For the first time since his 1976 debut album, revered country singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard has partnered with a high-profile label to release new music. Co-Starring, his 10-track Big Machine unveiling, boasts an A-list roster of musicians including Ringo Starr, Joe Walsh, Don Was, Chris Robinson, Ronnie Dunn and Pam Tillis.
The project and signing came about rather unexpectedly. While performing at a Gibson showcase with Jason Isbell and Lee Roy Parnell as part of Nashville NAMM, Hubbard met Big Machine SVP of A&R Julian Raymond. “We talked and he said, ‘What have you been doing?’” Hubbard tells me, calling from his home in Texas. “I said, ‘Well, I made this record with a bunch of different musicians on it. I’ve got a track on there with a Beatle, an Eagle, a Crowe and a Was Not Was,’ and that got his attention.”
Hubbard sent the project to Raymond, who then shared it with Big Machine Label Group president and CEO Scott Borchetta. A longtime fan of Hubbard’s, Borchetta said he’d like to put the album out on Big Machine and the singer-songwriter agreed. Initially scheduled for an April release, due to the coronavirus pandemic Co-Starring was pushed to July 10. For Hubbard, album promotion is very different in the age of Covid-19.
“Usually when you work a record you have in-stores, go to radio stations and do early morning TV,” Hubbard says. “That’s not happening at all. We’ve done some livestreams on Facebook and we’re going to do one Friday at the Saxton Pub, a club in Austin, without an audience. I’m an old cat, but it’s still such a joy to go out and play live. I miss that. It’s a different world right now.”
Hubbard wrote every song on the project and says “Rock Gods,” a poignant song that details the death of Tom Petty and countless lives lost following the Route 91 shooting, holds more meaning to him now due to Covid-19. “All the rock gods are dead or dying/ Seems the whole world is broken and crying/ It is more than prayers we’re needing,” he says, reciting the line’s chorus while discussing the importance of wearing masks during the pandemic. “We need to step up and think about other people. We’ve become such a self-centered nation.”
While the heaviness of the pandemic is unavoidable, Co-Starring proves a much needed escape. Songs like the tongue-in-cheek “Drink Till I See Double” featuring Paula Nelson and Elizabeth Cook provides humor with Hubbard explaining that he was trying to write a duet that Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn or George Jones and Tammy Wynette might have recorded. Other highlights include the seductive “Outlaw Blood” featuring newcomer Ashley McBryde and the swampy “Rattlesnake Shakin’ Woman” with Larkin Poe.
Standout album opener “Bad Trick” leads the project with an all-star cast of musicians including Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Walsh and Chris Robinson. Inspired by a rough gig where the promoter stiffed him on the head count, Hubbard recalls telling his wife Judy about the situation when he got home. Her response? “Well, everybody turns a bad trick every now and then.”
The couple wrote the song together and after a series of run-ins with Starr, the Beatle offered his drumming expertise. While at Starr’s studio in Los Angeles, he asked Hubbard who would be playing bass on the song and suggested Was. Starr then also offered up his brother-in-law Walsh on guitar. Later, Hubbard reached out to longtime friend Robinson to sing on the track. “It just kind of happened. I’m quite impressed with me,” he says with a laugh. “That’s an A-team right there.”
The ace songwriter also re-recorded “The Messenger,” first featured on his 1999 album Crusades of the Restless Knights which includes a line about fear paraphrased from poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The first song Hubbard wrote after getting sober at 41, the new version of the heartfelt ballad features Ronnie Dunn and Pam Tillis.
“There’s a line in the book where he talks about fear. I paraphrased that line to, ‘Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures,’” he says. “At 42, I overcame this fear of embarrassment. I called up this fellow and asked if he’d teach me to fingerpick and he taught me some patterns and I wrote this song ‘The Messenger.’ I put that line in there, so it validated what Rilke had said. I had to re-record it, and I wanted a male voice on it that had integrity and Ronnie Dunn was that guy. But it needed an angel, and the thought was Pam Tillis.”
Hubbard is a songwriter’s songwriter. Artists and songwriters like Eric Church, Lucinda Williams, Hayes Carll and Willie Nelson have praised his writing and collaborated with him. Church even name-drops Hubbard in his 2015 single “Mr. Misunderstood” while the pair also penned Church’s “Desperate Man” together. When asked about his legacy and famous fans, Hubbard reflects on the decision to get sober thanks to the urging of axeman Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“I think maybe other writers appreciate the fact that I don’t write very mainstream songs. Once I got clean and sober at 41, I made this commitment where I would write songs to see what I could contribute rather than just what I could get: not thinking about the future of what you’re writing,” he explains. “I’m not writing songs to try to get other people to record them or because I have a publishing deal and I have to give a publisher 12 songs a year. I feel very fortunate that I have this freedom to write … Some of us are condemned by the gods to write and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”