Blues from hell — and the other place

Pasatiempo - - Pop Cd Reviews -

It might be a sa­loon or an OldWest opium den. It’s dark and dusty, in the mid­dle of nowhere. Half John Ford, half Eu­gene O’Neill. The griz­zled singer seems to be chan­nel­ing some­thing from be­yond. He stomps his foot and it sounds like a bass drum. Some­times there’s a tam­bourine that sounds like a rat­tlesnake. The small crowd nods ap­pre­cia­tively at the slide licks and the singer’s meta­phys­i­cal in-jokes, but they don’t look up from their ta­bles. Half of them have halos; the other half, horns. Most are wear­ing Day of the Dead masks. There are crows on the chim­ney, a wasp nest on the back porch, and tor­na­does in the air, about to touch ground. Close your eyes when you lis­ten to the new al­bum by Ray Wylie Hub­bard and you might en­vi­sion sim­i­lar scenes.

A. En­light­en­ment, B. En­dark­en­ment (Hint: There Is No C) is a rather un­wieldy ti­tle. And that’s the only bad thing I’m go­ing to say about the al­bum. A cou­ple of weeks ago on my ra­dio show I said this might be the first great record of the decade. I’m still feel­ing that way.

Like the son of the red­neck mother he wrote about so many years ago (in “Up Against theWall, Red­neck Mother”), Hub­bard was born in Ok­la­homa 63 years ago. He moved to Dal­las with his fam­ily as a child, where he be­friended for­mer New Mex­ico res­i­dent Michael Martin Mur­phey. The two were in a folk group for awhile. With his band The Cow­boy Twinkies, Hub­bard was part of Austin’s great cos­mic cow­boy scare of the mid ’ 70s, along with Jerry Jef­fWalker, Gary P. Nunn, Rusty Wier, Greasy Wheels, and Frida & The Fire­dogs (not to men­tionWil­lie andWay­lon and the boys). And for a while, he lived in Red River, New Mex­ico.

But un­like his fel­low cos­mic cow­boys of the ’ 70s, Hub­bard stayed cos­mic. Since the ’ 90s (like many self-re­spect­ing artists from the old days, Hub­bard sat out most of the ’80s, at least as far as record­ing goes), his best ma­te­rial has been con­cerned with the wrath of God and the temp­ta­tions of the devil, of earthly de­lights and heav­enly light. And it’s mostly done with wry hu­mor. One of my fa­vorite Hub­bard songs is “ConversationWith the Devil” from 1999’s Cru­sades of the Rest­less Knights, in which he con­fesses that he pre­ferred Satan’s fid­dle solo in “The DevilWent Down to Ge­or­gia.”

As with other re­cent Hub­bard ef­forts— Growl (2003) and Snake Farm (2006) im­me­di­ately come to mind— En­light­en­ment fea­tures a min­i­mal­ist blues-y sound. There are lots of slide gui­tar, fierce but sim­ple drums, and lyrics con­cern­ing sin and sal­va­tion— but lit­tle else. Some songs have echoes of blue­grass, with man­dolin, banjo, and fid­dle oc­ca­sion­ally emerg­ing from the pri­mor­dial blues bog.

Then there’s “Whoop and Holler,” which seems as if it sprang from some old Alan Lo­max field record­ing of a back­woods gospel choir. Ex­cept for one tom drum, it’s a cap­pella, Hub­bard and a small vo­cal group singing about ris­ing up with an­gel wings. Per­haps it’s sig­nif­i­cant that the very next song is called “Black­Wings” (“Fly away on them old wings, black as they may be.”).

Both the sa­cred and the sin­ful are well rep­re­sented here. “Drunken Poet’s Dream” is about a woman who “likes be­ing naked and gazed upon.” And “Opium” could al­most have been co-writ­ten by Ju­nior Kim­brough andWil­liam Bur­roughs, though it also re­minds me of Steve Earle’s stark “Co­caine Can­not Kill My Pain.” Hub­bard knows a lit­tle bit about ad­dic­tion. He sank into al­co­holism for years but even­tu­ally crawled out of that hole in the late ’80s with the help of none other than Ste­vie Ray Vaughan.

“Wasp’s Nest” is a slow, men­ac­ing blues (“If a wasp is to sting you, it burns like a righ­teous hell fire,” Hub­bard raps). One of the few fast ones is “Ev­ery Day Is the Day of the Dead.” It’s a prim­i­tive, lo-fi dam­aged blues cruncher.

Not all the songs are about heav­enly light or hellish dark­ness. “Pots and Pans” is about the sim­ple joys of mak­ing mu­sic. Hub­bard’s teenage son Lu­cas joins him here (and on “Wasp’s Nest”) on elec­tric gui­tar. “My boy’s got an old gui­tar, my boy’s got an old gui­tar and he loves to bend them strings,” Hub­bard sings with pride. I re­mem­ber be­ing at Thread­g­ill’s restau­rant in Austin a cou­ple of years ago when Hub­bard and son— wear­ing a Roky Erick­son T-shirt— played an im­promptu set of blues tunes. Young Lu­cas has im­proved since then.

The al­bum ends with “The Four Horse­men of the Apoca­lypse,” a mourn­ful fid­dle and banjo tune about “the great tribu­la­tion” with lyrics ripped straight out of the book of Rev­e­la­tion. David Eu­gene Ed­wards of 16 Horse­power would have given his left tes­ti­cle to have writ­ten this one.

But even when he’s re­lat­ing prophe­cies about the moon turn­ing to blood, there’s still a twin­kle in the eye of the old Cow­boy Twinkie. If there is a heaven, RayWylie Hub­bard’s on the juke­box.

Check out, mys­, and a good 2006 in­ter­view on NPR at­plates/story/story.php?sto­ryId=6082018.

En­light­ened, en­dark­ened ra­dio: Hear RayWylie Hub­bard and other hill­billy greats on The Santa Fe Opry, the coun­try mu­sic Nashville does not want you to hear, 10 p.m. on Fri­day. And don’t for­get Ter­rell’s Sound World, freeform weirdo ra­dio, same time on Sun­day, both on KSFR-FM 101.1.

In the Blog­house: You can find my “Ter­rell’s Tune-Up” archives, ra­dio playlists, and rants about the mu­sic in­dus­try at stevet­er­ And for those in­ter­ested in the strange world of New Mex­ico pol­i­tics, check out my po­lit­i­cal blog at round­house­

Pod­casts by the num­ber: The Big En­chi­lada brings my fa­vorite mu­sic, and maybe yours too, to your iPod or com­puter. Check out my grow­ing list of pod­casts at bi­gen­chi­ladapod­ ◀

My boy loves to bend them strings: Ray Wylie Hub­bard, with his son Lu­cas Hub­bard, at Thread­g­ill’s in Austin, Texas, in March 2008

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