Music Review: The Grifter's Hymnal
The first time I came across the name Ray Wylie Hubbard was on the credits of the Jerry Jeff Walker album Viva Terlingua, recorded live in Luckenbach, Texas. While the whole album is brilliant, it was Hubbard's "Redneck Mother" which had really grabbed my attention. It was the first time I'd ever heard a country song that made fun of all the bullshit that one usually associates with country music. The song is also memorable because it saved me from getting my ass kicked in a redneck bar in Western Canada in the late 1970s.
It's a long story involving me being your atypical long haired hippie teenager wandering into the wrong bar early one evening. I only realized my mistake after ordering a beer and looking around and noticing everybody else in the bar was wearing a cowboy hat and nobody's hair was lower than their collar. The long and the short of it was I ended up picking out "Redneck Mother" on the juke box and being told, "You might have long hair, but you have good taste". To this day I always figured I owed getting out of there intact to Ray Wylie Hubbard. Also to the fact that the good ole boys in the bar didn't know the song was making fun of assholes like them, rather than celebrating their bigotry as they seemed to think.
Now I hadn't heard anything of him in recent years so when I found out he had a new recording, I decided I owed it to him to give it a listen. Hubbard may be a few years older and his hair a lot whiter then it used to be, but after listening to a The Grifter's Hymnal, released March 26, 2012 on Bordello Records, I knew what was essential to his musical soul hadn't changed. He's as irreverent as he ever was when it comes to the bullshit in the world and still able to impart more feeling into songs about stuff that matters to him than folk a lot more famous than he is.
Of course the question remains whether or not he what he plays is country music. I guess some would consider him country, but you could also describe what he does as good old fashioned chicken scratching. Southern anarchy mixed up with rock and roll and a life time of hard living. I mean, what else would you call a Texan with the balls to sing that Jimmy Perkins was a son of a bitch who stole from other musicians and belongs in the same circle of hell as the "whores from Fox News", as Hubbard does in "New Years Eve At The Gates Of Hell"?
Then there's the voice. Hubbard sounds like he's been aged in the bottom of a whisky barrel, then rubbed raw by life and finally cracked open by the things he's witnessed as he's made his way through this world. Now there's lots of singers out there with voices like sandpaper, but very few of them do more than just rasp out their lyrics hoping that passes for emotion. Hubbard is one of the exceptions in the way he can do so many different things with his voice. He plays with tone, volume and expression, ensuring he never becomes monotonous. You always know his intent with a song. He may not be able to cover much of the scale anymore, but he does more with what he has at his disposal than singers with twice his range.
The opening track of the disc, "Ask God", is probably one of the most powerful pieces of spiritual music I've heard from a pop music performer. The lyrics are simple, just three lines. "When darkness swoops down on you, ask God for some light/When some devil knocks you down ask God to pick you up/When death comes a knocking ask God to open a door". He sings variations on each line a number of times before continuing on to the next one. Half chanted/half sung over what sounds like slide dobro and a beat rapped out on a snare, you're quickly mesmerized by the power of his words and the plea in his voice. It's hard to describe the emotional power of the song, but part of is he's not pleading with his god for anything, he's pleading with his listeners to find a way to believe in something beyond themselves.
As you listen to the CD you realize its title, The Grifter's Hymnal, wasn't just chosen because it sounded cool. With a grifter being a con-man, somebody who makes his living by taking advantage of people's gullibility, and a hymnal being a collection of sacred songs and prayers, the title gives you a pretty good indication of Hubbard's opinion of the state of the world. While the implied irony of the title might lead you to think he's overly cynical, what you soon find out is that he's using it as a tongue in cheek way of describing his own life. Listening to the songs you realize that pretty much all of them can be heard as either prayers or as hymns of thanksgiving. On the surface a tune might not sound like it, but certain key lyrics tell the tale.
"I got everything I ever wanted, I done everything I wanted to do" he sings in the chorus of "Coochy Coochy", while in "Coricidin Bottle" he rattles off advice on how to ensure luck and success ("saying prayers to old black gods") what to do if you ever get scared (" Say the 23rd psalm ") and to make sure you "give thanks if you ever get to heaven". The songs range from the low down dirty blues of "Count My Blessings" to the honkey tonk country of "Henhouse" and everything in between. But no matter what its style there's a type of sly wisdom to each that keeps you on your toes. For every so often lyrics jump out and grab you by the ear, catch your heart and rattle your brain.
"Mothers Blues" is sort of a talking blues/boogie song that sounds like it could be autobiographical. The title refers to a blues bar in Dallas Texas where people like Lightin' Hopkins played. At the opening of the song Hubbard says when he was twenty-one all he wanted was a stripper girl-friend and gold topped Les Paul. He sold his daddy's car to buy the Les Paul, the first of what he describes as "one of the many mistakes I made over the next twenty years". However, being young and stupid when he hooks up with a stripper he thinks his life is made. Well things didn't go quite as planned. She turned out to have a fondness for tequila and pawned his gold top three of four times. Eventually she ran off to Hollywood where she became a dancer on The Hudson Brothers TV show.
Yet, this ain't no cautionary tale about the evils of drink, loose women and rock and roll. It's about being grateful for the strange twists and turns the world takes. Like how he ended up marrying the girl who ran the door at Mothers Blues and they have an eighteen year old son who has inherited the gold lap top and shares the stage with his dad. "The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well I have really good days." is the last line of the song, and is one of the best prayers I've ever heard. If you can remember to do that more often then not I'll bet you're going to be a happy person, whether you're a grifter, musician, writer or redneck.
One of the songs on this disc which is most definitely a prayer for someone other than himself is "Red Badge of Courage". It's a song for every young person that's ever been shipped over seas to fight in a war. While this one is specifically set in the Gulf, lines like "To err is human, to forgive is divine/to err is human to forgive is divine/ain't either Marine core policy, neither's crying." and "What I say to these ghosts that keep coming round again/What I say to these ghosts that keep coming round again/We was just kids doing the dirty work for the failures of old men/We was just kids doing the dirty work for the failures of old men" make it universal to every war ever fought.
With A Grifter's Hymnal Ray Wylie Hubbard has written a collection of songs that might not find its way into most churches but sure works as a prayer book for modern times. He makes it clear that what you do with your life isn't as important as how you do it and the intent behind what you do. It's easy to be holier than thou and sanctimonious, but it's incredibly difficult to look at your self honestly, own up to your faults and still find reasons to be grateful for the blessings that have come into your life. Instead of being world weary and jaded by what he's seen Hubbard is thankful for the opportunities he's been given and the gifts he has. The world would be a lot better off if more people were able to live up to that ideal.
(Article first published as Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Grifter's Hymnal on Blogcritics.)