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There's a lot of hooey these days about old outlaws and rowdy friends settling down, and Johnny Cash has become an elder statesman of MTV. Ray Wylie Hubbard, however, has taken a different tack. He's decided that middle age is the time to become more intense.
Loco Gringo's Lament, his latest CD, is as slick as they come. The cover art reeks of design -- color saturations just so, artist and title listed in a perfect typeface -- and shows Hubbard scowling into the distance, carefully draped in a buckskin poncho with Levi's clinging to what are damn nice legs for man his age. The back cover photo is a "serious songwriter" shot of the artist seated with guitar, wearing leather and metal jewelry such as is sold at craft fairs, and looking thoughtful. As a production, this package is pretty intense for Ray Wylie Hubbard. And he's happy with the window dressing.
He's satisfied, in fact, with every little aspect of Loco Gringo's Lament. "It wasn't," he says without naming names, "like one of the albums where I wasn't there during the mix and they put rope letters on [the cover], but we won't get into that."
Hubbard is so focused and resolutely positive nowadays that he can trot out such lines as, "This one here was really the best experience I've had," without sounding a bit sappy. "I look at this like the first record that I've really done right. The others were half-baked or done under duress." Speaking, with a softer drawl than his singing voice, Hubbard explains what went into "this one here."
After 25 years in the music business, he had taken stock of his life and career and decided he was satisfied with neither. "I was more of a working musician who just sort of wrote songs on the side," he says. So he set out to transform himself into a serious songwriter, and as part of that transformation took his "first ever guitar lesson," at the age of 43. What he did was call "an old fellah and started taking lessons," he said. "I had this incredible fear of embarrassment, but I needed to learn better technique."
Previously, Hubbard says of a songwriting career that began when he was 16, "I'd get a little line or an idea or something like that and sit down and mess around and then get bored with it and, say, 'Well, that was it.'" Many of his not-"Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" songs are nothing to sneeze at, but his buckling down to refine his knowledge of song structure was an idea that has paid off on Loco Gringo's Lament's 11 tracks, which are all mature, grounded songs.
This is not to say that the subjects are staid, respectable themes. Nope, Hubbard still sings of white trash women ("Little Angel Comes a Walkin'"), lost highways ("I've Seen that Old Highway"), and a simple man with a mission and a code ("The Messenger"). Subject-wise, he's in familiar territory: it's all broken hearts and last-chance salvation. The grace with which he addresses his subjects imbues the songs with a certain heft.
Plus, one song is about Jesus, which makes it, to my lights, a country album. Hubbard begs to differ. "Boy, I tell you what, I don't know -- because I have never, ever thought of myself as a country singer. Not ever, not even back during that progressive-country scare ... back when it looked like that was going to do something." Actually, that portion of the '70s Hubbard dismisses as the "scare" did do something, and one thing it did was jumble music classification to the point that Ray Wylie Hubbard can now be labeled "adult post-modern."
Like anybody with good sense, he's skittish about genre, although he'll go with Woody Guthrie's definition of folk: "It's all folk music, 'cause it's played by folks." The former outlaw admits to starting off as genuine folk. Then, he allows, "I got some bass drum and electric guitar .... That whole thing kind of kicked off there in Austin, which was kind of country and rock." He says this like it was all simple and run-of-the-mill when in plain fact his band, Cowboy Twinkies, played country, played with substance abuse, expanded their minds, expanded their repertoire and tossed off Hendrix and Zeppelin covers along with funky blues. Despite that eclecticism, he got pigeonholed. "Pick up a steel guitar and all of a sudden you're a country band," Hubbard says. "It's kind of guilt by association."
A lot of people come to his shows, he knows, to hear the song about "his wife's name is Betty Lou Thelma Liz." That's okay, as long as they come. "I'm mainly known for 'Redneck Mother,' but the people who only come for that, I'm finding they'll go on and get the idea behind the whole message."
Hubbard's message is as much about the joy of song craft as anything. He does, after all, mix the aforementioned Christ-child with gamblers and, in one song, Mother Maybelle Carter's wildwood flower and Mariane Faithful's broken English. There's a lot of redemption on this recording, but some of the characters are doomed, too. Old white-line outlaws in "I've Seen That Old Highway" have gotten to a place where "your momma can't help you now." That tune is bleak as all get out, and then in "Wanna Rock and Roll" you get what I maintain is a country hallmark -- a woman-killer enjoying a necrophiliac last verse. (As much a country hallmark as a second-to-last necrophiliac verse followed by suicidal last verse.)
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