As the man who wrote “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” Ray Wylie Hubbard—one of the founding fathers of Americana music—knows a little bit about anthems. On this episode of One by Willie, Hubbard focuses on a Willie song that rose to that lofty status long ago, Nelson’s erstwhile show opener “Whiskey River.” It’s one of those songs that even casual fans recognize the instant they hear its opening  guitar lick, and Hubbard describes how Willie took it from the original, hard-core country shuffle released in 1972 by its composer, Johnny Bush; filtered it through what Hubbard calls Willie’s “jazz, jam-band mind”; and turned it into what many consider the national anthem of Texas.

(Read a transcript of this episode below.)

But anyone who knows Hubbard knows that “focus” is a loose term to describe the way he talks. He’s one of American music’s greatest and funniest storytellers, and he digs deep into his fifty-plus years of friendship with Willie for anecdotes on various times he’s heard “Whiskey River” played live—touching improbably on frighteningly strong weed, ventriloquists’ dummies, and poodles—before detailing the time he was kidnapped by Willie’s road crew and how proud he was to duet with Willie on his own recent masterpiece, the song “Stone Blind Horses.”

We’ve created an Apple Music playlist for this series that we’ll add to with each episode we publish. And if you like the show, please subscribe and drop us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

One by Willie is produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, with audio editing by Jackie Ibarra and production by Patrick Michels. Our executive producer is Megan Creydt. Graphic design is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.


John Spong (voice-over): Hey there, I’m John Spong with Texas Monthly magazine, and this is One By Willie, a podcast in which I talk each week to one notable Willie Nelson fan about one Willie song that they really love. The show is brought to you by Still Austin craft whiskey. This week: legendary singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard, who, in addition to being Willie’s running buddy for more than fifty years, happens to be a founding father of Americana music, and one of the absolute most amazing storytellers you’re ever going to hear. And he’s going to talk about “Whiskey River.”

The song, of course, has long been the unmistakable opening number at Willie’s shows, and it might as well be the Texas national anthem. But for Ray, it prompts very personal, very specific, and very hilarious memories of seeing Willie playing it over the years, before it sends him down rabbit holes related to that time he was kidnapped by Willie’s road crew, the reason Willie’s drummer Paul English was not a fan of the Eagles, and Willie’s smile. Let’s do it.

John Spong: It’s the goofy question that we start every episode with. But it’s particularly goofy in this episode, because the song is “Whiskey River.” But for you, what’s so cool about “Whiskey River”?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well, the first time I heard Willie do “Whiskey River,” it’s his opening song. He’s opened with it for forever. And there was, oh, a club in Dallas, first time I saw him; it was called Fifty-seven Doors. And what had happened, Willie had got Gino McCoslin, who had booked the Western Place, had booked Willie when he had short hair. Willie started letting his hair grow, he came back, and the owner said, “Well, you can’t have Willie play.” So Gino left, and took Willie with him. And he opened this new club called Fifty-seven Doors, which was more kind of a rock club, in a way. And so Willie went with Gino to Fifty-seven Doors. So the first time I heard him, it was just, I’d been playing there as kind of the house band, and all of a sudden, when Willie comes out, and there’s that, “Dow . . . dow . . . dow . . . dow . . . dow . . . Whiskey River.” And everything goes nuts. And it’s just something, that memory of seeing him the first time do that, and the excitement and the crowd, that that song’s just always stayed with me as, you know, Willie Nelson. Because I’ve done so many shows with him, and he just comes out, “Dow . . . dow . . . dow . . . dow . . .” Well, that song’s always just meant so much to me. And then I could tell you another story why it means so much to me, too, if you want to go there.

John Spong: Well, yeah. I definitely want to go there.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Okay. So anyhow, I’d met Willie and I was the house band at Gino McCoslin. And so Willie started exploding and everything. Now this, I think he was with CBS, and his record contract was coming up. So Polygram came in and offered Willie his own record label, Lone Star Records. So Willie got his friends; he called me up and said, “Hey, man, I need a record.” And so I put together some demo stuff, and we put out the first record on Lone Star Records. And he signed, I think, Milton Carroll, Billy Callery, the Geezinslaws on Lone Star Records. Well, then Willie didn’t sign with Polygram, and went back with CBS. So Polygram had no reason for us; there’s no use for us at all. So it just kind of went away. But what I’m getting to this whole thing is, we were the first record on Lone Star. So we were going to put out the album and we were going to open for Willie for this tour, which the first tour was in Houston. The next date was Fargo, North Dakota. And we did thirty-eight cities in about forty-five days.

