Story Behind the Song: Eric Church, ‘Desperate Man’
Amid the gilded legacies of songwriting giants such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson, songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard can sometimes fall by the wayside. Still, Hubbard helped pioneer a shift toward rock-inflected Texas country in the 1970s, and has consistently put out music throughout his career, both under his own name and as an ace songwriter in Nashville.
In a new book, The Messenger: The Songwriting Legacy of Ray Wylie Hubbard, Austin-based journalist Brian T. Atkinson explores the legacy of this under-appreciated musical master. The book, which is due for release on on Aug. 16 through Texas A&M University Press, includes contributions from some of the artists most impacted by Hubbard's influence.
"I'm not sure I can pick one song as my entry point into Ray," Atkinson muses. "I probably slowly got into him through Hayes Carll without even knowing it. I met Hayes 16 years ago on my very first magazine assignment, and he's talked a lot about Ray over the years.
"I really got into Ray with his Snake Farm album. The songwriting was miles beyond what I'd heard before. I guess the Ray / Hayes co-write "Drunken Poet's Dream" on his A: Enlightenment ... album really sealed the deal for me," he continues. "I thought it was a perfect song the first time I heard it. Ray and Hayes have different versions, but they're equally good."
Atkinson notes that a resurgence of modern stars' interest in Hubbard speaks to a renewed interest in his legacy. "High profile younger songwriters like Eric Church, Jaren Johnston (the Cadillac Three), Aaron Lee Tasjan, Paul Thorn and many others beyond Texas have been citing him as a big influence," he points out. Hubbard's songwriting career continues to make an impact in country music today as well; for example, he co-wrote Church's 2018 single "Desperate Man."
In The Messenger, Church recalls the process of writing the song, and how Hubbard's songwriting expertise contributed to the track and the album of the same name. Read on to learn the story behind "Desperate Man" in an excerpt available exclusively to readers of The Boot.
I started writing with Nashville songwriters in 2000. Those guys are craftsmen, the best in the world, but there's freedom and wildness in what Ray Wylie's doing. Ray's so damn creative. He taps into my soul with his songwriting and the way he plays, sings, and crafts a story. You think the characters he develops come from his imagination, but then you look at places he's been and things he's done. These people are characters he's met through his time playing. I love what the freedom in his music makes me feel like. Ray Wylie's a damn national treasure, a poet and absolutely one of the best we've ever had. He sets a scene better than anyone. You're already in when he sings “I've got a woman who's wild as Rome / She likes being naked and gazed upon” [from “Drunken Poets Dream”].
I had the title “Desperate Man” and knew where I wanted to go with the song. Ray Wylie and I sat down, and the first thing he said was, “I've been there. I once went to a fortune teller to get my [future] read. She told me I didn't have one. That's pretty desperate.” We fell into the song and finished it in a few hours. Ray has always been good about the visual element of lyrics. You close your eyes and listen to him sing these words, and you can absolutely visualize, feel, and see [the story]. His words aren't just filling a space. Ray's meticulous and places every word well. He painted colors on the canvas for “Desperate Man” and made the images come to life.
I told Ray we were going into the studio the next day and cut “Desperate Man.” He sent me a text one day and said, “How did 'Desperate Man' turn out?” I said, “Well, I cut it, and it's gonna be the first single [and title track to Church's 2018 album].” All he sent back was, “Damn.” I said, “We're gonna do a video, and I'd love for you to be in it.” We got him to come up. We had him play a middle man, but instead of drugs we were dealing vinyl. He said, “This is not too foreign for me. You know, back in the '70s this is pretty much what I did.” I told him he played the part so well. He said, “Yeah, this is reality.”
Ray's a funny, interesting guy. You can't take your eyes off him. We had fun spending all day with him when we were shooting the video. We hung out and talked about music, all the years he's played, and where he's played, a pretty special day for me. He's been a troubadour for 40 years, and success hasn't mattered. He's just played. I have such a respect for his love of music. We need more of his uniqueness. He can do something in a way that no one else can. He's the dead thumb king. I think he deserves to be in [Nashville's] Songwriters Hall of Fame. More younger artists listening to Ray Wylie Hubbard would be better for the health of country music.
I was meticulous in choosing who I name-dropped in [the title track to Church's 2015 Academy of Country Music Album of the Year-nominated record] “Mr. Misunderstood.” I chose Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and Ray Wylie Hubbard because they influenced me and are people who I think are badasses. I don't know how many people in country music would immediately recognize all three names. Some might know one or two. Name-checking them was about respect, but also I was putting something out there that people might not listen to all the time.
Ray Wylie contacted me after “Mr. Misunderstood” came out, and we chatted. He said, “Thank you. I love the song.” I was on the [Holdin' My Own] Tour not too much later and knew we were gonna be in his neck of the woods. The only show we had on that leg in Texas was in Dallas. I reached out [to] Mother [his wife Judy] Hubbard and said, “Hey, does Ray wanna come out and play?” He said he'd love to and asked what song I wanted to do. I said “Screw You, We're From Texas,” which was first song I knew from back in 2003. I said, “It's gonna bring the house down.” He said, “Let's do it.” He drove himself to Dallas in a van. We got calls that there's this guy at the gate in a van, and he says he's Ray Wylie Hubbard. We said, “Well, s--t. It probably is. Let him in.”
Ray made soundcheck around three o'clock. We didn't play that song in the show until probably 10:30, so we set Ray and Judy up with a room there. We hung out and had a really cool day. We knocked around onstage and jammed. I know it was a cool day for me, but I think it was for both of us. There's no reason that Ray Wylie Hubbard shouldn't be playing [the American Airlines Center] himself. Music's weird. There probably were 20,000 people there that night. It was really, really cool to be able to bring him out. He brought the house down just like I thought he would. People will still come up to me now and say, “I was at that show where Ray Wylie Hubbard came up.”
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