Ray Wylie Hubbard will never be confused with being conventional. Even his entrance into the basement of Hill Country Barbeque in Washington, D.C. had a flair for the dramatic. As the stainless steel doors of an elevator door opened, Hubbard made his entrance into the music room with the curls of his hair dangling and looking like he’d come from some futuristic dimension as the ghost of Texas past.
Hubbard is a veteran singer-songwriter, guitarist, social media adopter and autobiographer. Hubbard’s lived enough lifetimes to make him an old sage, his narrative almost metaphysical as if he acquired the animal spirit of Lightning Hopkins and Charlie Musselwhite with lineage to the wanderlust of Mark Twain.
“If you’re seeing me for the first time, I’m an acquired taste,” he told the audience seated in five rows wrapping around the stage and extending to standing room in multiple lines backing up to the bar. There would be no refund policy.
All night long, Hubbard strummed his acoustic guitar against the fluidity of his son Lucas Hubbard and drummer Kyle Snyder who propelled the droning blues against which Hubbard framed his extended monologues and life’s lessons. For much of the night, Hubbard seemed happy to just watch the younger Lucas who has an unassuming persona but plays blistering lines that flowed through “Wanna Rock and Roll” and mixed-in with an interlude of “John The Revelator.”
Hubbard’s songs are like oral histories and descriptive narratives. There was Charlie Musselwhite’s Blues, the homage to the great player Hubbard recognized standing by the side of the stage. Hubbard recounted the story of how Little Walter gave him a harmonica, saying, “It might help you….it might save you.”
Poking fun at himself, Hubbard said the had the worst album title with “A–Enlightenment, B–Endarkenment” and asked why there wasn’t a “C.” When he couldn’t come up with an answer, sang the song he wrote with Hayes Carll, “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” his harmonica and son Lucas’ guitar filling out the trio’s bluesy authenticity. When David Letterman’s show called to ask Hubbard to perform, Hubbard quipped that first he would have to check his schedule to make sure he wasn’t booked for a happy hour in Waco. They’re the punch lines that are ingrained in Hubbard’s repertoire, making one attendee say to me that he imagined Hubbard learned his delivery from comedians Bob Hope and Milton Berle.
In the centerpiece of the show “Mother Blues,” Hubbard narrated the story of his own life and a mythical guitar, meditating on hallucinations of seeing the face of Lightnin Hopkins in a crow. We learned that the real nightlife begins after the clubs close in the time they call “The Hours.” The story unfolded into the night he met his wife and the son they had and who now travels with him. Hubbard expressed how grateful he is to be still writing and playing with his gratitude high. Ending the song, he concluded: “It’s a damn fine day.”
Hubbard’s been around long enough that he’s thinking about his own mortality. Singing “Barefoot In Heaven,” Hubbard said he wasn’t sure if he’d make it to heaven but imagined he could hear Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing. He said he hopes God will grade him on a curve. “I’m not Mother Teresa but I’m not Atila The Hun.” In “Counting My Blessings,” Hubbard ended the song like he was in church–”I believe in counting my blessings.”
Hubbard, who led the audience through a rousing singalong of “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother,” seemed done and ready to let us proceed to the merchandise table when a woman walked up and had a short conversation,.Hubbard then reported that it was more of a threat than a request and proceeded to play James McMurtry’s dysfunctional family reunion anthem “Choctaw Bingo.” He launched into a snarling “Snake Farm” for a second time.
His son and guitarist Lucas Hubbard maintained his poker face through the night attending to his craft. It’s hard to know what is in his storybook that’s largely left to be written. As for his adoring dad next to him, he has a line for every situation including this gem: “I got more attention burning down the barn than taking out the trash.” It reminds me of something my journalism professor once said, that real life is stranger than fiction. If Ray Wylie Hubbard didn’t exist, it would be hard to invent him. Some things you just can’t make up.