John Spong: Oh, my God.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: And this was in February. Like, we played Green Bay, Wisconsin, and it was just like they put this tarp over this ice hockey rink, and put chairs on it, and we would just come out and play. So anyhow, we did that tour and we never missed a gig, but God, it was just . . . Willie was playing; he was touring in his first bus, which was the Time Tube.

John Spong: The Time Tube.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well, it’s what Willie called it—the Time Tube, because you get on it, time passes, you get out, and you’re somewhere else. And I may have told you this: they had this stick on a string on the roof of the bus. It was like about six inches and had this stick right there.

John Spong: Hanging, suspended from the ceiling?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah, it was just a stick, maybe six, seven inches long, sticking down. You get on the bus. The first time I went on it, Paul English sat there. I go, “Paul, what’s the stick for?” And he goes, “That’s our magic stick.” And I go, “Really?” He says, “Yeah, if it’s on the roof, that means we’re upside down. If it’s wet, it means we’re underwater.” So it would tell you things; this stick would tell you.

John Spong: So this is after they discovered weed?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: I guess so. Who knows? So anyhow, we did this tour. So where I’m getting to the “Whiskey River” thing. So we’re playing the last night of the tour, was in Stillwater, Oklahoma. And this is after thirty-eight days; we’ve been out almost two months. So anyhow, we’re in Stillwater; we’re getting there. We did my sound check, and I’m just about ten minutes before I’m supposed to go on, these two old boys come up in overalls. They go, “Ray Wylie?” And I go, “Yeah?” And he said, “Hey man, we’re from Arkansas, and we grow weed up here, and we got a lid here. Was wondering if you’d give it to Willie.” I said, “Well, come on, you can give it to him yourself.”

So we get on Willie’s bus, and I said, “Willie, these guys are from Arkansas and they got some weed that they grew themselves; they want to give it to you.” He goes, “Oh, well come on in.” He said, “What do you call this weed?” And they say, “It’s called Arkansas Permaf—.” And I go, “What?” Said, “Yeah, permanently f— you up, Willie.”

So anyhow, they get together. So I got to go play. So I leave and go do my set, you know, forty minutes. I come back, get on Willie’s bus. These guys are still on there with Willie. And it’s like, I don’t know, it was very smoky. So anyhow, Poodie Locke comes up, Willie’s road manager, and said, “Okay, it’s time, Willie.” So they get off. So Willie, at that time, Willie would have people onstage, just surround the stage, forty or fifty people. So Willie said, “You guys come on up and go onstage with me.”

So we get there by the stairs, ready to go on. There’s Mickey, and Jody Payne, and Bee Spears playing bass, and Paul English, everybody’s there. So they’re just down there, down there. And I guess Poodie gives them the signal. So they go “Dow . . . dow . . . dow . . . dow . . .” And Willie walks up and Poodie hands him Trigger. And he gets up: “Dow . . . dow . . . dow . . . dow . . . dow . . . dow . . .” And all of a sudden Willie goes, “When that evening the sun goes down.”

Me and Jody just look around. And they just fall into it. So anyhow, these old guys standing there going to say, “We told him; we told him.” So that’s why “Whiskey River,” every time I hear it, I remember that particular moment in time. Some moments in time are more remarkable and powerful than others. And that was just one of them.

John Spong: That’s perfect. Because there’s a thing I wanted to bring up. It’s effectively the national anthem of Texas. And to have grown up here, all you got to hear is that opening guitar lick, you know where you are, you know where you’re headed.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah.

John Spong: We’re going to listen in a second or now to the live version from Willie and Family Live from 1978.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: That’s about, I guess this tour was in the early ’76, somewhere around—

John Spong: That makes sense.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah. I can’t remember whenever Lone Star Records was happening. I don’t know.

John Spong: That’s about right. It’s right after Red Headed Stranger, and everybody wants a piece of Willie and so, “Hey, start a record label.”

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah. And it was pretty—

John Spong: Yeah.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: So, anyhow. So like I say, the whole deal was when Willie called me up and he said, “Lone Star Records isn’t happening anymore. I’m sorry. You’re not going to be able to do a next record.” I said, “That’s cool.” He said, “Well, you can play a bunch of my picnics.” So it turned out all right.

