AmericanA to Z – Ray Wylie Hubbard

“Beans and biscuit in my cupboard, listen to Ray Wylie Hubbard!”  Houston-born Hayes Carll all but bellows on one of his early tracks, ‘Down the Road Tonight’, just to make it perfectly clear that he, for one, thinks checking out his fellow Americana artist is as fundamental and natural as always having those two staples of Southern USA cooking close at hand.

But long before Carll’s recommendation (not to mention covering one of Hubbard’s own songs,  ‘Drunken Poet’s Dream’, on one of his albums) and much further afield than the southern USA,  Hubbard was already a classic staple for many fans’ musical diet – that is if if they had a liking for backporch Delta-esque blues, rural folk, bits of country, slabs of Southern-edged rock’n’roll and some ill-defined but always interesting points inbetween.

Part of the reason why it’s hard to pin down Hubbard’s music is that both on and off his albums he has always tended to hang around on life’s more unconventional edges – and that really does mean always. Or as he puts in his (very funny) autobiography, A Life…. Well, Lived  “I was about six years old, when I realised you got more attention from burning down the barn than carrying out the trash.”

True to that independent-minded, iconoclastic philosophy, and as his trademark John Lennon glasses, straggly hair, rumpled bandanas and the faded denim’n’leather ‘look’ might suggest, Hubbard, born in the 1940s in Oklahoma but living in Dallas since he was eight, once ran with the crowd known as Cosmic Cowboys or Texas Troubadours. Part of the bigger 1970s Outlaw Country movement, what these musicians had in common was rejecting the commercially driven types of country music that Nashville music studios were churning out at the time.

However, despite being involved in some early versions of cowpunk at the time and never really considering himself strictly Country, Hubbard nonetheless got entangled with one such ultra-conventional Nashville type for his very first album in 1976, called ‘Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies’, who added backing vocals and strings and over-produced the album out of all recognisable shape or form. All without telling Hubbard he’d done so.

The result? “If you have any shred of compassion for me or any musician who got screwed by some jerk in authority at a record label, then don’t buy this mistake,” Hubbard, ever a man with a fine line in self-deprecating humour, once pleaded about it.

But at the same time, Hubbard’s wayward but captivating songwriting brilliance had already seen him compose the heavily ironic, widely covered folk classic  – ‘Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother’. Written, as  Hubbard once told the Democrat and Chronicle, when he was “living the life of a New Mexico mountain hippie”, ‘Redneck Mother’ was first made popular by his friend Jerry Jeff Walker, who recorded it in 1973, and it still remains one of Hubbard’s biggest audience favourites.

Then after a spell out of the business,  Hubbard began a comeback in the early 1990s, in the process becoming, as he once put it, a Forrest Gump-like figure for the Americana movement. Read into that self-description what you like, but a lot of his fans would say it means that the older Hubbard’s got, the better he is at doing what he does.

Truth to tell, more than discovering Ray Wylie Hubbard, I kind of stumbled over him whilst on a late-night Youtube Americana music video wander. The track that caught my eye was ‘Coricidin Bottle’ a 120-second stop-start bluesy thunderbolt of a number that opens his 2012 ‘The Grifter’s Hymnal’ album. Appropriately enough, given the often strongly religious bent of a lot of his lyrics, it turned out ‘The Grifter’s Hymnal’ was recorded in a former church (which could explain the echo-y reverb on much of the album) and in line with many Hubbard lyrics, it deals with two of his favourite subjects: guitars (and how to play them, or not – “has anybody here got a 50-watt fuse?” he pleads at one point in the song) and – this is putting it delicately – relationships.

“I got a Coricidin bottle that I use as a slide / And a woman sweet as a tootsie roll / When she kissing and licking and cussing and a grindin’ / Shakes the mortal coil round my amaranthine soul.”

I liked what I heard, so much so that once, just to see Ray Wylie Hubbard play, I  drove all the way from the remote, pleasantly weird town of Marfa deep in the Texan desert to the far less remote and  scarily unwired city of Lubbock (The Dixie Chicks’ ‘Lubbock or Leave It’ explains why it deserves that description far better than I ever could).

In my imagination, the drive between the two places was supposed to be a Route 66-esque desert road-trip, chomping on huge hamburgers, rock’n’roll playing in the background, cowskulls hanging on signs that read “No Gas for 4,000 miles”- that kind of thing. Instead, it quickly morphed into hours of energy-sapping driving on lousy roads across some of the most mind-numbingly flat and featureless terrain imaginable, with some very creepy Christian Fundamentalist chatshows the only ‘entertainment’ on the few radio stations I could find. Getting to drive through a small town called Kermit (so named in honour of Franklin Roosevelt’s son, I later found out, and sadly nothing to do with green puppet frogs) was probably the only remotely memorable moment.

The trip ended up being well worth it, though. Apart from being a great gig (and getting a bumper sticker saying ‘Screw You We’re From Texas’, another Hubbard classic, into the bargain), on my phone I’ve still got some of his between-song patter recorded from that concert. Because it turned out that, between playing music, Ray Wylie Hubbard is also a spellbinding teller of tales, anecdotes, jokes – you name it – but all of them with the warmhearted but subversive edge that Ray Wylie Hubbard has always been about. Seven decades on, in fact, he’s still damn good at burning down the barns.

The Canon: Extensive. If a sweeping generalisation helps, the later it gets, the more interesting it gets. 1999’s  ‘Crusades of the Restless Knights’ seems to mark a real breakthrough in what you could call ‘listenability.’

1976 Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies
1978 Off the Wall
1980 Something About the Night
1984 Caught in the Act
1992 Lost Train of Thought
1994 Loco Gringo’s Lament
1997 Dangerous Spirits
1998 Live at Cibolo Creek
1999 Crusades of the Restless Knights
2001 Eternal & Lowdown
2003 GROWL
2005 Delirium Tremolos
2006 Snake Farm
2010 A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There is no C)
2012 The Grifter’s Hymnal
2015 The Ruffian’s Misfortune
2017 Tell The Devil That I’m Getting There As Fast As I Can

Key Release/s:  ‘Stone Blind Horses’ or ‘There Are Some Days’ when you’re feeling melancholy;  ‘New Year’s Eve At The Gates of Hell’ or ‘Rock’n’Roll Is A Vicious Game’ to get the adrenalin moving. For those feeling romantic, try ‘Polecat’ – sets the mood perfectly. Honest.

Author: Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham is a freelance journalist based in Spain, where he has lived since 1992, writing mainly on current affairs and sport.

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