[12 January 2010]
The vast expanse of desert soil we call Texas breeds a more cosmic brand of cowboy than you will encounter anywhere else in the world. Blame it on the heat, its richly diverse musical tradition, or the availability of cheap Mexican weed, but only the Lone Star State could spawn a man like Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Ray Wylie Hubbard is one of the pillars of the Texas songwriting acropolis. It’s a mighty institution, rife with a host of left-of-center songwriting stalwarts with names like Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Hubbard was not Texan-born, but shed his Oklahoma roots at an early age. The Hubbard family relocated to the Oak Cliff area of Dallas when Ray Wylie was a boy. Once settled, the young Hubbard immersed himself in the city’s nascent folk scene, at one point forming a short-lived group with classmate Michael Martin Murphey. Murphey went to become a hero of the cowboy set and Hubbard aligned himself with a less traditional lot.
While both were singular individuals, there are many parallels between Hubbard and Doug Sahm. Hubbard is much more grounded in the blues and gospel and less obviously influenced by Mexican music, but both share a decidedly ecumenical view of the world and at the very least, few other than Sir Doug could condone Hubbard dubbing one of his early backing bands the Cowboy Twinkies. Terrible moniker aside, the Hubbard-helmed band had a reputation as sort of a Texan precursor to NRBQ, playing originals in the Walker/Shaver end of things, but just as apt to tear into a raging Howling Wolf or Zeppelin cover. It was a cross-pollination of genres and generations that sowed the seeds for cowpunk crossover bands like Rank and File and garnered Hubbard and company a strong Texas following, even more so after Tom T. Hall scored a big hit with Ray Wylie’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother”.
Hubbard came up in the singer-songwriter set, but was certainly no stranger to the Texas blues scene, most notoriously through the oft-recounted story of Stevie Ray Vaughn getting him on the road to sobriety. His subsequent mentoring of up-and-comers on the scene over the past couple of decades has earned him the nickname of the Wylie Lama. Such cosmic contemplation can be simultaneously influential and educational. It can also spawn titles like the somewhat dubiously sagacious A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C)
Hubbard expresses the duality of A. Enlightenment in a myriad of ways. Opening with the title track that pays homage to Poe’s “The Raven” and averring early on that he holds Muddy Waters in the same high regard as William Blake, Hubbard has choir-driven gospel tunes like “Rise Up” rubbing elbows with the Hayes Caryll co-written ode to mescaline-enabled rambling “Drunken Poet’s Dream”. Whether higher powered or driven by baser urges, every song on A. Enlightenment is captured with a writer’s eye and a poet’s heart. “Opium” covers Chet Baker and baser paths to salvation, while “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” addresses the repercussions of a rambling life. Hubbard offers up some mean electric slide guitar here and there, but mostly sticks to vocals. Longtime cohort Gurf Morlix relinquishes the producer’s chair this time around, but still finds time to play some guitar and engineer a bit alongside regular Hubbard sidemen Billy Cassis and Rick Richards.
Hubbard may sound ragged and patchy beyond his years at times, but there is no ignoring the fact that A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C) is a damn fine record from a genuine Texas songwriting institution.