After several years of online journalism, I thought I was inured to comments about my work. When you’re praised as an unsung genius and as pond scum for the same article a few times, you start to get cynical. But I admit that I was a little overwhelmed when my use of a quote by Ray Wylie Hubbard in my entry entitled “Sweat and grace” brought a friendly comment from Hubbard himself.
Somehow, when I quote somebody, I never consider the possibility that they might reply. The fact that the comment popped up in my inbox while I was listening to Hubbard’s “The Way of the Fallen” made the event all the synchronicitiously spooky.
Depending on your musical taste, that may not mean too much to you. But there are exactly three musical acts I’ve fallen for after hearing less than a single song. The first two were Stan Rogers and OysterBand. Ever since I first heard Hubbard at the Vancouver Folk Festival a few years ago, Hubbard has been the third. His CDs get a lot of play time around our house.
You want to know how much I like Hubbard’s music? Completely inappropriately, Hubbard’s music is filed under Country and Western in most stores. Around Vancouver, C&W still carries overtones of ignorant rednecks. Yet I have been known to search the C&W racks, without even a paperbag on my head to hide my shame, on the off chance of finding another Hubbard album.
That’s how much I like his music.
Hubbard is best known for “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers,” a humorous work he wrote in the early 1970s. It’s a song that he has since had the occasional regret about, although, as he says on a live album, when he wanders down to the mail box and gets a cheque for it, he feels pretty good about being responsible for the piece. And he has since written songs in much the same vein, such as “Screw You, We’re from Texas.”
But such songs represent only a small part of his range. Even his humor tends to be wryer and dryer these days, as in “Preacher,” when a sinner dumbfounds a minister who has called seeking his repentance points out his woman hanging clothes in the yard and tells him, “I ain’t missing nothing / When she stoop down low,” or in “Mississippi Flush,” a song named for the ultimate hand in poker: “A small revolver and any five cards.”
In a more serious vein, Hubbard is a storyteller, telling gritty stories of the American south with a strong strain of legend and the lore of the blues throughout. It’s no wonder that at least one of his songs, “This River Runs Red,” was partly inspired by a Flannery O’Connor story – there’s more than a little of the Southern Gothic in his work. In “Younger Son,” the narrator is a man with an unwelcome supernatural power; and, in more than one song, he refers to the crossroads where bluesmen like Robert Johnson struck a deal with the devil. And, even when the story is more mundane, there’s often a hint of desperation and long-endured pain in Hubbard’s songs.
If this atmosphere and collection of metaphors was all there was to Hubbard’s work, he would still be one of the great original song writers. But, within these confines, Hubbard manages to slip in a surprising amount of intellectual content and spirituality. In many other songwriters, these elements would seem self-conscious or trite, but Hubbard talks about the Aztec deities in “The Wild Gods of Mexico” or reincarnation in “Stolen Horses,” or the role of the writer in “Knives of Spain” and “The Ballad of the Crimson Kings,” or Rilke in “The Pilgrim” with such naturalness that it’s only afterwards that you do a double-take. Did Hubbard really write about those things in the genre of a popular song? But look at the liner notes, and you’ll see that he did. What’s more, he does so with such casualness that you know that they’ve become part of his thinking.
There’s also a note of what I can only call maturity in his work of the last ten years or so, which is all that is available from his career. I know nothing of Hubbard’s life, and I would hesitate to take references to cocaine and Alcoholics’ Anonymous as based on his personal experience without more details – after all, just because Hubbard writes about such things doesn’t mean they form a major part of his biography.
But unless all powers of observation fail me, I suspect that, somewhere along the line, Hubbard has been through some traumatic times. I also suspect that he has lived through them and developed an existential or stoic philosophy. Listening to Hubbard’s recent songs, you soon realize that they aren’t a young man’s songs – and how rare such perspectives are in popular music, and how much is lost when such voices are banished from one of our culture’s most popular art forms.
So far, I haven’t said much about Hubbard’s music. That’s partly because I’m a writer and tend to respond to words first, and partly because Hubbard is such a strong lyricist.
But I’d be only telling half the story if I didn’t at least mention that Hubbard’s music is as versatile as his words. It’s a little bit country, although far less than you might expect. What’s even more obvious are the strong shots of rock and roll and blues in his work. Some of the blues might be the influence of Gurf Morlix, Hubbard’s producer and sometimes collaborator, but, having listen to both of them working apart, I suspect that their alliance is more a meeting of like minds than a question of influence. And, wherever it comes from, Hubbard’s music is a carefully crafted fusion that is both consistent with its roots and something different than the sum of its parts.
In a just world, a singer-songwriter like Hubbard would have the reputation of a Woodie Guthrie or a Bob Dylan. But perhaps it’s a small consolation for those of us who dislike such unfairness that a corollary of the fact that Hubbard is currently only comfortably successful is that we can still hear him in relatively small settings, where we can properly appreciate his music.