Ray Wylie Hubbard is an iconoclast of the highest order. Early on, Jerry Jeff Walker recorded his song “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother”, which was enough to give him lifetime membership in the outlaw country club. Not much later, he was associated with “progressive country”, particularly for his early years with his band the Cowboy Twinkies, who were mixing hard rock and outlaw country elements long before anyone had even thought of mentioning those two genres in the same sentence much less playing them on the same stage. When the recording industry proved unready for them, Hubbard moved on to a sporadic but fertile recording career, mostly ignored by mainstream country radio, changing labels with fair abandon and creating over time a singular collection of work deeply rooted in a fluid interplay of assorted American musical traditions. A Ray Wylie Hubbard album just might be a genre unto itself.
In particular, the work he has been releasing since the turn of the new decade contains traces of folk, country, and electric blues, of honky-tonk and gospel, and of whatever else catches his ear. Over the course of these albums, starting with 2010’s A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), a wry and fatalistic spiritualism has come to the fore of Hubbard’s songwriting. Few songwriters this side of Leonard Cohen are capable of the kind of awe-inspiring wit and piety that Hubbard holds for the givers, the grievers, and the grifters who populate his songs. His latest Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can solidifies his status as one of our best living songwriters, capable of twisting old tropes into new revelations.
Opener “God Looked Around” is the Gospel According to Ray Wylie, a stark synthesis of the mystery of Creation and the myth of Adam and Eve, made more ominous by Kyle Schneider’s cacophonous percussion and Lucas Hubbard’s spooky electric guitar riffs. “Dead Thumb King” could be a juju recipe for Hubbard’s own creation, a catalog of oddities adding up to an intimidating bag of tricks. And Hubbard can spit out a “Bambalam” as in “Old Wolf”, and it’s just plain perfect.
Hubbard takes on the mythologies of music making throughout the album, often serving to intensify those myths rather than clarify them, just as it should be. Describing folk-blues trio Koerner, Ray, and Glover (“Spider, Snake and Little Sun”), Hubbard says “They would rip the Kingston Trio to shreds” and “They looked like sinister low-key criminals” after laughing over the story of how their unreliability forced club owners to advertise them as “Koerner and/or Ray and/or Glover.” In two of the album’s most raucous songs, Hubbard plays fast and loose with the crossroads myth. “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels” has Hubbard picking up the hitchhiking Hell-band and taking career advice from the King of Darkness, trading his intentions to become a Nashville star for a murderous pit stop in Mobile, Alabama. This Miltonic Satan reminds Hubbard that “It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”, setting him back on course to Texas. The memoir-like title song, “Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can” finds Hubbard on the road, suffering through cover-band opening acts while playing his “sunburst Gibson in an alt-country band and loving a woman who can out-cuss any man.” It’s a great sing-along chorus, made sweeter by Lucinda Williams’ equally road-weary but sweet voice in duet.
Album closer “In Times of Cold” is a masterpiece of a dark night of the soul reflection, Cohenesque in its wry balance of the sacred and profane. Patty Griffin’s accompanying vocal is a salve upon Hubbard’s wounded and worn voice. In all, Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can finds Hubbard doing what he does best. There’s nothing surprising here in terms of him doing anything unexpected; rather, he is content to play the genre he has mastered, which is Whatever the Hell he damn well pleases. And the true sign of its effectiveness is that Hubbard continues to surprise, even when he’s delivering what’s expected.