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To Hell and Back

After eschewing booze and blow, Ray Wylie Hubbard is one of country music's most reliable and giving songwriters.

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"I heard Dylan and that was it for me": Ray Wylie Hubbard.
  • "I heard Dylan and that was it for me": Ray Wylie Hubbard.

The name of the new album is Crusades of the Restless Knights, and maybe a crusade is what it is for Ray Wylie Hubbard and his kind in country music, as they try to liberate the holy city from the infidel.

All right, maybe it's more like Don Quixote tilting at the windmills. The walls of the Nashville glamour machine aren't going to fall anytime soon.

But as long as we're on religious references, history tells us about the Great Schism, when the church had two popes — one, as always, in Rome and the other, an outlaw papacy, in Avignon, France. Sort of like country music, with Nashville as Rome and Austin, Texas, as its Avignon. "I like that reference," says Hubbard, who has been one of the high priests of the Austin musical cathedral for more than three decades. "That's not so far off."

Hubbard has traveled a long way from his most famous composition, the sniggering country anthem "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," made infamous by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1974. With its sing-songy chorus ("It's up against the wall, redneck mother/A mother who has raised a son so well/He's 34 and drinking in a honky-tonk/Just kickin' hippies' asses and raisin' hell"), it was perfect for the burgeoning "cosmic cowboy" movement of the early 1970s.

But Hubbard still can't escape that song a quarter-century later. Many still believe it's the only one he ever wrote. The truth is, Hubbard, 52, has written a ton of songs, almost none that sound like the novelty that was "Up Against the Wall." The best of them seem to have come in the '90s, as Hubbard released three critical smashes before issuing Restless Knights last month. "I've made peace with it," Hubbard says of what will from now on be called "That Song."

"I always tell young songwriters to never write a song you will not want to be singing for the rest of your life. You might have to do it."

Hubbard does perform that song — he refers to it as "the obligatory encore" — but adds, "I'm happy people ask for "Dust of the Chase' and "The Messenger' these days." He has also made peace with his past, which included a lot of alcohol and cocaine, and a general live-the-life-you-sing-about persona. He's been sober for about twelve years and has been on a roll since releasing Lost Train of Thought in 1993. Two years later came Loco Gringo's Lament, hailed by critics as one of the greatest country-rock albums ever. Ray Wylie Hubbard all of a sudden went from being the guy who wrote That Song to being another talented Texas troubadour in the mold of Billy Joe Shaver or Robert Earl Keen.

His 1997 album Dangerous Spirits showed Hubbard moving from the roadhouse poetry of previous works and into a more spiritual area. In fact, that record and his latest have found him closer to Bob Dylan than to the Texas school of singer/songwriters. That's appropriate, as press releases reveal that Dylan's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, inspired Hubbard to write songs. "I appreciate that comparison," Hubbard says. "I wasn't aware of it when I wrote anything, but I'll say my writing turned around about seven-eight years ago. It was when I became conscious of my songwriting."

The Dylan comparisons are almost impossible to ignore, especially on the haunting "These Are Some Days," which actually feels more like the Dylan of Time Out of Mind than the folk/protest bard of the '60s. Even more Dylanesque is the talking blues "Conversation With the Devil," in which Hubbard asks the horned one himself why booze and blow was enough to buy him a ticket on the ferry 'cross the Styx.

Despite its edgy humor (Hubbard tries to ingratiate himself to Satan by telling him his fiddle playing on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" was better than Johnny's), the song is still a musical wake-up in the vein of Stephen Daedalus's horrific visions in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Face it, hell sucks. "I was in a little folk group in high school (fellow students included B.W. Stevenson and Michael Martin Murphey). I heard Dylan and that was it for me. Of course, the other guys hated it. But from Dylan you will discover Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Leadbelly. It's still one of my favorite albums."

Who would have thought it would take more than thirty years before the words Dylan and Hubbard would be used in the same sentence? Would anyone have thought this honky-tonker would turn spiritual and head back to his folk singer days? He and his band, the Cowboy Twinkies, cut an album in Nashville. The label so butchered the effort — from adding female backup singers to putting rope lettering on the cover — that the band members cried while listening to it. They refused to tour to support it. "I have those old master tapes in my attic," he says. "Someday I'd like to take them to the studio and see what's there."

Snapshots of his days in the wilderness, perhaps? "Don't get me wrong," he says. "I've enjoyed life. I had a great time. I played with a lot of wonderful musicians. But I could never get the recording part right."

Welcome the old honky-tonkin' prodigal son back home.

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