I know no better demonstration of the link between reading and songwriting than the advice Ray Wylie Hubbard gives songwriters: "Don't just listen to 'The Ghost of Tom Joad.' Read The Grapes of Wrath. That’s a classic song, but Springsteen wouldn't have written it if he hadn’t read Steinbeck." Of course, Steinbeck is probably a beach read for Hubbard. His staples are writers like Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. And before he goes to bed each night, he'll often pull down Dante's Divine Comedy from the bookshelf to see how that text might inspire his songwriting.
Hubbard, 68, is most often associated with outlaw country. When he sings, he makes you want to listen to the story. This September I saw Hayes Carll (one of my favorite songwriters, and another great storyteller) perform in Oxford, UK. During the set, he mentioned his adulation for Hubbard. When we talked after the show, he told me that I should interview Hubbard. My only thought: why had I not thought of this before?
Hubbard has a new book out, a memoir called A Life . . . Well, Lived and an album out this year called The Ruffian's Misfortune. I haven't read the book yet, but given Hubbard's storytelling ability in song, I can only imagine how good his stories are in book form. Read my interview with Ray Wylie Hubbard after the video.
I read in an interview that your parents instilled a love of reading in you at a very early age. I know you're still an avid reader, so I'm curious how all of that reading makes you a better songwriter. I've found that the best songwriters are usually voracious readers.
There’s something I always tell young songwriters: don't just listen to “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Read The Grapes of Wrath. That’s a classic song, but Springsteen wouldn't have written it if he hadn’t read Steinbeck. That’s how important reading is for a songwriter. It keeps that part of the brain fresh. You won't stagnate if you’re always exposed to other writers. That’s why I'm always reading.
Who are some of your favorites?
I'm pretty wide open. I got into Joseph Campbell in my 40s, and I still read his stuff. Flannery O’Connor is also very important to me, but I rarely stay in one genre.
How often do fiction writers like that influence your songwriting?
As a songwriter, you're like a shark that never sleeps. You're always looking for ideas. And that’s the way I am. Whenever I read, there’s always some part of my mind looking for the great a-ha, whether it's a song title, a song idea, or a great first line. I'm always looking for a line or a word in anything I read that might trigger that. That’s why Flannery O’Connor’s line “never second guess inspiration” is one of my favorite lines.
What O’Connor short stories do you like?
“Wise Blood" and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are two of my favorites. Someone asked her why so many of her southern characters are freaks, and she said something like, “Because we can recognize them.”
Do you read a lot of poetry?
Absolutely. I read people like Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. They are phenomenal. Some of it is way over my head. It’s so deep, but I love it. Laughs.
I'm actually surprised how few songwriters—at least those I interview—read poetry. Seems like there’s a natural connection there.
I agree completely. But I also read the autobiographies and biographies of the poets. That's important too. Take Poe, for example. I was just in Baltimore and visited his grave. I've read a lot about him, and having that biographical background helps me understand his poetry, or at least the context of his poems. It’s important to see the environment that helped create such a powerful work of literature.
Let’s talk about your writing now. You just released a memoir called A Life . . . Well, Lived. Do you do journaling or other daily writing outside of songwriting?
Not too much. You know, as an older cat, I always try to learn new things, and that’s what I tried to do with the book. When I was 40, l learned to finger pick. And then I got into open tunings, then the slide, then mandolin. Learning new things gives the song a door to come through that was never there before.
Speaking of inspiration in general, is it something that you have to work at?
I've learned that songwriting is inspiration plus craft. You have to be able to take that inspiration and know whether that song is going to be a 12 bar blues, or if it’s going to have a bridge, or if it’s going to be verse-chorus-verse-chorus. But I've also found that the craft triggers the inspiration. A lick or a groove will trigger another idea. So they really go hand in hand.
Writing is a joy and an anguish. It’s an anguish because you're always trying to make it work and to make it better, and it’s a joy when it finally works. When those inner fireworks go off, it’s a great feeling.
What’s the “anguish” part of songwriting for you?