John Spong: There you go. As I say, aside from Willie himself, I think you’ve played more than anybody else.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: I think I’ve played probably all but about four or five.

John Spong: That’s insane, because, well, I don’t know, this isn’t the fiftieth one, because there’s been years off, but this year’s is the fiftieth anniversary of the first one. So that’s like forty picnics for you.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah, I lost my hang chops. I used to could go to these picnics and just stay, but now I usually can’t hang like I used to.

John Spong: Well, let’s spin it. Let’s spin it.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Okay.

John Spong: And like I say, it’s weird, it’s the national anthem . . . this version of it actually went to number fourteen, which is almost . . .

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Unheard of.

John Spong: So what? It’s so much bigger than a hit song. 

[Willie Nelson singing “Whiskey River”]

Ray Wylie Hubbard : Where was this recorded?

John Spong: In Tahoe? In ’78? And I’ve done a bunch of research and nobody knows the date. Nobody.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Okay. I was there. I’ll tell you that story, too. Yeah. That’d be about right in Lake Tahoe. It was at . . .

John Spong: Harrah’s.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Harrah’s. Yeah. I’ll tell you that story, too. Yeah, I was there. I was there. Willie’s playing somewhere in Fort Worth, we were in the motel room, and he was on the phone, I think, with Mark Rothbaum and the guy from Harrah’s Club there. And they were talking about the gig. And I was just sitting there and all of a sudden Willie goes, “You want to play Harrah’s, open for me up there?” And I go, “Yeah, sure.” And so Willie goes, “Put Ray Wylie on the show.” And the guy said, “Well, we don’t have opening acts in the main room. We can put him in the lounge.” So they offered me $5,000 a week, which we played five nights, $1,000, but we couldn’t stay at the hotel.

So anyhow, we go out there, me and my band, and so we’re in the lounge, and people are lined up out front to go see Willie in the main room. And Willie’s sitting over here in the dark, on an amp, playing guitar with us, playing electric guitar while people were going in. And it was one of the funkiest gigs because we were in the lounge there, and every time we would get on the elevator, you’d open it up, and open it up, and all of a sudden there’d be like two showgirls with feathers all over, and glittery costumes. And the next time you’d open it up, it’d be a guy with two ventriloquist dummies. And then the next time you—there’d be some old woman in a formal with, like, about eight poodles. That was our lounge act . . . which, it was a great gig. Now here’s the weird thing about it. Like, say Willie—

John Spong: Oh, there’s a weird thing?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Oh, yeah. It gets weirder. So the first week after we play that week, my band leaves, and I’m up in the little dressing room and everything, and the guy comes up to pay me. They pay you $2,500 in a check from Harrah’s and $2,500 in black $100 chips. So you have to take this and walk through the casino to cash it.

So anyhow, my band wasn’t around, so I went to the crap tables. So anyhow, I’m shooting craps with these hundred-dollars chips, and I’ve lost. I’ve lost. And all of a sudden Paul English comes up and goes, “Hubbard, what are you doing?” I said, “Honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing.” And he said, “What’s going on?” And I said, “Well, God, man, I’ve lost about $2,000. What should I do?” And he said, “Well, tell the band you gambled with their money. And then when they ask ‘What about your money?,’ say, ‘Well, I didn’t bet that.’ ”

So anyhow, Paul sat there and he said, “What we’re going to do, we’re going to bet . . . every third roll, we’re going to bet on the come, and every third roll after that, we’re going to bet on pass,” or something like that. And I won that money back, plus $1,000, because Paul English was sitting there showing me how to shoot craps.

So anyhow, let’s see. So that was the first week. The next week when my band found—they stayed with me as I walked through the casino—but it seemed like that Willie’s backstage room . . . Paula was like, I don’t know, two or three and was dragging Trigger around by the neck.

John Spong: His daughter, Paula?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah. And I think Emmylou Harris showed up. And they were getting ready to go. They had the curtain up. The curtain was down, and they were all just kind of there. And it was a pretty big deal. And Mickey said, “Oh man, somebody’s like”—I don’t know, Tom Jones or John Denver or somebody was out there.

