Ray Wylie Hubbard,
A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment
(Bordello, 2009)

Ray Wylie Hubbard has always been better known in his native Texas than elsewhere. He's usually associated by those who know the name with "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother." Jerry Jeff Walker first covered that song on his influential 1973 Viva Terlingua!, since then judged to be the first "alternative country" album. (My own sour impression in those days was that it amounted to country music for people who didn't like country music. I've mellowed since then.) "Up Against the Wall" -- a comic portrayal of the not-always-exactly-funny conflict between hippies and blue-collar hotheads -- survives as an amusing period piece. It is not, however, characteristic of the songs Hubbard was writing and performing then or later.

Hubbard's roots grow out of the soil of folk music, both in the original definition (traditional song) and in a later one (literate self-directed lyrics in acoustic settings). In his recordings of recent years, in common with Bob Dylan whom he broadly resembles, he has fashioned a sound that is both modern and tradition-steeped, a seamless integration of downhome blues, back-country folk and beer-joint rock. His more often chosen instrument today is electric, not acoustic, guitar. As is not the case with most of Hubbard's Lone Star singer-songwriter compatriots, country music is an all but invisible influence. The closest he gets to it here -- not very close -- is on the concluding cut, the unsettling, Appalachian-flavored "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," which calls up the spirit of Roscoe Holcomb.

Mostly, though, what Hubbard's music sounds like is what you might get from a beatnik John Lee Hooker. Imagine a Hooker widely read and possessed of wide knowledge of America's vernacular musics, and you might get one who could conjure up a lyric such as "Muddy Waters is as deep as William Blake." In Hubbard's delivery, that line isn't as dopey as it looks in bald print. It takes a particular sort of intelligence, linked to a well-honed talent and a formidably confident vision, to pull off a style in whose context so bold and counterintuitive a claim feels plausible. Dylan, who bridges the poetry of the literary tradition with the lyrics of the folk/blues tradition, has it and does it. Likewise Hubbard.

If you're looking for conventional melodicism, on the other hand, you'll have to look elsewhere. Hubbard's music comes out of chants and growls from another age. It's derived from Deep Southern back-porch laments, field hollers and chain-gang rhythms, updated to accommodate an electric guitar that appears as prepared to cut throats as to project sounds. It's something akin to the raw-edged Mississippi hill-country blues of T-Model Ford, R.L. Burnside and Paul "Wine" Jones. It's not for everybody, and it's certainly not suited to tourists looking for pretty sights. But if you're receptive, you'll likely conclude with me that Ray Wylie Hubbard merits a whole lot more fame than he's getting.

review by
Jerome Clark

13 March 2010

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