Ray Wylie Hubbard – Put down the gun
No song could be less indicative of Hubbard’s art than “Redneck Mother”. But perhaps owing to the weird cult status it conferred on him, and certainly because of the strong bands he assembled — including members of Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band as well as Bugs Henderson and his now constant companion Terry Ware — Hubbard was able to continue performing for the rest of his life, in spite of never really having a record to back. Ultimately, that touring within progressive country circles came to feed both the restlessness of some of his songs and the comedic wisdom of others.
“I was in Nashville and a promoter hired a blimp to fly over the city with a big deal that was supposed to say ‘Ray Wylie Hubbard Salutes Nashville’ and somehow the blimp came over and said ‘Ray Wylie Hubbard Palutes Nashville’. I don’t know, somebody said, ‘It doesn’t get weird enough for me.’ We opened for Willie Nelson at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and this was back in the glitter rock era, and the night before we went into this little club and there was this band dressed up as space guys, right, with green big heads and one guy was silver. So of course we invited them to our show and they came in costume. So we had these four space aliens sitting around talking to us and Willie Nelson.”
Hearing Hubbard speak of years in honky-tonks and bars where “the other band didn’t like us and threw beer on us” is weird, for his recent works all require an intimacy of hearing — not because the songs are subdued, but because of their power to transfix, to bore straight through and leave you in wonder. Hubbard’s new album, Dangerous Spirits, was released Aug. 5 on Rounder/Philo. He calls his 1994 Dejadisc release “my first real record”; Dejadisc also reissued his 1992 album Lost Train Of Thought, which originally came out on Misery Loves Co.
Just as startling is Hubbard’s spiritual conviction within these rather ironic, relativist, or worse, holistic days. At heart, he is the most independent of religious writers, his voice sometimes declaiming with steely, Puritan keen things only a voice as unaffected and grave as his can capture. “This beautiful ancient wisdom has been prostituted for personal gain,” he sings in “The Real Trick”. It’s the same folk voice critic Greil Marcus has recently celebrated as “passion in the flatness, stoicism in fear, remorse in the deadpan.” “It’s more spiritual than religious,” Hubbard explains. “I don’t follow any one religion. I’m kind of a spiritual mongrel.”
In considering Hubbard’s career, it’s hard not to see the story of a slow, circular path towards conversion, or better still, a redemption of the folk songwriting craft he started out exploring in Texas coffeehouses. “Kinda like John Prine and Jesus, I had my missing years, you know,” he quips. “I just didn’t do any recording. I just played in Texas and California. Now I think of myself as a songwriter. Before I don’t know what I thought; I just couldn’t quite get it together. Nine years ago I came out of this honky-tonk fog….I just didn’t feel good trying to be a honky-tonker. I made this conscious decision to get back to what I really like doing. I started out doing acoustic stuff. I wanted to be just a songwriter.”
It’s a curse Hubbard celebrates in his new album’s final song, “Ballad of the Crimson Kings”. “It’s the story of a band. Kind of a cross between Son Volt and the Dead Reckoners. These bands that go out there and write for the sake of writing. I was talking to Kevin Welch and Jimmy LaFave, and we decided that the writers we liked didn’t start writing because they had record deals or had a publishing deal or trying to get other people to record their songs. Later on they did that. They started writing ’cause they had no choice. They were going to write these songs for the sake of writing these songs. All the way from the Louvin Brothers through the Burrito Brothers. You know, old dreadnoughts and drop down Ds.”
That final song draws into constellation the voices and words who “sparkle and fade away.” While referring to those with music deep in the blood, the song takes in the whole human drama that makes Dangerous Spirits such an affecting and expansive document. That drama sets side by side the homeless and the relieved, the tempted and the forgiven, those “that rise above blind faith” and those “above the law and outside the bounds of grace.” Each of these 10 songs, even those like “Hey, It’s All Right” (a praise of simple fellowship), is a hard withering into knowledge — of one’s self and one’s other self.
“Somewhere inside of me there are two people,” Hubbard says. “I’m kinda trying to decide between — not trying to decide, but I’m aware of it — trying to put them together. But I don’t really have an answer. In that first song, ‘Dangerous Spirits’, you’ve got the hold-up man, a thief, a rascal. All of a sudden he puts down his gun. It’s not fear, it’s compassion. All of a sudden he starts to see.
“When I came out of this fog, I hopefully developed a conscience. Not so much what I could get out of the world, but what I could contribute. That song is about redemption, but not going through church. The guy just drops his gun and puts on the coat of a pilgrim. The same character is in ‘The Messenger.’ The guy who walks away from the powder and the flame. Some days I do that, and some days I don’t. The days that I do, I have better days.”
Roy Kasten first discovered the vitality of the American singer-songwriter tradition via one of Michael Friedman’s notoriously thrilling mixed tapes. He spends too much time trying to top them.