John Spong: Okay.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: And Mickey says, or Jody Payne asked Willie back there; said, “Are you nervous about playing here your first night with all these big stars?” And I think Mickey said, “I’m a little nervous.” And Willie said, “Just play mediocre, and they’ll still love us.” I’ve always remembered that if I get nervous.

[Willie Nelson singing “Whiskey River”]

John Spong: So Johnny Bush . . .

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah.

John Spong: . . . who had been Willie’s drummer in the sixties, and just longtime buddies, wrote this. Did you ever talk to Johnny about how he wrote it? Let’s look at the nuts and bolts of the song in the least bit.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: No, I’ve had . . . hung out with Johnny Bush. But if you look at that, it starts off with the chorus, then the verse, “Bathing my memoried mind in the wetness of its soul.” I mean, whoa. That’s—

John Spong: What the hell is that? I was actually going to ask you—according to Bush, that was the line he came up with first. Jerry Bradley tells him “You’ve got to write a song,” after he signed to RCA, and he comes up with that first. . . . What is that?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well, that’s like Rimbaud or something. That’s just “feeling the amber current flowing from my mind.” And then you go, “What?” And then all of a sudden realize, “It’s whiskey. It’s whiskey talking.”

John Spong: Sho’ nuff.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: “And warm the empty heart you left so cold.” That verse right there—”I’m drowning in a whiskey river / Bathing my memoried mind in the wetness of its soul.”

John Spong: Yeah.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: That comes from somewhere else. But no, I never had a chance to talk to Johnny about how he wrote it or it came by. But boy, I’ll tell you what. Because all of a sudden you think, like, “Whiskey river. Oh, whiskey.” Then all of a sudden you come with this line, you go, “Bam!” It hits you in your soul somewhere.

John Spong: Yeah. It goes from being a party song to being poetry pretty quick there.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah. Oh, really. Yeah.

John Spong: I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve heard it, and I won’t play the whole thing, but Johnny Bush’s version is so very different.

[Johnny Bush singing “Whiskey River”]

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Oh, yeah, that’s as country as you can get, right there. But Willie’s version is almost rock, when he does it live. It has that vibe of, like, live like that, like an Allman Brothers, or Stones, or something. Just some sort of—that’s magic in it, that it’ll hit your soul, but make you groove.

John Spong: Yeah.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Willie always had that ability to, I don’t know, just to be in that moment of just that whole, I don’t know, outlaw thing of where, like, “I’m going to do it the way I want to do it. It’s my music.”

Like he took this song, which is Johnny Bush, hard-core country, you know? Honky-tonk, two-stepping, belt buckle–shining, boot-scooting thing. And then, all of a sudden, he took it and turned it into “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Highway 61 Revisited,” in a way.

John Spong: I was thinking about that because with so many Willie songs—greatest songwriter ever, maybe—but with the covers, he makes them his just by doing them. But this one, he actually changed a great deal.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Oh, yeah.

John Spong: It’s a different beat.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah.

John Spong: Because, whatchamacallit, Johnny Bush . . .

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah.

John Spong: . . . opens with the verse.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah.

John Spong: Willie opens with the chorus.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah.

John Spong: It’s a complete reimagining of the song.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well, it’s like he has this sense of what this audience is going to respond to. You know, like, Willie has this jazz, jam-band mind, but it’s with a rock attitude, but with the country heart, in a way. Does that make sense, in a way?

John Spong: I’ll hear that every time I listen to him going forward. It makes perfect sense.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah.

John Spong: Yeah.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Of course, now that when you hear you’re going to go, “Dow . . . dow . . . dow . . . dow . . . When that evening sun goes down . . .”

[Willie Nelson singing “Whiskey River”]

John Spong: You mentioned the Fifty-seven Doors earlier.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah.

John Spong: And the first time you saw Willie.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah.

John Spong: As I recall, you actually met him for the first time later that night.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah. They had a band house, about four or five blocks from Fifty-seven Doors. And that’s where everybody would stay and party. And Willie was playing; I think I left before he finished, because I was, uh . . . a place across the street called the Showtime. Anyhow, there’s a . . . the girl of my dreams at the moment, her name was Tuesday Night; all of a sudden, my son Lucas—

John Spong: Her name was Tuesday Night?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah. And my son Lucas asked Judy one time and said, “How come Ray’s old girlfriends are always named, like, Tuesday Night, and Dixie Cups, Bubbles?” I go, “Well, there’s this club right across the street for Fifty-seven Doors.”

