in 2006. Produced by Hubbard himself at The Zone in Dripping Springs, Texas, with his lead-guitar playing son Lucas and drummer Kyle Schneider joined by Jeff Plankenhorn (Dobro and mandolin), Bukka Allen (B3 organ), and both studio owner Mike Morgan and engineer Pat Manskee on bass, Tell the Devil is every bit as lean and mean as 2015’s The Ruffian’s Misfortune and 2012’s The Grifter’s Hymnal before it, rumbling from start to finish with bone-rattling blues and assertive, coolhanded conviction.
Hubbard growls with matter-of-fact authority on the Lightnin’ charged “Dead Thumb King,” “I am the dead thumb king, lest you doubt,” while “Open G” doubles as both a nifty four-minute master class in alternate tunings and a sly showcase for his slide guitar chops. “Old Wolf” finds him channeling the spirit of the incomparable Howlin’ Wolf (with son Lucas doing just as right by Hubert Sumlin), and with “Spider, Snake and Little Sun,” Hubbard pays long-overdue tribute to Minneapolis’ infamous “Spider” John Koerner, Dave “Snaker” Ray, and Tony “Little Sun” Glover — essentially the anti-Kingston Trio. “I never saw Koerner, Ray and Glover play live, but that Blues, Rags and Hollers album (1963) is still one of my favorite records,” enthuses Hubbard, who approvingly notes in the song, “It wasn’t no clean cut folk group … they looked like sinister, low-key criminals!”
But Tell the Devil does more than just stomp, slither, hiss and howl; it also heralds Hubbard’s return to the folk-poet mysticism that illuminated the first decade of his artistic rebirth back in the ’90s, when songs like “Last Train to Amsterdam,” “The Messenger,” and “Dust of the Chase” (recently featured on the soundtrack of 2016’s acclaimed Hell or High Water) proved the reformed Cowboy Twinkie had a lot more to offer the world — and his legacy as a serious songwriter — than just his seemingly immortal ’70s anthem “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” Of course, Hubbard’s Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan-planted folk roots go back a lot farther than even his progressive country days, and as he insists with a good-natured laugh, that guy “never really went away — he just kind of got sidetracked for awhile.” Regardless, the “Long Black Veil”-esque ghost story “House of the White Rose Bouquet” is unlike any song Hubbard’s shared on record in nearly two decades, while the surreally psychedelic “The Rebellious Sons” is, by his own admission, completely different from anything else he’s ever done, period.
“I’ve always had this idea that I needed to do something like ‘All Along the Watchtower,’” says Hubbard, who as a Jimi Hendrix and 13th Floor Elevators fan was most assuredly not one of those early Dylan disciples who bailed when the Bard went electric. “So I basically sat down with the intent to write this mythological, Holy Grail/Games of Thrones kind of thing, and then I had the guys from the Bright Light Social Hour come in, because I knew they’d be perfect for it.” The Austinbased psych-rock band had previously called Hubbard out of the blue back in 2015, inviting him to join them onstage for their own album-release blowout so they could jam together on his 2003 anthem “Screw You, We’re From Texas.” “That was trippy,” recalls a beaming Hubbard, who was so impressed with the band’s intensity that he ended up re-recording that song (along with a couple of gems from his back pages) for a retrospective album he aims to release later this year.
More recently, Hubbard was also invited to sing one of his songs at a sold-out arena show by mainstream country sensation Eric Church, who had name-dropped Hubbard in the title track to his 2015 smash album Mr. Misunderstood. To return the favor, Hubbard invited Church to sing with him on Tell the Devil I’m Getting There as Fast as I Can’s title track — right alongside none other than Americana queen Lucinda Williams. The unlikely trio came together piecemeal via bouncing tracks between different studios, but the end result, with all three voices coming together by the end of the song like a rock ’n’ roll benediction, is pure magic.
“I can’t remember if it was Gurf (Morlix) or George Reiff, but one of those guys told me once that on every record I need to have a rock ’n’ roll anthem, so I always try to do that,” says Hubbard, referring to two of the three record producers (the third being Lloyd Maines) that he remains forever indebted to for helping him rebuild his career, one album at a time, ever since going sober three decades back. “So, ’Tell the Devil’ is kind of my rock ’n’ roll anthem here. It’s got an old gnarly guitar and slide on it, but I really love that it’s also got that ‘Maggie May’ instrumentation thing going on, with mandolin and Hammond B3 together; in fact, Bukka came in and did an Ian McLagan thing on it that was just great. And then of course we got Eric singing his part, and finally Lucinda put her Lucinda low-down cool on it!”
All that’s missing, it seems, is the devil himself; unlike his starring role in the earlier “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels,” he’s really only mentioned here in passing. That’s because this song’s about a very different kind of funky old cat.
“It’s one of those Bob Seger ‘Turn the Page’ type road songs,” explains Hubbard. “But it’s kind of a love song in a way, too. It’s about this old guy who lives and dies rock ’n’ roll — that whole deal where you’re in it and you ain’t ever gonna get out of it — and it’s about the woman he loves who can out-cuss any man.” He pauses a beat before stating the obvious with a chuckle: “So yeah, it’s pretty much all based on truth.”
Kelley Mickwee and her voice are one of the most recognizable talents making music in her home state of Texas at the moment -- even if you may not immediately know it.
