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Age of Endarkenment

Ray Wylie Hubbard's new album gets low-down with hookers, tornadoes and religion.

Ray Wylie Hubbard is talking about "them down-home country blues" — not just a song title from his brand-new album, but a feeling he wanted the entire project to have.

"Yeah, you could certainly say 'Down Home Country Blues' and 'Pots and Pans' ['You take some pots and pans and you hit 'em with some sticks'] really exemplify what we were trying to do with this album," Hubbard says. "Every year that goes by, I seem to get more interested in country-blues guys and what it was they tried to do. I wanted to keep this one real simple and primitive-sounding."

Produced by Hubbard and bassist George Reiff, A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment C. (Hint: There Is No C) (Bordello Records) is a nasty, snarling, gutbucket back-to-basics movement, and a logical extension of the previous four records he made with minimalist producer Gurf Morlix. However, Morlix wasn't available this time.

Ray Wylie Hubbard calls down Edgar Allan Poe for his Tornado Alley tales.
Thirty Tigers PR
Ray Wylie Hubbard calls down Edgar Allan Poe for his Tornado Alley tales.

"We'd just started working on a couple of the tracks when Gurf's schedule got ­really full," says Hubbard, calling from his hotel in Steamboat, Colorado, where he is one of the featured artists at this year's annual Texas music invasion of the ski slopes.

"I didn't want to wait, and Gurf just told me, 'You know what you're doing and what you want, you produce it.' So we moved the project to George's studio and got on with it."

As the title suggests, the album oscillates between the dark side and the religious.

Hubbard, raised "Church of Christ and Baptist," likes the tension between the hellfire and brimstone of gospel shouters like "Whoop and Hollar" and the dark "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" versus the decidedly sinful "Opium" and sexually charged "Pots and Pans."

"I like being able to cross between that Episcopal, holy-roller thing and these darker worldly visions like 'Drunken Poet's Dream' or 'Tornado Ripe,'" he says.

Indeed, "Tornado Ripe" may be the most visceral, frightening, immediate song ever written about a twister.

"I grew up in Soper, Oklahoma, right in Tornado Alley," Hubbard recalls. "I was sitting around one night when I remembered my grandfather used to say, 'Them clouds are growin' a tail.'

"You can look it up," he continues, "but about 1954, a tornado literally destroyed Soper. The bank was gone, everything was demolished. When they came out of the storm cellar, daddy said there wasn't anything left but death and kindling. I just took those two remembrances and the song developed from that."

Hubbard reached back for other memories to develop the sadly glorious funeral ode "Loose," which includes one of the most delicious lines on the album: "Even her mama said she was always trouble / Promise a man anything, give him half and charge him double."

"I wrote that about some hookers I knew back in my early Dallas days," laughs Hubbard.

"Actually, I started writing it about my wife, Judy, because she's got that kind of attitude and swagger the character in 'Loose' has," he adds. "But then I got to thinking, 'No, I can't write this about Judy 'cause I don't want to get sued by the president of my record company.' So that character is a composite."

Hubbard and his wife formed Bordello Records to release Enlightenment. Hubbard says it's not inconceivable that he would release his records on someone else's label again, but the odds are long.

"I've been on several labels and I've never had any problem getting my mechanical royalties, but I just never seem to see any artist royalty money," he explains. "We just put the pencil to it, and it looked like we could make the same money selling 10,000 copies ourselves as we'd make if we sold 50,000 with another label. Sure, we do a lot more work now — shipping, packaging, collecting our money. But it's all ours."

Hubbard, who has been performing professionally since 1964, sees today as a great time to be in the music business.

"It's a pretty amazing time and I feel real lucky to be in the spot I'm in," he says. "I mean, look at me, I'm not a folk guy, I'm not a blues guy, I'm not a rocker, but that's very freeing artistically and commercially.

"It gives me the flexibility to take my acoustic guitar and play on folky bills on the West Coast, or play with my full electric band at festivals or Texas beer joints and crank it up."

Hubbard is acknowledged by his peers as one of Texas music's more effective poets. He mentions German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his classic Texas songwriter tune "The Messenger," and, in "Down Home Country Blues," intones "I'm partial to old [John Lee] Hooker singing 'Crawlin' King Snake' / And I can say that Muddy Waters is as deep as William Blake."

"College was mostly beer, music, guitars, girls, beer and more girls, so I missed a lot," laughs Hubbard. "But the last 20 years or so I've gone back to search for the stuff I missed out on. And there's so much cool stuff to discover and ponder.

"'Drunken Poet's Dream' is partly an homage to Edgar Allan Poe," Hubbard says of the song he co-wrote with Hayes Carll, and also appears on Carll's Trouble in Mind album. "It blew my mind when I started reading him, his stuff was so dark and weird and cool. That stuff has really inspired me and helped me as a songwriter."

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