Thursday, April 12, 2012

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: The Sacred Grifter

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
April 13, 2012

I was going to start off this review of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s new album, The Grifter’s Hymnal, by saying that it’s the first great album of the year. But then I reread my review of his previous album, 2010’s A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), in which I wrote, “This might be the first great record of the decade.”

So I guess I won't.

Ray Wylie Hubbard & Son
RWH and son Lucas at The White Horse last month
But that’s my typical reaction to Hubbard albums in recent years. His folksy, blues-soaked redneck rock ’n’ roll breaks little new musical ground, yet it’s refreshing. With his Okie drawl, Hubbard has a way of sounding wise even when he’s cracking wise. He seems highly spiritual even when he’s singing about shady nightclub characters and strippers. He sings proudly of being an upright, sober family man, yet he offers sharp insight into the carnal side of life.

I’ve probably said this before, too, but Hubbard is one of the very few musicians of his generation who has actually gotten better with age. He’s now 65 or thereabouts, and I can’t wait to hear what he sounds like when he’s 70. Truthfully, this album, plus A. Enlightenment, Snake Farm (2006), and Growl (2003) make up a body of work that, for my money, is unrivaled by any other singer/songwriter I can think of.

Chew on this: Hubbard’s albums of the last 10 years are even more consistently brilliant than Tom Waits’ output since the turn of the century.

(I’m conveniently overlooking one Hubbard album during this period that doesn’t rise to the level of his others, 2005’s Delirium Tremolos. Most of the songs on that one are covers. Despite a decent version of James McMurtry’s classic “Choctaw Bingo,” Delirium is a more mellow affair, lacking the rattlesnake blues edge of Hubbard’s other recent records.)

The Grifter’s Hymnal begins with a voodoo invocation. “Said my prayers to the old black gods./Tied some string around some chicken bones./Set ’em on fire and I cross my heart,” he sings over a stomping beat on “Coricidin Bottle.” What’s this got to do with a decongestant? Hubbard uses a Coricidin bottle as a guitar slide, a tradition that some say started with Duane Allman. Mysteriously, there’s no slide guitar on this song. But who needs it with the stinging electric guitar provided by Hubbard’s teenage son, Lucas?

Courtesy of picker Billy Cassis, there’s slide aplenty on “Lazarus,” a meditation on mortality. “Between the Devil and God/Between the first breath and last/Somewhere under Heaven with no future and a hell of a past/We’re in the mud and scum of things, moanin’, cryin’ and lyin’/At least we ain’t like Lazarus and have to think twice about dyin’.”

And Hubbard himself shows his stuff on a National Resonator guitar on “Coochy Coochy,” a song written by (and featuring some call-and-response vocals from) Ringo Starr. When I saw Hubbard play in Austin last month, he talked about how amazed he was — and still is — by the fact that he has a “fuckin' Beatle” on his album.

Like invocations to his personal pantheon of saints, Hubbard name-checks many musical heroes in his songs — venerated blues growlers like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Otis Rush as well as classic rockers like the James Gang and Neil Young and Crazy Horse. In a song called “Count My Blessings,” he tells the story of the 1964 shooting death of Sam Cooke as if it were a biblical parable.

Hubbard is not known as a political activist, but you get a peek at his leanings in some scattered spots on the album. “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell” contains a reference to “Fox News whores” burning in Hades and praises Martin Luther King Jr. More pointedly, “Red Badge of Courage” is a real live antiwar song, as seen through the eyes of a young Marine in Iraq. “We’re just kids doing the dirty work for the failures of old men,” he sings.

Ray Wylie Hubbard
RWH at Threadill's last month
The near-six-minute “Mother Blues,” presented as an autobiographical shaggy-dog tale, is a Hubbard tour de force. Starting off with a swampy guitar lick and a shuffling drumbeat, Hubbard says, “When I was a young man, about 21 years old, y’all, all I wanted was a stripper girlfriend and a gold-top Les Paul. Be careful of the things you wish for. You just might get ’em.”

He proceeds to sing the story of a Dallas nightclub where Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddie King used to play that was frequented by gamblers, dealers, “young white hipsters,” and, for the after-hours parties, dancers from a nearby gentleman’s club. Hubbard meets the stripper of his dreams there. He tries to play it cool at first — he plays guitar, initially ignoring her request for “Polk Salad Annie,” until she describes how that song makes her want to rip off her clothes and dance around in her underwear.

“Down in Louisiana, where the alligators grow so mean ...” the singer responds. And a star-crossed love affair is born.

In the last verse of “Mother Blues,” Hubbard talks about how lucky he is to play music with his son and the other members of his band, even though he never “busted through the gates” and became a “big-time rock ’n’ roll star.” He concludes with some wisdom that ought to be taken as advice: “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”

Grifter’s Hymnal ends with what sounds like an actual hymn. “Ask God,” featuring some devilish Coricidin slide and sounding like some long lost Blind Willie Johnson song, is built around some simple spiritual advice: “When darkness swoops down on you, ask God for some light. ... When some devil knocks you down, ask God to pick you up. ... When death comes a knocking, ask God to open the door.”

In short, The Grifter’s Hymnal points to heaven but rocks like hell.

Check out the video below. You won't see me, but  I was in the back of the room at Threadgill's World Headquarters when it was shot last month.

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