As I listened again to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s new album Tell the Devil…I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can, the secret of his creative spark struck me more clearly than ever before: It’s an utter lack of pretense. When the grizzled Texas troubadour wants, for example, to recount the Bible’s creation story, as he does in the opening track “God Looked Around,” he does it in his own words and characteristic bluesy stomp – but without a hint of irony or snideness. This upfront feeling, this expressing his heart directly through his voice and his guitar, lingers throughout the whole magnificent album.
I’m usually turned off by songs about songs, songs about the life of a musician, songs paying tribute to musical heroes and icons of the past. It’s different with Hubbard. With him you always get the sense that this is the guy right here; with all his mentions of specific guitars, amplifiers, and seedy bar stages, there’s no code, no secret language, no in-joke. Self-referentiality has threaded through his oeuvre, earlier albums featuring tracks like “Pots and Pans,” “Cooler ‘n Hell,” “Chick Singer, Bad Ass Rockin’,” and of course Hubbard’s magnum opus “Conversation with the Devil,” the song that got me hooked on him when I heard him sing it years ago at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Even his choice of covers can follow the pattern – he chose Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Beauty Way” and Roger Tillison’s “Rock and Roll Gypsies,” both of which evoke the life of the on-the-move artist, for his 2005 mostly-covers set Delirium Tremolos (and note that album title).
Some of Tell the Devil…I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can continues to mine that rich vein. There’s the Lightnin’ Hopkins-inspired “Dead Thumb King,” and there’s “Spider, Snaker and Little Sun,” a tribute to the Minneapolis musicians “Spider” John Koerner, Dave “Snaker” Ray, and Tony “Little Sun” Glover, the “anti-Kingston Trio” Hubbard describes as “no clean-cut folk group…they looked like sinister, low-key criminals!” He shows off his slide-guitar prowess on the baldly self-referential “Open G,” which is entirely about a specific guitar tuning, its self-referentiality taking me not out of the magical “zone” of art but deeper into it (and to childhood music-about-music favorites like Tubby the Tuba).
The autobiographical narrator of “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels” picks up a pack of hitchhiking devils who hit him with the cold truth of the music business. And they don’t need to stray from a tense, demonic F# chord to do it. “Make like Ray Charles and hit the road, Jack,” Lucifer tells the hopeful singer-songwriter, reducing him to a “persona non grata.” There’s a streak of humor in many of the songs, sometimes right there in the lyrics, elsewhere in the delivery. “It’s better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. / That’s why I’m goin’ to Mobile,” says the Devil.
“Werewolves of London” meets “Piano Man” in the bar-scene song “Old Wolf,” where fangy doom seems to await patrons, musicians, and bartenders alike. “House of the White Rose Bouquet” looks at the brothel legend captured in the bar-band staple “House of the Rising Sun” from a different angle: Love can happen anywhere. Yet a ghost haunts the new theater – the “beacon of decency” – that has arisen where the whorehouse used to stand.
The title track returns to the life of a traveling troubadour, who mentions his guitars and amps by their model numbers because he loves them almost as much (or perhaps as much) as the woman he recounts meeting at a gig, she “who can outcuss any man.” And who but Ray Wylie Hubbard would reference Son Volt and Eva Green in the same verse? Lucinda Williams and Eric Church join in with vocal harmonies, building a smoky, organic, and somehow heavenly blend into an epic ostensibly about a more permanent future date with old Lucifer.
The band The Bright Light Social Hour backs him up on the dark, electrically elemental “The Rebellious Sons,” a mostly one-chord wonder that reveals Hubbard’s rocker side and, again, his mastery of the chant-groove. The band’s electric-guitar splatters are the perfect dressing on the salad. In contrast, Hubbard’s acoustic roots arise in “Prayer”: “When all is lost…the old folks say, well, man, all we can do is pray / Well perhaps that’s the best thing we can do.” Again, no pretense, no irony. “I’m not profound or perceptive,” he admits in the same song, but “perplexed” trying to understand the “sacred.”
The subtext of the album is that in Hubbard’s world, it’s music itself that’s authentically sacred. The songs in sequence tell a kind of life story, and he calls on Patty Griffin to help him sing its closing chapter, “In Times of Cold.” But it’s a restrained Griffin; an unhopeful song about “playing my cards before the court of heaven” doesn’t need the thick patina of tragedy her voice can so easily lay down. A stereopticon slideshow of gruff and beautiful images derived equally from sound, from poetry, and from a position of absolute honesty, Tell the Devil…I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can ranks easily with his very best. It will be available August 18 at Amazon.com and other retailers.