So anyhow, I was over there, I don’t know with Tuesday, or Dixie, or I don’t know, whoever. And anyhow, and all of a sudden, we’re in the back room, back in the bedroom—nothing happened yet. And I don’t know if it did or not, I can’t remember. But the window opened up. And all of a sudden, there’s Willie there. And he goes, “I forgot my key. I don’t have a key, and the front door is locked.” And so he crawled through the window and said, “I’m Willie Nelson. Y’all you go ahead,” and went on through in there. So that was the first time I actually met him. It was a funky place, man.

And I think that first week he played it—“Whiskey”—I think he had Paul English and Mickey Raphael. I don’t know if Bee Spears had joined yet. It was really, he was just putting it together, I think. Paul was there, but I don’t know, remember if he had a bass player or not. Or if Jody Payne was there or not. I don’t know. It was packed out every night. They played Tuesday through Saturday . . .

John Spong: Wow.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: . . . and it was packed out.

John Spong: And not long after that, Paul, and was it Michael Gene Shepherd, kidnapped you?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Oh, well, Michael Schroeder.

John Spong: Schroeder.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah. Poodie and, I don’t know, just running around and . . . Okay, so Willie had this, the Time Tube, right?

John Spong: Right.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well really, first Paul—their first vehicle was this, God, what was it? It was like a Mrs. Baird’s bread truck that Paul English put bulletproof glass in it, and decorated it with red velvet and black. And it got about four miles a gallon. 

John Spong: He made that the tour bus?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah, the first one they had.

John Spong: Oh, God.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: So anyway, but then they got this old, I don’t know if it’s a Flex or whatever, but they built the interior themselves. They still had the bathroom at the back. And Willie had couches up here. Willie had his own little room here, and there were some bunks in the back.

And so, I guess one morning, about two or three o’clock in the morning, I had one of those apartments where they ring to get in: “Rrr, rrr, rrr, rrr.” So I get up and go, “Who is it?” And they go, “Ray, it’s Paul English and Michael Gene Schroeder and Poodie Locke. Let us in.” And I go, “I’m not going to let you guys in. No.” “Come on, let us in.” “No, I’m not going to do it.”

So, against my better judgment, I let them in. And they said, “What’s going on?” And they said, “Well, we’re going to meet Willie in Garland and meet the bus. But right now we’re not going to meet him there till about seven in the morning. We thought we’d come by. What’s going on?”

And so Paul says, “We’re going to Milwaukee to a beer fest. You need to come with us.” I say, “No, man. I got tickets to the Eagles. I got two tickets.” This disc jockey friend of mine got me two. And there’s this girl I’m trying to sleep with, loves the Eagles. And I got two great tickets. And they go, “Ah.” Paul goes, “Ah, they sound just like their records,” you know? “Live, they sound just like their records. Come on. We’re going to a beer fest in Milwaukee.”

John Spong: That is the greatest slag I’ve ever heard in my life.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: What?

John Spong: “The Eagles? They sound just like their records!” I’m sorry, I hate to interrupt, but that’s my favorite thing I’ve ever heard.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well, which is, I guess, to Paul, that would be a dis. But to everybody . . .

John Spong: Yeah.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: “They sound good. They sound like the record.” So anyhow, about five that morning, they actually picked me up. And Michael Gene and Poodie carry me down the stairs. My roommate guy comes out and gives me a leather jacket and a toothbrush, I think. And then we go out and we meet Willie in Garland out there, by the side of the road out there; we pull up in the car. And then Michael Gene and them there. And I go in there and I thought we were just kind of kidding and everything. And all of a sudden, the door closes; we start driving off. And I go, “Whoa, whoa. I got tickets to the Eagles, man!”

So anyhow, there’s no cellphones back then. So the next stop was, like, in Texarkana or Little Rock, I can’t remember which way, but probably, maybe both. Little Rock was next time we stopped. So I got on the phone and called the girl and I said, “Hey, listen, I don’t know what’s going on.” She goes, “Where are them Eagle tickets?” And I go, “Well, they’re upstairs. Rudd will give them to you.” And that’s the last I ever heard from her. I guess she went to the Eagles. And once she got the tickets, she didn’t need me.

