To say that Ray Wylie Hubbard has had a rocky career in music is to understate what he’s faced: early in his career, record-company disregard to the point of sabotage; a seemingly constant and often futile battle to build an audience for his live shows; and the ramifications of drugging, drinking and polishing his anger. Or as he put it in his 2015 autobiography “A Life… Well, Lived”: “I remember seeing a movie about a wild young folk singer who left a trail a scorched earth behind him…Aw, man, that wasn’t a movie. It was my old head remembering stuff.”
But Hubbard, who was raised in Oklahoma and Texas, is enjoying an admirable second act, thanks to Alcoholic Anonymous; marriage to Judy Hubbard, who developed a keen business sense; and his undeniable talent, especially as a songwriter. Hubbard’s gifts came together on his 2010 album, “A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C.)” As does much of Hubbard’s better-late-than-never period catalogue, “Enlightenment,” which mixes the blues, country, folk and rock, shows he was Americana before the term was in vogue.
On “Enlightenment,” Hubbard kept the arrangements sparse and loose; thus there was a sense of intimacy, as if listeners were witnessing the songs come to life. Raspy, stinging electric guitars, ringing Dobros and mandolins, banjos, fiddles, harmonicas, basses, drums and tambourines inform the shifting environment. Hubbard’s guitars provided centerpiece; George Reiff on bass and Rick Richards on drums served as the supple rhythm section. Well-chosen guests made just-right contributions: ripping electric-guitars solos on “Loose” by David Abeyta and “Tornado Ripe” by Seth James; Ray Bonneville’s harmonica in “Pots and Pans” (in which Richards is credited for “suitcase, shaking some stuff, stomps”); Trisha Keefer’s fiddle and Dustin Welch’s banjo on the ghostly “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”; and Bukka Allen’s electric organ that held together “Down Homes Country Blues” and “Loose,” the album’s tightest performances. Throughout the recording, Hubbard’s voice displayed its wear and tear with pride (and a little bit of echo), using it to add color and character to his narratives.
Hubbard took a variety of approaches to his storytelling. He presented his bonafides on “Down Home Country Blues”: “Sugar’s got some sweetness to it/As do my baby’s lips…/And I say that Muddy Waters is as deep as William Blake.” A tactile sense of setting was essential the tales. Written with Hayes Carll, “Drunken Poet’s Dream” found the narrator in a room where “there’s money on the table and a pistol on the floor/A few paperback books by Louis L’Amour/Whiskey bottles are scattered like last night’s clothes.” A sense of an inevitable setback, if not outright defeat, hung over several tunes, including “Black Wings”: “Fly away on them ol’ wings as black as they may be/You’re never gonna reach the sun or the Sunset Marquis/You’ll die like a saint on high alongside gamblers and thieves.” Somber imagery informed the title track: “Dreaming and shaken, I looked down/A black sparrow was tethered on my hand/…And heaven pours down rain and lightning bolts.”
Today, Hubbard is acknowledged as being cut from the same cloth as Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams and Jerry Jeff Walker, who recorded his “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” in 1973. Hubbard has released two albums since “Enlightenment” and now tours with support. He’s surrounded by people who believe in his talent. “A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C.)” shows why they do.