Talkhouse Contributing Writer Peter Holsapple has sung and played guitar in the dB’s, Holsapple & Stamey, and Continental Drifters, as well as playing on albums and tours with R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish, Indigo Girls, and Nanci Griffith. He contributes to the New York Times‘ songwriter’s blog Measure for Measure, and has written pieces in several books on music. Peter is a charter member of Radio Free Song Club, a magnificent new songwriters’ collective. He considers himself among the luckiest people on earth.
The Texan singer/songwriter is a remarkable subspecies of American creative artist. From Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett to Willis Alan Ramsey and Jon Dee Graham, there have been generations of top-flight writers based out of the Lone Star State, educating the rest of us unfortunates who don’t live there with their soulful songs. The traits are obvious and brilliant: words whose tone brings forth the heat and geography of the state, couched in stories full of larger-than-life characters doing extraordinary feats of love and misadventure; chords that drift with lazy abandon toward their companions, building songs as familiar as old friends; delivery that is part paleo-bravado and part sheepish goofball. Sometimes they sing like birds, and sometimes they have the vocal range of Morrissey with sinusitis. It’s this charming amalgam that sets these Texan scribes apart. Everything’s bigger in Texas, and the talent of that vast musical subset numbers among the enormous.
Ray Wylie Hubbard, he of “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” and “Snake Farm” notoriety, is a fine specimen to consider. He’s released 15 studio albums of genuinely fascinating songs beginning in 1976 and has never veered particularly close to anything resembling mainstream. “Redneck Mother” is likely as near to a hit as any song he’s written, and that’s due to Jerry Jeff Walker’s cover on his landmark ¡Viva Terlingua! album, which predates Hubbard’s own release of the song by five years. It doesn’t hurt that Ray’s obviously a smart cat, although that may have hampered any delusions of general acceptance. I don’t think he gives a shit, though. He writes the kind of songs he knows, as his discography attests.
Ray’s newest album The Ruffian’s Misfortune occupies that same space he’s navigated with his career for eons now. His voice is not unlike that of Townes Van Zandt, not overwhelmingly robust, but tuneful enough to narrate an entire collection of songs; he writes around and for his own vocal limitations.
There’s a strong blues theme present throughout. Like in Bob Dylan’s more recent tunes, Ray has chosen to work in some classic blues lyrical motifs as anchors for his own stories. Blackbirds appear in a number of places, as do mentions of the Rolling Stones and ZZ Top; yet they are largely used in support of Ray’s own clever wordplay:
“Ah children let me tell you about the songs the angels sing
In the back alleys of heaven with regret and broken wings.
Some sing about the holy, pray and bow their heads,
Some sing ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and light up Marlboro reds.”
There’s a sweet paean to Jessie Mae Hemphill, the late North Mississippi blues singer and guitarist (“Jessie Mae”). Ray hears Sister Rosetta Tharpe upon his entry to Heaven, despite being handed his own halo and harp (“Barefoot in Heaven”). He’s even got a song sung in the voice of Chicago bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, invoking mentors Big Joe Williams and Little Walter (“Mr. Musselwhite’s Blues”). And all of the songs on The Ruffian’s Misfortune have Ray’s signature blend of humor and mysticism so that the album doesn’t ever get too heavy.
The single, if that’s what they call it these days, is a snarly, gnarly, not-particularly-politically-correct ode, “Chick Singer, Badass Rockin’.” It’s a fairly accurate portrait of someone we’ve all seen on stage many times, and the tune is again full of sly references to Fender amps, Sylvie Simmons’ books and Chrissie Hynde.
“Believes rock and roll is old leather pants,
Says Nashville country is piss ants,
Short dress torn stockings,
The chick singer badass rocking.”
Ray and band turn up the volume and mass on this song, by far the crudest and most energetic cut on the whole record.
The production, by Hubbard and his bassist George Reiff, verges on swampy a lot of the time, but the lyrics’ importance manages to keep the sound in the right perspective. No quicksand, just that slightly raw tone that makes the record sound like it was played by real humans on real instruments, and probably at the same time; one of those humans is Hubbard’s son Lucas, who plays lead guitar on the album.
The Ruffian’s Misfortune seems to verify to me the idea that Ray Wylie Hubbard would be a fine choice of dinner/drinking/cross-Texas road-trip companion, the kind of guy who can turn a phrase like a skilled lathe operator, keeping you entertained and laughing without having to stoop to anything dumbed down. He’s a smart and smart-ass Texan whose blues are weird enough to keep you paying heed through the entire 34-minute album. In our short-attention-span world, that’s a small miracle. (Or maybe a big one, since he’s from Texas.)