With his new album, Co-starring, Ray Wylie Hubbard surrounds himself with stellar musicians and guest singers, balancing mainstream sounds and approaches with his trademark swagger. In this way, Co-starring may well attract new listeners for the 73-year-old singer-songwriter while preserving, or even enhancing, his outsider status.
The album opens with “Bad Trick,” a midtempo yet still rollicky number featuring Hubbard’s drawly vocal, Ringo Starr’s steady drums, and Joe Walsh’s incendiary guitar parts. With “Fast Left Hand,” Hubbard wields a self-mythologizing origin story, an approach used to good effect throughout his oeuvre: “I was raised with the Pentecostal believing the word was true / when I was thirteen got a flat top Kalamazoo / ghosts started howling lightning lit up the dark / smelt like singed hair when they ignited Joan of Arc.” Kelby Ray Caldwell on drums and Neil Mason on bass offer an adrenalized rhythm while Jaren Johnston contributes guitar parts alternately reminiscent of George Strait and Steve Vai.
“Drink Till I See Double” should be added to the list of canonized drinking tunes, carried by an uber-hook-y chorus and riveting supportive vocals courtesy of Elizabeth Cook and Paula Nelson. “Outlaw Blood” is another high point on the album, Hubbard’s portrait of an “outlaw woman”: “She drives a 392 scat pack Dodge Charger / her mama got a tattoo says ‘free Sonny Barger’ / her daddy did time for a deal gone bad / some women is as tough as rehab.” Ashley McBride’s back-up vocal is irresistible, as is Jeff Plankenhorn’s mandolin part. The album closes with “The Messenger,” a snapshot of the rambling man that brings to mind Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.”
Co-starring showcases Hubbard’s exemplary songwriting craft and unique vocal style. Soundscapes, in turn, are brought to life by A-game instrumentation and complementary vocals. With Co-starring, Hubbard broadens his repertoire – in terms of songs, delivery, and production – in order to embrace a popular vibe, at the same time never compromising, and in fact doubling down on, his signature gifts.