“Is he singing a song about State Farm Insurance?” I wondered, slightly confused, as Ray Wylie Hubbard launched into his second song of the night at The Freight & Salvage. Nonetheless, much of the crowd was already singing along.
Then I got it. “Snake farm”not “State Farm.” And by the end of “Snake Farm,” the title track of his 2006 release, this now-initiated listener couldn’t help but join in the chorus, wacky as it was.
Snake Farm, sounds kinda nasty/Snake farm, it pretty much is/Snake farm, it’s a reptile house/Snake farm…eewww
Thus I began to understand the love-it-or-hate-it country blues realism that is Hubbard’s stock in trade. He followed up “Snake Farm” with “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” a song he cowrote with Hayes Carll, and “Train Yard,” one of the many standouts from 2012’s Grifter’s Hymnal — an album that signalled the pared down approach he’s been taking on his latest recordings and in his vivid live show.
Kiss me on the mouth sweet gal/As if we was fixin’ to die/And I’ll follow you down/Till the Mississippi runs dry/There’s a room down at the train yard/The wall is gunmetal grey/The door ain’t never locked/Come sun down, let’s slip away
While he’s touring behind his latest standout effort The Ruffian’s Misfortune, Hubbard’s set drew from all corners of his extensive catalog, including Snake Farm and Grifters Hymnal ( “Mother Blues,” a song which famously landed Hubbard a spot on David Letterman), the crowd-pleasing 70s era “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” and “The Messenger” from 1994’s Loco Gringo’s Lament.
Along with a dense and satisfying set, Hubbard proffered hilarious asides about crappy gigs at “seafood restaurants in Waco,” trying to play harmonica in front of Charlie Musselwhite, and heartfelt epiphanies about getting past fear and learning to fingerpick. Hubbard’s an outlaw poet, by turns swampy and salacious, achingly honest and not altogether unrepentant. He’s also a gruffly proud father, accompanied on record and on tour by his guitarist son Lucas, along with drummer Kyle Snyder.
Songs like “The Messenger” and “Mother Blues” demonstrate the heartstrings that Hubbard is able to pull amid the train tracks, strip bars and snake farms.
I’m grateful that I get to write these old songs/and travel around the world and play them for people/And they come out and hear me play/And the days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations/Well, I have really good days/And today has been a very good day
And tonight, for those fortunate to be at the show, a very good night of music.