Exploring the notion of heaven and hell, and the pursuit of sinful pleasures, is front and center on the new Ray Wylie Hubbard album, Tell the Devil I'm Getting There as Fast as I Can, to be released on August 18 through Bordello Records/Thirty Tigers. Yet it's not just becoming a septuagenarian in 2016 that has pushed the Texas singer to start thinking about life, death and the hereafter and inserting religious themes into his music. (He’s also been inserting references to obscure guitars and vintage amplifiers into his songs for several years, but that’s another list for down the road.)
As Hubbard explained to me while we were hunkered down for an afternoon nearly a decade ago at his home near Austin in Wimberley – when the renegade ruffian singer whipped up a meticulously prepared cappuccino for his guest – he consciously decided to shift toward the ethereal after gorging on a pile of books by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft while also listening to old-timey gospel music, as he was getting ready to release his 2009 album A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment. (Hint: There is No C). That movement toward the cerebral might also have been a reaction to his goofy 2006 song "Snake Farm" that fans insist he play at every show, just like "Screw You, We're From Texas" or that other familiar cash-cow ditty he wrote decades earlier that contains the words "redneck" and "mothers."
The new record — the third in his trilogy exploring a life well lived — is indeed one of Hubbard's finest pieces of work, and not because he has assembled stellar vocalists including Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams to join in. Though the album leads off with the in-your-face biblical track "God Looked Around," that song doesn’t even come close to several of the other, more memorable compositions that delve into Christianity's quirks and the age-old worries about mortality, part of what Hubbard described to me more recently as his spiritual awakening rather than merely finding religion.
So while it might be easy to come with a list of Hubbard's best countrified party songs, we're sticking to 10 of the best songs over the years that have featured his musings about God, the Devil and everything in between. Can we get an Amen?
10. "Ask God"
The Grifter's Hymnal, 2012
Not all of Hubbard's forays into religion have been steeped in imagery or shaded by lyrics where Hubbard might have spent hours trying to find a word that rhymed with "metaphysical." This one is a tribute to the kind of simple, gospel songs his grandmother took to heart, with a repetitive refrain that doubles as affirmation as Hubbard boosts the intensity level as each verse moves along: "When some devil knocks you down, ask God to pick you up."
Tell the Devil I'm Getting There as Fast as I Can, 2017
A song that fits comfortably in the stripped-down, acoustic arrangement Hubbard favors for his live shows these days working only with two backing musicians – and the finger-picking style he didn't learn until he was in his forties, which has since become his signature style. Here, Ray Wylie delves into his favorite theme of someone wrestling with spirituality: "When I seek to unravel the sacred I get perplexed and overwhelmed." You certainly won't find any Nashville country stars tossing in the words "ecclesiastical and "ethereal" into their songs, as Hubbard does in this track.
8. "The Way of the Fallen"
Snake Farm, 2006
Hubbard has written countless songs that tell tales of n'er-do-wells who inhabit the world that he often describes as devils, whether they're actually in the employ of Hades' headmaster or not. In this case, driven by a military beat and some subtle slide work, this song tells of one particular devil's frustration in that he seems to be losing out to the growing need by the world to find religion – or at least in Corpus Christi, where the song is set. "Perhaps I should mention," the devil says as the song reaches its zenith, "I prefer to die with a bottle of wine than the comfort of religion."
Another stripped-down blues song in which a preacher shows up at the door one day to pitch his idea of redemption and how those who find God can expect heavenly rewards. While they're talking, the protagonist is spending most of his time exactly where he wants to be: distracted by watching the woman next door hang out her washing, and asks the preacher if he's seen anything as fine. At that point, the preacher closes his Bible and leaves: "Must have been something I said."
6. "New Year's Eve at the Gates of Hell"
The Grifter's Hymnal
This rousing country-rocker features Hubbard alternating between tongue-in-cheek references and hitting stride in full snarl, as he name drops some people he'd like to settle up with. When he wonders what the stench is coming from hell, he knows right away: "It's Jimmy Perkins and all the sons of bitches who ripped off musicians and stole their riches, they're burning over yonder with the Fox News whores." Perkins is the label chief Hubbard struck up a deal with for distribution of his Snake Farm record. Didn't quite work out to Hubbard's satisfaction, apparently.
5. "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"
A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment. (Hint: There is No C), 2009
Sure, there's that age-old joke about being banished to hell and being surrounded by banjo players, but there's nothing like the mournful sound of a banjo – in this case paired with a fiddle – to give you the creeps. This time it anchors a song that could easily fit into any scene in countless movies when the preacher who promises that one day the moon will turn to blood when the dead awaken as the Second Coming approaches. No happy ending for chance for redemption in this song, unless you're on the right side of God.
4. "Barefoot in Heaven"
The Ruffian's Misfortune, 2015
Rooted in the deep tradition of Bible-thumping, this song is sung from the point of view of someone who says they have converted and found religion so he can — just like the preacher told him — walk around in heaven, "where there ain't no end of days." Somehow, though, it sounds like the singer still needs more convincing. "I've been a no account most of my life, but I've been converted, I got the spirit, just a chance I'm gonna see this paradise." The rhythmic, soul-gospel vibe of this song reminds me of the groove that Jesse Winchester captured by having famous Stax studio guitarist Steve Cropper, an original member of Booker T & the M.G.s, sit in on his 1999 release "Gentleman of Leisure."
3. "In Times of Cold"
Tell the Devil I'm Getting There as Fast as I Can
In his past few albums, Hubbard has done one thing consistently: save some of the best for last while leaving the listener with a melancholy song about reflecting on life's regrets and wondering what's on the other side. This arrangement, pairing Hubbard's raspy words with the rapturous voice of Patty Griffin, fits nicely into this group of album-ending songs that might either bring listeners to tears or inspire them to get their own spiritual house in order. Hubbard also references the titles of his two previous albums in this song. Memorable line: "A rose leaves its fragrance, when tread on by a heel, so when I come to where all light is gone, her essence will be with me still."
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2. "Stone Blind Horses"
The Ruffian's Misfortune
Hubbard told me this is his favorite song on that album, and it's hard to disagree. In this one the protagonist is hoping that someone, somewhere, can say a prayer for him has his life comes to an end, even though he's surrounded himself mainly with "old drunks, paramours and thieves." With more of a country wall-of-sound arrangement propelled by a stout bass line, a couple of short harmonica breaks really emphasize the singer's lamentations and give this song the morose vibe it invokes.
1. "Conversation with the Devil"
Crusades of the Restless Knights, 1999
Years before Hubbard would work religious themes into his music on a regular basis, he wrote a song about a man who has a bad dream about being sent to Hell, where the devil gives him a tour to see where all the Nashville record executives and right-wing conservative Christians ended up. Hubbard has written many narrative story-telling songs, but this has it all – plenty of humor and social commentary. And how can a song with arguably one of the best lines ever written not make it as No. 1 on this list? When the devil asks Mr. Hubbard about all that whiskey and cocaine he consumed and snorted, here’s his reply: "I said, 'Well, yeah, but that's no reason to throw me in Hell/ 'cause I didn't use the cocaine to get high, I just liked the way it smelled."
Ray Wylie Hubbard and special guest Charlie Shafter perform Saturday, July 15 at the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.