Austin Legends: Ray Wylie Hubbard

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I have noticed since moving to Austin that there are certain artists who receive significantly different responses from Texans and non-Texans. Some artists are legends within Austin, or Texas as a whole, but haven’t made quite the same impact on the country as a whole. These artists can be intimidating for those of us who haven’t grown up with them because they are so revered – or at least well-known – to the natives, and no one takes the time to explain them to us. So I’d like to continue our Austin Legends series that gives us non-natives a starting point for some of the seminal figures of the Austin music scene.

I was not anticipating doing two of these so closely to one another, but after listening to a lot of Alejandro Escovedo recently, I just sort of stumbled across Ray Wylie Hubbard. He’s a name that has come up a bit in the Austin Chronicle, among other places, and I anticipate that he too will have an album that makes a strong showing in the Chronicle’s Music Poll. In the interest of helping people out in knowing a bit more about Mr. Hubbard, here are a few words. And as usual, I’m going to focus on what’s available on Spotify, since that makes exploration far easier.

Essential Album

I actually don’t think that any of the albums prior to this newest release that are available on Spotify (1999’s Crusades of the Restless Knights, 2003’s Growl, 2005’s Delirium Tremolos, 2010’s A: Enlightenment B: Endarkenment) are “essential,” so to speak. Hubbard basically has the same sound across all his recent records – a rootsy, bluesy Texas stomp – and so it ultimately comes down to which songs are the best. Each album has its highlights and lowlights. But if I had to pick one, I’d say Crusades

Essential Tracks

Hubbard, despite the paucity of material available from before the last decade or so, has been a fixture on the progressive Texas Country scene since the 1970’s. His most notable achievement is “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” most famously recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1973. From then on, Hubbard remained a kind of cult figure around the Texas Country scene. It’s a great, if dated, song that could easily be mistaken as endorsing its subject matter (as is the case with a lot of great satire). Hubbard would only get more overtly liberal as time wore on.

From Crusades of the Restless Knights, there a couple of standout tracks (my favorites are “Red Dress” and “This River Runs Red.” But “Conversation With the Devil” is a masterpiece, and it tackles one of Hubbard’s favorite topics: religion. Throughout his catalogue, Hubbard wrestles with his faith, and what it means to be a half-hearted Christian, and here he expresses his distaste for conservatives and the country music establishment about as explicitly as possible while peppering in an amazing amount of one-liners and punchlines.

“Screw You, We’re From Texas” (from Growl) tackles another of Hubbard’s favorite topics: Texas. Even if he isn’t explicitly talking about the Lone Star State, he envokes a lot of its imagery in his songs. In this track, it isn’t exactly clear what the listener has done to invoke Hubbard’s laconic wrath; as he notes, the band is just feeling a bit ornery. But then he proceeds to namecheck institutions like Stubb’s and Antone’s, and people like Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the 13th Floor Elevators as he acknowledges the flaws and celebrates the joys of his home state (I know, he was born in Oklahoma. Whatever.)

From 2010’s A: Enlightenment B: Endarkenment, “Pots and Pans” isn’t one of Hubbard’s biggest crowd favorites (unlike, say, “Drunken Poet’s Dream” from that album). But “Pots and Pans” addresses the last of Hubbard’s favorite topics: music. Over a dirty country stomp, Hubbard slowly builds up his band through the instruments of pots, pans, mandolins, tambourines, shoes, guitars, and harmonicas. Music is portrayed in this song as an organic, collective endeavor and Hubbard is in his element when celebrating just about any aspect of his chosen art form.

The Grifter’s Hymnal

Which brings us to Hubbard’s latest record. As with Escovedo last week, I actually think The Grifter’s Hymnal might be the best Hubbard album easily available to us on Spotify. It’s got three dull songs right in the middle of the album (tracks 5-7), but the rest of it rocks heavy and hard. “Lazarus” and “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell” both tackle religion (“New Year’s Eve” may as well be a sequel to “Conversation With the Devil”) with a hell of a backbeat. “Count My Blessings” is a slower track with a spiritual edge to it, but it portrays more of a general spirituality while also dealing in more musical imagery.

In fact, music is everywhere across this record’s lyrics. Hubbard namechecks Neil Young, the Small Faces, Fleetwood Mac, Fats Waller, Sam Cooke, the James Gang, Freddie King, and blues singer Otis Rush, among many others – notably lacking in country touchstones. In fact the whole thing (as is the case with several of Hubbard’s records) filters country through a blues and classic rock filter. A song like “South of the River” could easily be a Skynyrd outtake, and shows just how much fight this 66-year-old still has in him. “Coochy Coochy” takes more of a blues approach, but sounds like what locals Black Pistol Fire were going for on their blues-rock revival album last year.

And then there’s “Mother Blues,” easily the highlight of the album. Presumably telling the story of Hubbard’s life (there are at least some parts of it that are true), it features a driving talking blues that tells the story of how Hubbard acquired and then lost a stripper girlfriend a goldtop Les Paul guitar. It’s fascinating, funny, tragic, redeeming – it’s a masterful story that draws on classic storytelling techniques, making it both timeless and specific to its time and place (Dallas in the early 70s). It’s all you need to get the essence of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s techniques.

The Grifter’s Hymnal is a great record, and a great example of progressive Texas country. There’s blues, rock, stomp, shuffle and country all filtered through Hubbard’s gritty Texas accent and sharp pen. Hopefully this helps you get to know this classic rabblerouser a little bit better, and when this record shows up in the Austin Music Awards’ top 20 albums of 2012, you’ll be able to tell your friends all about it.

– Carter Delloro