By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
The first step to making Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Ray’s Hell hot sauce is to get some dried chili pequins and bang them up with a hammer. “First covering the head with a plastic bag,” Hubbard notes, “because no tellin’ where the hammer’s been. I might have been hammering a nail into a doghouse. Then boil them in some water—say about a shot glass full.”
The Hubbard family’s shot glass is noticeably large. “Well, we used to really drink,” he explains. “Those were our kind of shots.”
He and his wife and manager, Judy, quit drinking long ago, but the glasses are nice to have around for making Ray’s Hell, which he cans, gives away at Christmas and takes with him on tour—a little personal heat to cut through insipid truck-stop food. “Eating on the road is just horrible,” he says, but his tone is affectionate.
How a musician feeds himself—or doesn’t—is inextricably tied up in the story of how he makes it or doesn’t. From where he is now, Hubbard can look back at his hungry, younger self and see both humor and continuity. As a boy in Hugo, Oklahoma, he ate what his farming and ranching relatives produced: “bacon and eggs, pork and biscuits, pretty much, and all that stuff I hated, which now I love, like vegetables.”
During college summers, on road trips through New Mexico, he played to eat. “My buddy Rick Fowler and I would walk into some bar saying, ‘We’re the Texas Twosome! Perhaps we could play some music for a hamburger?’ I learned about real Mexican food. I went to Taos for the Hatch chiles. That’s when I became a connoisseur of hot.”
Other enthusiasms he developed during this impressionable period include acting in gunfight shows for tourists and the music of his high-school friends Michael Martin Murphy, Stevie Ray Vaughan and BW Stephenson. “My band was called Ray Wylie Hubbard and The Cowboy Twinkies,” he remembers. “When the whole ‘outlaw country’ thing hit, we were doing all kinds of music mashed together, but suddenly we were playing honkytonks.”
In the mid-1970s, Warner Bros. brought Hubbard to Nashville, not just to record him, but to squeeze his wildly original songs and cosmic cowboy sound into a mainstream country radio mold. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but when Hubbard experienced the resulting LP, complete with “lady singers and rope letters on the cover,” he sat in his driveway and cried. “I was just flabbergasted,” he remembers. “I called the lawyer who’d put this deal together and asked him what to do. He said ‘I suggest you start drinking,’ and that’s what I did, for about the next 20 years.” Notable meals during this little descent into hell included a dozen pork tamales and a six-pack of Dos Equis, consumed on someone else’s couch. “That, to me, was euphoria,” he says.
Today’s Hubbard hasn’t eaten a pork tamale, or any red meat, in several decades—having sobered up in his 40s and embraced a number of unlikely things, such as: vegetables, family life (his son Lucas, 18, plays guitar with him on breaks from Texas State University and his wife, Judy, in addition to being his manager is head honcho at Wylie World Music) and God (possibly the most recurring character in the Ray Wylie Hubbard songbook). “We’re Buddhists,” Judy says, as she sits before the wall of crucifixes in the couple’s dining room. “Go figure.”
There’s still euphoria, too—the kind that comes from struggling to find a rhyme for “want” and suddenly getting “debutante.” Or from coming to that realization while seated on your own couch, in your beautiful house in Wimberley near the river, preparing to head back out on the road in a few days and finishing up a batch of your own hot sauce to bring along.
“You strain out the chili pequins,” Hubbard says, “and you throw all the rest of the stuff in the blender and you let it set overnight. Hopefully it’s hot enough. It’s a different hot sauce. It’s just not regular.”
Good. That wouldn’t make sense at all.
RAY'S HELL HOT SAUCE
1 (½ oz.) package dried chili pequins
1 large tomato, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, chopped
1 12 oz. can tomato juice
1 handful cilantro, chopped
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
Crush the chili pequins with a hammer and add half of them to ½ cup of boiling water. Boil for 4 minutes, turn off the heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Drain the water into a bowl and throw away the boiled pequins. Put all of the other ingredients, including the remaining chili pequins and water, into a blender and blend. Add coarse kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper. Let the sauce sit in the fridge overnight before serving.