Ter­rell’s Tune-Up

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Steve Ter­rell on Ray Wylie Hub­bard

Some­how in the last decade or so, Ray Wylie Hub­bard has clawed his way from be­ing an in­ter­est­ing sur­vivor of the early-’70s-Texas-cos­mic-cow­boy scene to one of the most im­por­tant un­sung song­writ­ers in the mu­sic biz to­day.

Steeped in the blues

Ray Wylie Hub­bard’s Twit­ter feed (@ray­wylie) isn’t any­where as es­sen­tial as his mu­sic, but it’s of­ten pretty en­ter­tain­ing. Early in May, af­ter some ticket agency ap­par­ently had re­ferred to him as a “coun­try” singer, Hub­bard tweeted, “i ain’t coun­try..use ‘cool ol low down dead thumb groove badass folkie hal­fass blues poet with a young rockin band’ in­stead.”

That tweet could be read as a darn good self­e­val­u­a­tion of his lat­est record, The Ruf­fian’s Mis­for­tune. Once again, Hub­bard has given the world a swampy, blues-soaked col­lec­tion of tunes in which, in his trade­mark Okie drawl, he tells sto­ries of sin and sal­va­tion; gods and devils; women who light can­dles to the “Black Madonna;” un­der­tak­ers who look like crows (“red-eyed and dressed in black”); and hot-wiring cars in Ok­la­homa.

And I wasn’t kid­ding about “es­sen­tial.” Some­how in the last decade or so, Hub­bard has clawed his way from be­ing an in­ter­est­ing sur­vivor of the early-’70s-Tex­as­cos­mic-cow­boy scene to one of the most im­por­tant un­sung song­writ­ers in the mu­sic biz to­day. And I don’t say that lightly. Last time I re­viewed one of Ray Wylie’s al­bums, I said, “Hub­bard’s al­bums of the last 10 years are even more con­sis­tently bril­liant than Tom Waits’ out­put since the turn of the cen­tury.” That’s still true. And Ray Wylie is more pro­lific than Waits, too.

He’s us­ing the same ba­sic band he’s used on his last few al­bums, in­clud­ing his son Lu­cas Hub­bard on gui­tar, Ge­orge Reiff on bass, and Rick Richards on drums. To­gether they’ve crafted a dis­tinc­tive sound, and, like Hub­bard him­self, they keep get­ting bet­ter.

Hub­bard grabs you by the throat im­me­di­ately in “All Loose Things,” the first song on The Ruf­fian’s Mis­for­tune. Raw gui­tar chords ex­plode over a harsh drum beat. Then Hub­bard be­gins to sing, though he’s giv­ing voice to a black­bird look­ing down on piti­ful hu­mans: “Storm is comin’, rain’s about. To fall/Ain’t no shel­ter ’round here for th­ese chil­dren at all. ... Now the dirt is splat­terin’ it’s turn­ing into mud/ Eras­ing all traces of bro­ken bones and blood/All loose things end up be­ing washed away.”

Lis­ten­ing to Hub­bard, you might start to get the feel­ing that, like some griz­zled or­a­cle, he’s gen­tly im­part­ing se­crets of the uni­verse. At the start of the song “Hey, Mama, My Time Ain’t Long,” he sings mat­ter-of-factly, “Now chil­dren let me tell you about the songs a blues­man sings/Comes from a woman’s moans and the squeak of gui­tar strings/Some say it’s the devil jin­gling the coins in his pocket/I say it sounds more like a pis­tol when you cock it.”

Hub­bard name-checks some of his rock ’n’ roll for­bear­ers — the Rolling Stones, the All­man Broth­ers, Billy Gib­bons of ZZ Top – in “Bad on Fords,” a song pre­vi­ously recorded by Sammy Hagar. He’s try­ing to con­vince some “pretty thing” to go on some crazy joyride from Abi­lene to L.A. “We’ll stop at The Sands in Ve­gas and bet it all on black 29,” he sings. The song “Down by The River” is a fren­zied tune that might re­mind you of James McMurtry’s “Chero­kee Bingo.” Hub­bard’s tune is about a bunch of El Paso kids cross­ing the Santa Fe Bridge into Juárez to “sip a lit­tle poi­son.” Vi­o­lence lurks ev­ery­where – gun­fire, blood­stains, those crow­like un­der­tak­ers bury­ing bod­ies down by the river.

He’s ba­si­cally de­scrib­ing a real-life hell in that song. But in a later song, “Bare­foot in Heaven,” Hub­bard sings of the other place, “where there ain’t no end of days.” The groove is sim­i­lar to some long-lost Pops Sta­ples tune. But the lyrics speak of an­other gospel ti­tan: “When I get to Heaven, all the preach­ers tell me, I get a halo, some wings and a harp/That’s well and good, but what I want to hear is Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe.”

Two of the songs here are named for Hub­bard’s blues he­roes. “Mr. Mus­sel­white’s Blues” tells the story of har­mon­ica shaman Char­lie Mus­sel­white and how he was born in Mis­sis­sippi and moved to Chicago, where Lit­tle Wal­ter him­self be­stowed a harp on him. Mus­sel­white even gets some ad­vice for the lovelorn from Big Joe Wil­liams. “Big Joe said, ‘I’ve seen that woman, and Char­lie, you’re bet­ter off with the blues.” Then there’s “Jessie Mae,” a slow groover about the late Ms. Hemphill. “Ev­ery time you sing, black an­gels dance,” Hub­bard sings. Prais­ing her gui­tar style, he notes Hemphill had that “dead thumb groove” he ad­mires, “like ham­merin’ nails/On the low E string.”

Un­doubt­edly there’s a lit­tle bit of Jessie Mae Hemphill in the singer with the “short dress, torn stock­ings” who is sub­ject of “Chick Singer, Badass Rocking.” Hub­bard prob­a­bly sounds a lit­tle lech­er­ous here, but even if that’s so, it’s far out­weighed by the sheer ad­mi­ra­tion he has for this un­named bel­ter, car­ry­ing on a sa­cred Amer­i­can tra­di­tion at her mid­night gig at some dive.

Hub­bard wouldn’t look that great in a short skirt and torn stock­ings, but he’s car­ry­ing on a noble tra­di­tion him­self. For all things Ray Wylie Hub­bard, check out www.ray­wylie.com.

Have you seen my mu­sic blog lately? I’ve got a cou­ple of (rel­a­tively) new weekly fea­tures there. In the mid­dle of the week, there’s “Wacky Wed­nes­day,” in which I ex­plore the weird and/or hu­mor­ous side of mu­sic: nov­elty songs, Golden Throats, bad karaoke videos, car­toon show themes, and other as­sorted wack­i­ness. Then there’s “Throw­back Thurs­day,” where I fea­ture songs and singers from by­gone eras. And of course, there are my “Ter­rell’s Tune-Up” ar­chives, ra­dio playlists, and as­sorted rants about the mu­sic in­dus­try, all at www.stevet­er­rell­mu­sic.com.

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