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Ray Wylie Hubbard “The Grifter’s Hymnal" Reviewed

If you survive in the entertainment industry long enough, there is an inevitable transformation from a “has been” to a “legend.” Ray Wylie Hubbard first came onto the music scene in the 1970s, when Jerry Jeff Walker popularized his song “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” a comedy tune about a dumb Okie that liked to drink beer and stomp hippies. After years of working the Texas music scene in relative obscurity, Hubbard became a revered granddaddy of the “outlaw country” movement within the past decade. His commercial profile was elevated with the 2006 album “Snake Farm,” especially with the title track’s humorous shotgun marriage of raw lust and reptile shivers. Co-writing the superlative “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and the neck wringing “Chickens” with Hayes Carll also helped to introduce Hubbard to a broader audience.

Hubbard’s latest release is “The Grifter’s Hymnal,” a very good record which finds Ray Wylie shadow boxing with his usual themes of sin and salvation. The album’s highlights include the must hear, joyously raucous “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell,” where our narrator determines that Satan is actually on God’s payroll and Wylie enjoys the eternal doomed fate of a real life former business associate. The song reminds me of Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain,” where another seasoned expert took pleasure in showing off his mastery of the form. The bizarre lead cut, “Coricidin Bottle” sounds like something Bo Diddley might have cranked out after given a near lethal combination of amphetamines and LSD. “South of the River” has a sweet loping groove, aided by the deft piano work of former Small Faces member Ian McLagan. “Mother Blues” is a well spun yarn with a few genuinely laugh out loud moments that unfortunately degenerates into (ugh) sincerity at the end of the tune.

Minor pleasures on the record include “Train Yard” (locomotive reverberations as intimacy aid) and the Ringo Starr cover “Coochy Coochy,” which not only fits the album thematically, but also includes backup vocals from the “Caveman” star. On the negative side, “Red Badge of Courage” is yet another “loving the player, hating the game” military PTSD tune that misses the mark and you know the closer, “Ask God,” is a legitimate blues song due to its dire repetition.

If you haven’t experienced the wit and passion of Ray Wylie Hubbard, this is a fine starting point. As Texas songwriters go, he’ll never have the gravitas of Willie Nelson, but in 2012, he’s more inspired than Joe Ely and less trigger happy than Billy Joe Shaver. And not too many writers throw out lines as good as, “He fell in cahoots with a rock and roll band/Turned up drunk and tattooed in Japan/He couldn't commit wholly to the devil's side/His ink reads six six five point nine.”

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