Texas songwriting legend wrestles with mortality on own terms

“Some get spiritual because they see the light, some because they feel the heat,” said Ray Wylie Hubbard. “I kind of felt the heat.”

Speaking over the phone from his home in Wimberley, Texas, the 70-year-old songwriter explained the spiritual themes that informed his forthcoming album, Tell the Devil I'm Gettin' There as Fast as I Can, which begins with a hoary, bluesy retelling of the Genesis creation story and ends with Hubbard standing at the pearly gates and, in a duet with Patty Griffin, pleading his cause “before the court of heaven, before I likely take my place in hell.”

Hubbard, who first made a name for himself in the 1970s as part of the so-called progressive country movement, has never shied from including the prince of darkness in his music (see, for instance, 1999's “Conversation with the Devil”). He traces the interest back to his childhood.

“My dad was an English teacher when I was a kid, so instead of reading me ‘The Three Little Pigs,' he'd read me ‘The Divine Comedy' or ‘The Raven,'” Hubbard said. “Whenever I can I still go back and read Dante's ‘The Divine Comedy.' It's still inspiring to me. That whole idea of Lucifer, the fallen angels, death — it's fascinating to me.”

That fascination doesn't always lead to answers. In fact, sometimes it makes the water even murkier. On “Prayer,” Hubbard sings, “When I seek to unravel the sacred, I get perplexed and overwhelmed.”

“As an old cat, you start thinking about your mortality a lot more than when I was 21 and all I'd think about was beer and girls,” he said. “Life is a mysterious thing, as is what happens afterwards. I do get overwhelmed and perplexed about it, but the idea of the song is, God doesn't really need to hear my prayers. I need to hear me praying. I need to take action to try to be honest and not hold resentments and show courage when I need to. It's something I think about more and more. You do the next right thing. … I hope God grades on a curve. I'm not Mother Teresa, but I'm not Attila the Hun.”

For decades now, Hubbard has made music on his own terms, eschewing the Nashville label machinery for his in-house Wimberley operation. “I feel very fortunate that I sleep with the president of my record label, which isn't Clive Davis. It's my wife, Judy,” he said. “She says, ‘You write whatever you wanna write about, and you make the record you wanna make, and I'll try to sell the damn thing.' For a writer, that's a really good place to be.”

Hubbard's DIY mentality hasn't kept big-name collaborators at bay, though. Country superstar Eric Church, who name-dropped Hubbard in the song “Mr. Misunderstood,” guests on Tell the Devil's title track, as does Lucinda Williams. And the songwriting legend also teamed up with Austin psych-rock act Bright Light Social Hour on “The Rebellious Sons.”

“I met them when Roky Erickson was doing ‘Austin City Limits,'” Hubbard said. “I was sitting next to these young guys, and I guess they recognized me. We started talking and started hanging out. I wrote [‘The Rebellious Sons'] kind of like my ‘All Along the Watchtower' — just a mythological song. I thought, man, those guys were the guys to do it. They took me to that psychedelic rock world that I've never really been in. It was out of my comfort zone to work with those guys, but it was exciting and fun for me.”

“I keep trying to learn new things,” he continued. “In my early 40s I learned to finger-pick, and then I learned open tunings. Then I learned slide. Then I got a mandolin and learned that. By learning new things, that gives a song a door to come through that wasn't there before.”