Neither so-called “southern rock”, nor what passes for electric blues have ever been my favourite types of music. Too many people lack the subtlety to give either of those genres the distinct personality required for them to be interesting. All you need to do is listen to a master of the style like Ray Wylie Hubbard to appreciate the difference. His latest album, The Ruffian’s Misfortune, out on his own Bordello label, is as fine an example of the wonderful gumbo this music can be.
Hubbard is from Texas, so it would be easy just to lump him in with either one of the genres most people associate with the state: Texas blues or country music. However, even though he plays a mean slide guitar and counts Willie Nelson among his friends, dumping him in with either of those camps would be doing him a disservice. Sure he plays both equally well, either separately or in his own hybrid style, but it’s what he brings to them personally that makes his sound distinct. Call it charisma or character, but whatever you call it, there’s something about Hubbard which almost makes him a genre unto himself.
He’s got the low-down dirty groove of a great rock and roll song and a way with lyrics that combines irony and empathy that would make most poets cry. But he can reach back even further into the lexicon of American music and come up with a country sound which puts you in mind of greats like Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt. Not that he sounds like them, but he plays with a purity of intent which harkens back to the honesty and integrity of their type of music.
The first thing you’ll notice about Hubbard is his voice is as rough-hewn, weathered, and full of character and flavour as the wood of a cask housing 100-year-old bourbon. At times he sounds like a wise elder passing on words of wisdom. Other times he sounds as if he knows most of the world’s dirty laundry, but it just makes him laugh and laugh. In fact, that seems like his default position on most things, laughing at the foibles of a world which takes itself too seriously.
For while his lyrics may not come right out and laugh at the world, they take far too much pleasure in describing things most “decent folks” might not find very comfortable listening to. I don’t just mean those who might find sexual allusions upsetting, but also those on the oh so politically correct side of the aisle. In fact, there’s pretty much something on this disc guaranteed to either offend or piss off anybody who thinks too highly of their own opinions and has no sense of humour.
I don’t think I’ve heard a more evocative description of blues music than on the second track of the disc, “Hey Mama, My Time Ain’t Long”. He sings, “I’ll tell ’em the tale about the songs a bluesman sings/Comes from a woman’s moans and the squeaks of guitar strings/Some say it’s the devil jingling the coins in his pocket/I’d say it sounds more like a pistol when you cock it.” Listening to him pull those words out of his soul over the moaning and groaning of electric guitar is to hear all that terrifies and appeals to people about real blues music. It’s down, dirty, and real – born out of the sweat and tears of people’s lives, and it stirs those places in your soul that supposedly only the devil knows about.
If “Hey Mama” is going to get under the skin of those who find blues music just a little sexual for their taste, “Chick Singer, Badass Rockin'” is going to make those a little more politically correct cringe. “Midnight gig, cheap trucker speed/Sticky Fingers, Let It Bleed/A telecaster, bottleneck slide, sings like a drunk Chrissie Hynde/Says rock and roll is flat out lawless and Joan Jett is a goddess/Short dress, torn stockings, that chick singer is badass rockin’.” I know plenty of people who won’t like the word chick being used to describe a woman, but you’ve got to put these things in their proper context – the world of seedy taverns and late night rock and roll.
Rock and roll is still primarily dominated by men, and the Joan Jetts and Chrissie Hyndes on stage are few and far between. It’s not an easy road for any woman determined to make a life as a rock and roller, especially one who wants to hold onto who they are and not play the game of being a sex toy or “one of the boys”. In just under three minutes, Hubbard not only captures all of this, but also manages to convey the passion that drives them. You don’t play rock and roll in sleazy bars for the money, you do it for love. If it’s a hard life for a man, you can only imagine how difficult it must be for a woman, and this song gives you a glimpse of what it must be like for them.
Hubbard’s music crawls like a king snake through long grass. His blues weaves and slides in sinuous motions up your spine and then suddenly strikes in a burst of electric guitar that goes straight for your juggler. While the slower acoustic numbers aren’t as dangerous sounding, they manage to worm their way into your system thanks to his lyrics and vocal delivery.
Hubbard might have a rather jaundiced view of the human race, but he’s also having a lot of fun singing about it. Like a mythical trickster figure or court jester he sings about things in the hopes we learn something from them. He’s not telling us how to live, but by turning stuff on its head he’s letting us see how ridiculous we can be when we take ourselves too seriously.
Ray Wylie Hubbard is one of those rare musical talents who defies easy classification into any genre. You could call him country, blues, rock and roll or even gospel, because he does his own variations of them all equally well. However, it’s easier to say he plays what he wants, how he wants, when he wants, and we should all just get over ourselves and let him get on with it. In a world of ever-increasing compartmentalized sound, he’s a breath of fresh air blowing in every direction at once.
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