Wanting it to be great. When a word or a line doesn't work, that process of trying so many different combinations of words can be difficult. Even when a write a goofy song like “Snake Farm,” I still feel like it’s well-written. Laughs. I want a song to be well-written, no matter what it’s about.
Hayes Carll told me that he gets a lot of song ideas listening to conversations. Are you sensitive to the words around you as well?
Yeah. It's a songwriter mindset. You always have your antenna up, listening for ideas. It’s not good enough to acknowledge a good word or a good line or a good idea. You have to run with it. Take “Snake Farm,” for example. There’s an old snake farm down here between Austin and San Antonio. It’s been there 40 or 50 years, and I've probably driven by it ten thousand times. One time, I had been reading Flannery O’Connor, and I drove by it. For whatever reason, even though I'd driven by it countless times up to that point, something inside me said, “That just sound nasty.” And bingo, there it was. A song idea.
So that was the inspiration. Then came the craft part. I had the chorus easily, but what was I going to do with it? What was the song about? How about it's about a man who doesn't like snakes but is in love with a woman who works at a snake farm? Well, what kind of woman would work at a snake farm? That was about applying the craft to the inspiration.
Once I get that a-ha moment, no matter what else I'm doing, some part of my rain is always working on that song, even if I don't realize it. I get a lot of ideas that way while driving.
How important is environment in your writing process?
I have a loft here at our house, and that’s where I like to read and write. I’ll read things like The Divine Comedy late at night and see what happens. Late at night from around 11:30 to 1 is a good time for me. I’ll pick up a guitar or read something and see what happens.
We all have those crutches, or those parts of our writing routine that we need to have a productive writing session. What’s yours?
I always carry a glass bottleneck slide in my pocket. For some reason, that’s a secure thing to have for me, even if I don't use it. Even if I'm going down to the store, I pick it up and carry it with me. I've learned that taking a song and changing things like the key, the tuning, or the finger picking pattern will trigger something in me if the song isn’t working.
What’s your lyrical revision process like?
I make sure that each word works and that it’s lyrical. I do a lot of scratching out and replacing words. I use the dictionary for that kind of stuff.
What’s the easiest song you ever wrote?
A song called “Dust of the Chase.” I wrote it in about an hour. The only thing I switched was verse four and five. I didn't touch anything else. Each line led to the next when I first wrote it.
It wasn't easy, but it came quick. I was in Dallas and I think Judy was pregnant. It was about twenty or so years ago. I had just learned finger picking. I got clean and sober when I was 41, and when I was 42 I decided to become a real songwriter and to play guitar better. I started taking finger picking lessons from a guy named Sam Swank. He taught me how to use the ring finger on my right hand, and he taught me all about timing. I had just started learning these finger picking patterns, so I played A minor-G-D. And there it was. The lyrics just happened.
And what’s the most difficult song you ever wrote?
It was about the same time, a song called “The Messenger.” I had been reading Rilke, and I paraphrased a line of his where he says something like, “Our fears are like dragons guarding their most precious treasures.” I was at a point in my life where I made a covenant with myself that I wasn't going to compromise my writing. I wasn't going to write thinking about the future and trying to get a cut. I wasn't going to write with the idea that someone like Garth Brooks or Clint Black would use one of my songs. I wasn't going to write for a publishing company. I was going to write whatever the hell I wanted to write about. I decided to write to contribute, rather than what I can get. And that’s what that line by Rilke did to me. I overcame my fear or embarrassment, called up Sam, and asked him to teach me to fingerpick. That’s when I wrote “The Dust of the Chase.” Then I decided to write a song that would allow me to contribute, to give people that line about the dragons. That’s what “The Messenger” is about: overcoming fears. And it was a hard song to write because I wanted it to be a contribution. I really anguished over it.
I’ve always been thankful for my ability to write a song, and this is one constant to my songwriting ritual. Right after I write a song, I sing it two or three times. After I finish, I close my eyes and say thanks. I don't know who I'm thanking. It might be a muse or whatever. I just want whatever mojo that's out there to know I'm grateful that I was able to finish that song. I don't want to offend the muse. I’ve had this ritual ever since those first albums. I never forget it. I always just close my eyes and say thanks.
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