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The Hero of Texas Music History

Brian T. Atkinson is a chief innovator of modern-day music writing. The critically acclaimed Austin-based author isn’t just a biographer, he’s  a songwriting historian, saving the works of Texas greats for generations to come. With his latest release The Messenger: The Songwriting Legacy of Ray Wylie Hubbard due out Aug. 16, 2019, he delivers once again, lending his literary sense, and poignant  prose with word flow as seamless as the subject at hand. The books is an oral history and Atkinson interviewed over seventy songwriters, including Eric Church, Steve Earle, Bobby Bare, Ronnie Dunn, Hayes Carl, Mary Gauthier, and Terri Hendrix to name a few.

The Messenger marks Atkinsons’s third book and the second installment in the Songwriting Legacy Series he created  out of his passion for the songwriting of Townes Van Zandt that drove his development of the unique approach. Atkinson went through hundreds of rejections, ultimately landing a deal with Texas A&M University Press to publish his landmark release, I‘ll Be Here in the Morning the Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt, released January 1, 2012, commemorating the fifteen year anniversary of the Texas troubadour’s death. “Townes’s songs are literature wrapped up in three verses and sometimes not even a chorus,” Atkinson says. “His words were perfect. Not too many. Not too few. Exactly right. They could make you laugh and then break your heart within a dozen words. Over and over again.”

How did you come up with such an innovative style of music writing?

I knew there were two other biographies in the works when I started my first book I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt. I came up with the style for that book by default. I knew I had to do something different than a straight biography to set the book apart from the others. Once I figured out the style, I made a point to talk to people I figured wouldn’t be in those other books as another way to make it different. My freelance gig at the time with the Austin American-Statesman gave me access to Townes fans who had never gone on the record to talk about him like Adam Duritz from Counting Crows, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Scott Avett, Grace Potter and younger singers like that.

What is the aim of the Legacy Series?

I wanted to spread the word about Townes. Period. He was (and is) my favorite songwriter and it seemed like no one knew about him when I started the book. I knew he was in the same league as Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and other great writers and I thought everyone else should know. I continued with the same style in the book Jenni Finlay and I co-wrote, Kent Finlay, Dreamer: The Musical Legacy of Cheatham Street Warehouse, and my new book The Messenger: The Songwriting Legacy of Ray Wylie Hubbard I didn’t intend for this style to turn into a series, but I figured out at some point I was doing this because they’re the kind of books I like to read. I’m more interested in what people close to the subject say than what a music critic might.

How did you discover Ray’s music and what was your reaction to it?

Probably Hayes Carll. I met Hayes sixteen years ago on my first magazine assignment covering a Townes tribute at the Old Quarter in Galveston, Texas, and he’s talked about Ray a lot over the years. I’m guessing that’s how Ray slowly crept into my life. It definitely wasn’t overnight and I know I wasn’t totally blown away by the first stuff I heard, but he roped me in with Snake Farm and everything after. Ray finally found his groove when he got the blues. The songs he’s written since then have been stunning.

Ray worked with Hayes Carll on Drunken Poet’s Dream. We had it at no. 9  on our greatest Texas country songs. Do you have any insight into that?

“Drunken Poet’s Dream” might be the most perfect song to come out of Texas in the past decade. Sometimes everything lines up perfectly. Hayes and Ray each have different versions of the song but they’re equally great. Hayes wrote the song as a young guy trying to act older and Ray was the older guy trying to act younger. Either way works. I mean, it’s hard to go wrong when you open a song with, “I’ve got a woman who’s wild as Rome / She likes to lay naked and be gazed upon.” Come on. Perfect.

What are Ray’s greatest strengths as a songwriter?

He’s unique and that’s the hardest thing to be. There are only a handful of performers in each generation who can say that – from Townes and Dylan down to younger artists like Chris Fullerton and Josh Ritter – and Ray’s definitely one. You can identify a Ray Wylie Hubbard song by the first three notes almost every time. That applies to the music for sure but also his lyrics. Ray writes what he’s inspired to write about no matter what – about a snake farm, wasp’s nest, broken hearts, pots and pans, spiritual enlightenment, greasy drug deals, anything that comes to mind.

Tell us about his role in the progressive country movement of the Seventies.

Ray was the court jester of the progressive country movement, which makes his second act as the sober and spiritually enlightened mystic even more impressive. I’m sure Ray himself would probably rather we ignore his material before he straightened out and focus on the past quarter century of his career. Turning his life around so dramatically really what made this book interesting to me. I don’t know of anyone who has done that better than Ray.

You have a section in the book called Name Droppin’. Tell us about that.

Well, Ray’s a pretty well known name dropper and he finally called himself out on it with song named that. I titled that section in the book Name Dropping because it was interviews with some people he talks about in his songs – Charlie Musselwhite (Mr. Musselwhite’s Blues”), Spider John Koerner (“Spider Snaker and Little Sun”) and the founder of the Jesse Mae Hemphill Foundation (“Jesse Mae”). I had to fight a little to keep that section in the book because some folks thought it might be a distraction from Ray, but I think it’s one of the most worthwhile. Those chapters are a little breather from who Ray has influenced to show who influenced him.

What do you think his ultimate legacy will be in Texas music?

Ray will be remembered in the same company as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, and the other greats when people talk about Texas songwriters in a hundred years. It just took him a little longer to get there than most. “Redneck Mother” is a pretty big albatross to escape, but Ray did. Anyone who wants to map Ray’s journey in two songs should listen to “Redneck Mother” and then “In Times of Cold” from his last record. They’re lifetimes apart.

For more information visit the book’s official website: raywylielegacy.com

Illustration by Mandy Newham-Cobb | twitter @lefffffty 

Courtney S. Lennon

Courtney S. Lennon

Kin to legendary songwriter Stephen Foster, Courtney is a strong voice in the roots community. She is the founder and Editor of Turnstyled, Junkpiled Music Magazine, which she started after moving to Los Angeles in 2011. Courtney has contributed to No Depression, Lone Star Music Magazine, Texas Music Magazine, and Buffalo, NY-based JAM Magazine. She has written features on Ryan Bingham, Guy Clark, Terry Allen, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster, Dale Watson, and Wanda Jackson, among others. She is the author of the forthcoming book, "Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver" (Texas A&M University Press).
Courtney S. Lennon

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