Mickwee has been a mainstay in the Texas-based music scene for years: currently, as part of Kevin Russell’s Shinyribs’ Shiny Soul Sisters, singing harmony and background vocals at his live shows and recordings; as one-fourth of the acclaimed Americana group The Trishas, with Jamie Lin Wilson, Savannah Welch and Liz Foster; and before then as one-half of a Memphis, TN-based duo Jed and Kelley. But sometimes what gets lost in the shuffle of all the well-deserved acclaim for what she adds to other artist’s projects is the music she makes in her own right.
“It's been way too long since I have released music that is all mine,” she says. “I’m so proud of how these songs turned out, and it just felt like the right time to put new music out and see if people are still interested in what I’m doing on my own.”
It’s a comment bathed in humility, and the kind of thing an artist only says if they’re really in it because no other career path would ever really make sense for them. What else is there to do but to keep doing it? Her comments are referring to a new two-song project called Boomtown to Bust, an A-side and B-side single that she’s taking the extra mile and releasing on vinyl. “I love the good old-fashioned singles releases: a taste of what the artist is currently creating, without ingesting an entire album,” she says.
Both songs were written with Ben Jones as part of a yet-to-be-released duets album with Dan Dyer, and recorded with Jonathan Tyler at his home studio, Clyde’s VIP Room. “Jonathan Tyler and I have known each other for years and I have always been a big fan of his music, his work ethic and his vibe in general,” Mickwee says. “I was driving and heard his tune ‘Old Friend’ come on the radio and thought, that’s it, I need to make some music with this guy. So, I sent him a demo of these two tunes and asked if he’d help give them life.”
“We wanted a ‘Red Headed Stranger’ kind of feel but with a ‘mining’ or ‘gold’ metaphor,” she says about Side A, “Boomtown to Bust.”
“Once we got it into the studio with the band, it was just undeniable that it wanted to be a waltz. I love Dan [Dyer]’s harmony vocals on this one. Cody Braun’s fiddle sits perfectly with the mood of the song and Marty Muse glues it all together with his dreamy pedal steel. It's a reflection on what comes when that love loses its glitter and shine.”
Side B, “Let’s Just Pretend (We’re Holding Hands),” is a story of unrequited love, with a little tinge of hope weaved in. “Speaking of love, I love what Jonathan Tyler played on the electric guitar on this one,” Kelley says. “That, and the accordion, really give it that extra little push into that juicy Texas ‘The Mavericks’ kinda sound, which was completely unintentional but welcomed.”
Boomtown to Bust is Kelley’s first original release since 2014’s You Used to Live Here, her debut solo record. She wasn’t kidding when she described the album’s release as feeling like “totally starting from scratch again” … and more than a little scary. Although she was already a seasoned artist at that point with a decade’s worth of experience under her belt, up until then all of her performing and recording experience had been as part of a unit: first as half of the Memphis-based duo Jed and Kelley, and then as one-fourth of Texas’ acclaimed all-woman Americana group, the Trishas.
When the Trishas, all living in different parts of the state or as far away as Tennessee, collectively decided to slow their roll a few years back, Mickwee realized that in order to keep living the dream of playing music for a living, she was going to have to strike out on her own.
Three years later she took a different leap, one that was not so much a matter of “starting over from scratch” so much as just learning how to take her hands off the wheel and have fun as a proud member of one of the hottest acts in Texas: Shinyribs.
Launched in 2007 by Gourds co-founder Kevin Russell as a “solo” vehicle, Shinyribs has since evolved into arguably the most explosively entertaining band to spring from Austin in decades. Mickwee joined the family in September 2017, claiming her spot onstage next to Alice Spencer as one of the band’s two harmony and backup-singing “Shiny Soul Sisters.” She had to hit the ground running and learn the ropes fast (knowing that Shinyribs would be taping its debut appearance on TV’s Austin City Limits the following month), but from the start she felt not just right at home, but exactly where she needed to be.
The Trishas never did exactly breakup, though, meaning that Mickwee and her other song sisters Jamie Lin Wilson, Liz Foster and Savannah Welch still happily reassemble every once in a blue moon when their schedules line up or a favorite gig comes around — like the annual MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where they all played their very first show together as part of a 2009 salute to Savannah’s father, renowned songwriter Kevin Welch. Mickwee is also still an active partner (alongside co-founders Susan Gibson, Walt Wilkins, Drew Kennedy, and Josh Grider) in the Red River Songwriters Festival, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2022. “That's our little baby, and it’s doing pretty well — the last few years have sold out!” Mickwee says proudly of the event, which is held every year in Red River, New Mexico and preceded by a short “Traveling Red River Songwriters” tour.
And then there’s Mickwee’s weekly on-air gig she hosted for five-and-a-half years until she had to step away in 2021, the “River Girl Radio” on Austin’s “Sun Radio” (www.sunradio.com). “The format was pretty much whatever I was feeling,” she says. “I was given a lot of freedom to play whatever moved me within that hour each week. It was so rewarding to get to stretch that creative muscle and learn about a ton of music I wasn’t familiar with in the process.” (Mickwee can still be heard all day, every day as “The Voice” of Sun Radio.)
With all of the above currently on her plate, one wouldn’t think Mickwee would have any time at all left over to devote to her own performing songwriter career. Even though scaling back was part of her plan all along, it’s still very much a part of her bigger picture.