Friday, April 20, 2012

Pseudo Swindler: Ray Wylie Hubbard's The Grifter’s Hymnal

Some songwriters improve with age and experience. In the case of veteran Austin musician Ray Wylie Hubbard, the evidence is heard on his new release, The Grifter’s Hymnal (Bordello Records 2012), one of the finest albums of the year. It’s a testament to his excellent ability, through song, at storytelling. All of which is shaped by a career and life that’s had some interesting turns, both artistically and personally.

Ray Wylie Hubbard is originally from Oklahoma born 65 years ago. His first album was released in 1971 joining a new mix of Alt-Country singers such as Guy Clark. He’s also been associated with the so-called, Outlaw Country performers like Waylon Jennings, Steve Young or Willie Nelson. But unlike those hugely successful artists, Hubbard has been more of a journeyman, quietly recording whenever he can and maintaining his craft playing local venues in Austin, Texas, where he lives. In the past ten years he’s released five albums, The Grifter’s Hymnal, being the most recent.

The record opens with a kick. “Coricidin Bottle” features a solid porch-top sound and country blues rhythm that is the musical motif of the whole album. This song refers to the ideal glass bottle that fits on the ring finger. Stalwarts such as Duane Allman once used it, shaping a unique guitar sound that distinguished The Allman Brothers band right from the get-go. The subject of that song is put into full force on “South of the River,” a southern-fried rock song celebrating The James Gang and the cultural significance of beer drinking. It’s a conceit Hubbard has earned because the songs on this album are not about isolated events as such. They’re about the ordinary working class, whose stories, according to Hubbard, give them a voice.

“Lazarus” is one of the strongest songs on the record. It’s the story about the struggles of life on the road, away from family and friends. As Hubbard sings on the chorus, “At least we ain’t Lazarus and have to think twice about dying…beautiful on the surface, rotten underneath.” The song makes subtle reference to what it means to Hubbard, to be American. This theme takes on different colours on the next song, “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell.” It’s a non-stop, kick-ass rocker, comparable to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” only it's more personal. Hubbard isn’t hiding behind a performance mask on this track, instead using his trademark self-deprecating humour. Even so, it’s still a song about the darker side of Austin, Texas, where people party, commit sins and quietly greave over their lost loves. Hubbard’s songwriting endears you to the characters of which he sings. It’s a distinctive style nearly perfected on the autobiographical song, “Mother Blues.”

“Mother Blues” opens with a description of a bar that “was not a place for law-abiding citizens,” as Hubbard tells us the story of how he met the woman he eventually married. It’s yet another song (one of the most endearing cuts on this remarkable album) with rich characters and delivered with such wit that you can’t resist them. “Coochy Coochy” is a song written by Ringo Starr, of all people, that features a rhythmic sound a la Sonny & Brownie. Starr is featured on this shoutin’ blues that captures Piedmont style really well, which begs the question as to why Ringo doesn’t do this kind of music more often.

The closing number, “Count My Blessings” brings the album full circle and pays tribute to the game of 3-card Monty and a grifter named Sam Hopkins (named after the famous Texan bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins). Hubbard’s vocals don’t have much range, but he more than makes up for it by his clever phrasing on this song. The Grifter’s Hymnal is the perfect musical blend of blues, country and porch-top folk. It’s a solid collection of songs that ranks Hubbard’s work among the music of Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt.

You can visit Ray Wylie Hubbard's web site.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. His documentary about Wallace Hartley, bandmaster of the Titanic was broadcast on the CBC’s flagship current affairs program, The Sunday Edition. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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