Friday, June 10, 2016
Monday, June 6, 2016
On songs like the talking blues, “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell,” all boundaries between the sacred and the secular are stomped down by the drive of his resonator and the imagination of his lyrics. The cold iron chains that too often bind poetry to the printed page are loosed under the influence of the Texas journeyman’s plain old hard-ass dirty blues. And as he proclaims on “Down Home Country Blues” from last year’s A: Enlightenment, B: Endarkenment,(Hint there is no C), “Muddy Waters is as deep as William Blake.”
It’s been four decades since Hubbard made his bones as a Texas Cosmic Cowboy, doing his Country-Rock Boogie in redneck bars and hippie communes around Austin. But today, he looks more like a desert father, drunk on visions conjured up by his slide guitar, than a country music outlaw. He rides in on his signature style Country-Blues, echoing everyone from John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf to Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. But, it is his own musical vision that seduces with percussive acoustic and howling electric guitars.
Ray Wylie Hubbard is a blood brother to Townes Van Zandt, but alive and sober. His lyrics share the same crazy darkness, but they don’t stop there. He knows suffering and describes it in as much detail as Townes once did. Then, some poetic light comes flooding in from a simple epiphany that could only be born from the clear mind of a sober soul.
On the song “Lazurus,” he sings, “We’re in the mud and scum of things, moaning, crying and lying/at least we ain’t Lazurus and had to think twice about dying.” It is an observation that blows apart the assumptions of the sacred gospel story and brings it into the inevitable common mortality. This plays well alongside the next track, “New Years Eve at the Gates of Hell,” where Hubbard dreams he stands at the entry to the lake of fire. Somehow in the midst of the story, he concludes that Satan is working for God. Then he shouts, “I can’t believe I said that!”
So, how did Ray Wylie Hubbard arrive at this lofty place of esteemed Prophet Bluesman, sometimes referred to as the ‘Wylie Lama?’ The story goes way back. After graduating as an English major in 1965, he immersed himself in what he refers to as the ‘Cambridge folk singers,” who include Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk and Eric Andersen. Although he didn’t come up with a record contract until the early 70’s, he was in Austin before Waylon and Willie were known as Outlaws. Along with high school mates, Michael Martin Murphy and B.W. Stevenson, he helped define the term.
The Outlaw Movement would eventually shake things up in the Country Music establishment by kicking the shit out of the safety of the conservative Nashville sound. The long hair and cannabis were only the tip of the ice-berg. The original Outlaws, including Hubbard, brought a Rock and Roll sensibility into the studio and onto the stage. He became one of the key figures moving from folk music gatherings to honky-tonks, playing anywhere that had electricity and beer. He brought the hippies and rednecks together with the anthem of the time, a throwaway song, “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother.”
In 1973, knowing only one verse and the chorus, Jerry Jeff Walker called Hubbard from a record session asking for the rest of the words. He said, “Jerry’s version had an intro on it that said, ‘This song is by Ray Wylie Hubbard.’ Now the trouble with irony is that not everybody gets it. So, I’d go and play clubs and people would keep requesting “Redneck Mother.” I was a folk singer and I’d have these other songs I’d want to do. So I finish the song and people would shout, “Sing it again!” Hubbard groaned.
But, with a series of critically acclaimed albums of well-crafted songs over the last two or three decades, it has seemed less of a burden. He plays the song today without reluctance, but he adds a story with it that is worthy Woody Guthrie or Ramblin’ Jack.
Although Hubbard managed to pick up a record contract and recorded albums during the peak of the 70’s Outlaw Movement, his career had little impact beyond Texas. The years that followed, as he describes them, were a blur of drugs, alcohol and a career decline that left him with little hope for being known as anything more than the guy that wrote “Redneck Mother.”
However, as fate would have, whatever higher power resides in the spirit of his music, wasn’t finished with Hubbard. And now, when he talks about his musical bottom, he does so with a chuckle.
“A week before I got sober I had a gig somewhere in Dallas at Charlie’s Airport Lounge where I shared the bill with a lingerie show,” Hubbard said.