So anyhow, we get up, we drive up there, and it’s just, this was pretty wacky times. So Willie had this little room here. So they had a door going from there to the back. So anyhow, Bee Spears got mad about somebody after he drank some beer, took some hammer and nails, and nailed the door shut. So the people in the back couldn’t come up front. And then he went to sleep there on the floor.

So Willie comes out, and he sees Bee there with a hammer and the nails, and so he goes, “Huh.” And so anyway, takes a hammer and undoes the nails, and opens the door, and goes back to the bathroom. Comes back, looks again, closes the door and nails it back shut, because I guess he figured Bee had a reason for doing that. And then he goes to his little room.

So we get to Milwaukee, play this beer fest, and it’s just, oh anyhow, it’s just . . . So anyhow, we’re coming back. And we come through either Detroit or Chicago. And I don’t know how we found out . . . but anyhow, Jerry Jeff was playing at this club there. So we pull up, and get out, and all of a sudden, somewhere in my mind, I’m going, “I need to get away from those guys and go with Jerry Jeff.” You know, the lesser of two evils. So Poodie and I get off, because that was the only gig they had. And we just hang out with Jerry Jeff for a couple of days, and we come on back home somehow.

John Spong: I don’t know how familiar everybody is with Jerry Jeff, particularly his reputation at that time. But ain’t nobody ever thought it was smarter and safer to be with Jerry Jeff than anybody else of that era.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: After that I had to give up my membership in Mensa. “Well, you’re not that smart.”

[Willie Nelson singing “Whiskey River”]

John Spong: You ended up recording at Pedernales in the late eighties, I’m guessing? And that started at a house party in Kansas City somehow?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Oh. Gosh. I don’t know the dates. But what had happened, I was hanging out as the Cowboy Twinkies, they left me, and then the Gonzos left Jerry Jeff and became my band, which is just kinda like they wanted a different seat on the Titanic. It’s just, “Well, it’s bad over here. Let’s go over there. Whoa . . . iceberg.”

So anyhow, we were up in somewhere in Kansas. We’re someplace at this old club. We’re at someplace and there’s some old dope-dealer guy and everything. And he paid us. And so he said, “Man, I’ll give anything in the world to smoke a joint with Willie Nelson. I said, “Would you give ten grand?” And he goes, “Yeah.” And I went, “Well, hang on.”

So that day somehow I called up Willie, and I said, “Hey man, can I record at Pedernales. I got to do some deal.” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Come on down; pay Bobby Arnold.” I can’t remember who, the owner engineer said, “Pay them and I’ll let you have the studio for nothing.”

So I told the guy, I said, “Okay, man. We’re going to go down there and record. And you come on down, and hopefully Willie will be at Pedernales; there’s a good chance. And you can smoke a joint with him.” He said, “Oh man, that’d be great.” So he gave me $10,000 in cash and some iced-down beer, and I think some trucker speed. And we left and drove down, and we went out to Pedernales. So we’re out there and recording and everything. And Darrell Royal’s hanging out watching us record.

John Spong: Oh, wow.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Because he and Willie played chess every night. Willie would come down about midnight, and they’d play chess.

John Spong: Wow.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: And so anyhow, we’re down there. So these guys show up. And so I introduce him to Willie, and they get to smoke a joint with Willie out there at Pedernales and everything. And so they’re coming in, they’re getting ready to play chess, and these guys are there.

And so anyhow, Darrell goes, “Willie?”; he said, “Ray’s got this song called ‘These Eyes’; you’d be really good singing on that. Why don’t you go and sing that with him?” And Willie goes, “Well, he can’t afford me.” And so he said, “Well, what would it take?” And he said, “I don’t know.” So Darrell said, “We’ll shoot you a game of pool.” And he said, “Okay.”

He said, “If me and Kerry McDonald”—my bus driver—“we’ll take you and Bobby Arnold on a game of pool, of eight ball. If we win, you sing on this track for nothing, called ‘These Eyes.’ ” And Willie said, “Okay, if I win, Ray pays me what they paid me to do the duet with Julio Iglesias.”

So I’m just going, “What?” Oh my oh. So anyhow, they shoot. And Bobby Arnold scratches on the eight ball. So we win.

John Spong: Oh, nice.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: So they set it up. So Willie goes in there and sings “These Eyes,” and it’s about, by that time, it’s about three or four in the morning. And so then we’re recording. And so it was really cool and everything. So anyhow, we’re recording that rest of that week. And I don’t know what day it was, but all of a sudden, I’m in the sound booth and all of a sudden, Willie and David Anderson come walking by with these two guys in suits.

