Ray Wylie Hubbard: The Grifter’s Hymnal
Between the Devil and God, between the first breath and last
Somewhere under heaven with no future and a helluva past
We in the mud and scum of things moan and cry and lying
At least we ain’t Lazarus and had to think twice about dying
Least we ain’t Lazarus and had to think twice about dying
Years ago I heard a preacher talk about the downside of being raised from the dead, about Lazarus having to die again. It’s an issue for anyone who’s brought back to life, if you think about it. You get to live again, but right away you’re confronted with your own mortality, since we’ve all got to die. Poor old Lazarus had to do it twice. I had forgotten about that sermon (the preacher moved off to Austin years ago, I’m assuming for the music) until I listened to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s new record, The Grifter’s Hymnal. Hubbard delivers the same message in a song called Lazarus, an alt-country blues number embroidered by Billy Cassis’s fine acoustic slide guitar.
This isn’t the first time that Hubbard has grappled with the notion of life after death in a song. In Conversation With The Devil (from 1999’s Crusades of the Restless Knights), Hubbard talks his way out of hell by shamelessly complimenting the devil regarding his fiddling in the Charlie Daniels song. “To tell you the truth, I thought your solo was the better of the two.” In the end of that song, Hubbard woke up alive and “ran upstairs and kissed [his] little boy on his sleeping head.” Now, in the days of The Grifter’s Hymnal, that little boy isn’t so little anymore. Lucas Hubbard is in his late teens and plays electric guitar with Hubbard whenever he can, and contributes on three of Hymnal’s songs.
Not content to leave well enough alone, Hubbard revisits hell in Hymnal. In New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell, he asks, “Why am I here, when I wasn’t that bad? I just didn’t like churches but I never wore plaid.” I never took Ray Wylie Hubbard for the church-going type, but he’s certainly spiritual. I’d venture that he understands grace better than a lot of preachers. Grace is, by definition, undeserved, even if you are somehow deserving (or think you are). It’s delivered without dogma or doctrine and cannot be managed by men or churches. Contrary to what some might suggest, grace is visited on saints and sinners in equal measure. As Billy Joel sang, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners are much more fun.” Hubbard knows the truth of that, for sure. More than that, he knows that we are more in need of stories about sinners’ grace than saints’. So he has given us yet another installment in The Grifter’s Hymnal, a record dressed up like a well-worn Methodist songbook and jam-packed full of Ray Wylie Hubbardesque tunes intersecting rock, country and blues with offbeat lyrics that ring true even as we wonder, “Where in the hell did that come from?”
After a couple of days listening to Hymnal, my favorite track is Mother Blues, an autobiographical tune about a young Hubbard selling his dad’s car for $500 to buy a Gold Top Les Paul from a junkie. Which he plays in a Dallas club called Mother Blues for a stripper who has a thing for Poke Salad Annie. Hubbard doesn’t know all the words but he channels enough Tony Joe White to get the stripper into bed. Now his two goals in life are achieved, or so he thinks. Things don’t work out like he planned, but they work out real well, thank you. You might call it grace, even. Lucas plays lead on a Gold Top and you realize that this song is about him and about grace visited on a grifter and a gifter of songs. As Hubbard says, “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, those are really good days.” Amen, brother. It’s time for an altar call, I’d say.
Here’s a Music Fog video of Mother Blues. Lucas isn’t playing on it, but Hubbard’s excellent drummer Rick Richards is. It will give you a great feel for what Hymnal is all about:
Music Fog videos are so good, and even better when they’re Music Fog videos of Ray Wylie Hubbard. Here’s another of Hubbard doing Count My Blessings, a song that made it into the Hymnal. The performance is from a couple of years back, though. Nice song. Really nice guitar work by Hubbard:
The Grifter’s Hymnal was released on March 26, 2012 on Bordello Records. It was produced by Hubbard and George Reiff. Reiff plays bass on the record, too. Richards plays drums. Several others help out, including the younger Hubbard, Cassis, Brad Rice, Audley Freed, and Ian McLagen. Ringo Starr makes a guest appearance with backing vocals, guitar and some percussion on Hubbard’s cover of his old song, Coochy Coochy.
Mando Lines is on Twitter, @mando_lines. Ray Wylie Hubbard @raywylie is too (and he’s infinitely more interesting). I’d also like to give a special shout out here to Jodi @TX_Tomgirl who arranged to get a copy of Hymnal sent my way. Thanks, Jodi – your help and encouragement are greatly appreciated.