John Spong: His longtime road manager, David Anderson?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Yeah, David Anderson. Yeah. So they just walked through the studio. All of a sudden, Willie comes back, sticks his head in the sound booth and says, “When you leave today, take all of your gear and your masters with you.” Next day, IRS chains on the doors.

[Ray Wylie Hubbard and Willie Nelson singing “These Eyes”]

Ray Wylie Hubbard: But then when we did. . .

John Spong: Stone Blind Horses.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Stone Blind Horses.

John Spong: That was actually the next thing I was going to ask, because I’m really curious. I love that, too.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well, I’d written that song and just, always in the back of my mind, I said, “Man, this is . . . Willie. If I could get Willie to do this.”

John Spong: Yeah.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: And so I said, “Man, all I can do is . . .” So I called up Paula Nelson and I said, “Man, I really got this song that I really want to see if I can get Willie to do. And I have this video in my head.” And so she said, “Well, I’ll ask him.” So anyhow, we sent it to Willie. And then all of a sudden, we got a letter from Mark Rothbaum that said, “Willie said he’ll do whatever you want him to do.”

John Spong: Oh, wow.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: So we sent it to Willie and that was just, you know . . . When his voice comes in, it just still gives me chills to have him do that.

John Spong: How’d you write that? It’s such a beautiful and powerful song.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: It’s just that whole idea that there’s this outlaw, rounder, rascal guy. And his whole life is in the metaphor: “I’m riding stone blind horses / Never seen a reason to believe.” Don’t have faith, anything like that. But then he hears there’s this heaven, and so maybe Saint Genevieve will pray for him. That’s his only hope he’s got, because of his actions and what all he’s done. Ain’t no way he is going to get in heaven unless he has somebody helping him.

And it just kind of flowed together. Then somehow, I’d read or heard somewhere that the last line—“The high, slurred whistle of a red-winged blackbird sounds like he’s singing, ‘Oh, that I might die’ ”—that the Lakota Indians, that’s how they thought the red-winged blackbird, what he was saying when it made that sound. So I’d put that in there, and it doesn’t make sense to anybody else but me, but I like the idea of the “high, slurred whistle.”

John Spong: It is. It’s a Willie song. It’s a perfect vehicle for him.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Well, there’s nothing else now. Might as well just lay around my house. There’s no more goals to reach. I did the Grand Ole Opry, Austin City Limits, had Willie sing on “Stone Blind Horses.” Yeah, that’s it. I’m just going to hang out now. I don’t have to do anything . . .

[Willie Nelson singing “Stone Blind Horses”]

John Spong: When Willie occurs to you, what do you think first?

Ray Wylie Hubbard: That he’s happy. I’m just really glad he’s happy. And just wish him the best.

John Spong: Yeah.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: God, just think about it, it’d been fiftysomething years. I guess in the early seventies, I guess, when he moved to Austin and all that opening story—that’s been a while. But when I think of Willie, I’m just . . . you know, Willie’s smile.

John Spong: Yeah.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: He’s still got that. When he’d look at the audience, he’d smile at somebody. He’d just—ahh. Just, it melts your heart. 

[Willie Nelson singing “Whiskey River”]

Ray Wylie Hubbard: And you know, the thing is too, he’s funny. He tells a great joke.

John Spong: That’s everything I got, but if you want to tell me a great Willie joke. . .

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Oh, I guess it was, Willie said, “So I went to the doctor, and the doctor told me I had to quit masturbating. And I asked the doctor why. And he said, ‘I’m trying to examine you.’ ” [Laughs]

John Spong (voice-over): All right Willie fans, that was Ray Wylie Hubbard talking us through “Whiskey River.” A huge thanks to him for coming on the show, a big thanks to our sponsor, Still Austin Craft Whiskey, and a big thanks to you for tuning in. If you dig the show, please subscribe, maybe tell a couple friends, and visit our page at Apple Podcasts and give us some stars. And please also check out our One by Willie playlist at Apple Music.

Oh, and be sure to tune in next week to hear famed producer Daniel Lanois, the genius behind U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, and Peter Gabriel’s So, talking about the landmark record he made with Willie, 1998’s Teatro. Specifically, he’s going to talk about the song, “I’ve Loved You All Over the World.” We’ll see you guys next week.