Loco Gringo's Crusade

Singer/songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard is back among the living

In August, Hubbard will return to the studio for his third Rounder/Philo recording, to be released in the winter of 2001. "I've got six new songs, a few I'm nibbling on. There's three bottleneck-slide songs, a few in open tunings. It's gonna be a funkier record. I've got one song with a full drum kit; the rest will be brushes on a box and a tambourine. I do have one Yardbirds rocker. I'll probably play five of them when I come to St. Louis.

"One is called 'Mississippi Flush'," he reveals. "This guy in the song gets a royal flush, an ace side straight, all the same suit. The lines are, 'You don't need God's grace, this hand don't lose/Somebody said that ain't good enough, that can't beat the Mississippi flush/Mr. Ledbetter, will you tell me again, what's a Mississippi flush, and how can it beat this hand?/They don't ask questions in the graveyard,' Ledbetter answers. 'It's a small revolver and any five cards.' A lot of the songs are sort of rural-Southern, sort of backwoods. Learning the slide has brought these songs along; I've been listening to Mance Lipscomb, and you know I used to see Mance play a lot."

The characters Hubbard creates find themselves teetering just beyond the range of grace, but close enough to hear the sound of the dove's fiery wings. Like Flannery O'Connor's misfit prophets, sometimes they get burned. He has come to take deeper and deeper cues from the blues, from its succor and sturdiness, its plain language and unexpected humor. "I don't know if that comes from my age or from guilt, the wreckage of my past, trying to make up for it."

Ray Wylie Hubbard could have died. He chose rebirth, and to write and sing instead.
Maria Camillo
Ray Wylie Hubbard could have died. He chose rebirth, and to write and sing instead.

But no analysis, critical praise or quotation can quite describe how, onstage, he fuses his Texas myths with riveting finger-style guitar -- or begin to capture just how funny he can be. Hubbard will offer up a singalong as "the audience-bonding part of the show," then explain: "It's like, we come here as strangers, and we sing this song together, and then we leave as strangers -- who sang the song together. But what do you expect? Camelot?" Or he'll start off "Last Train to Amsterdam," a song in which Robert Johnson pays a visit, only to unravel a hilarious yarn about goat farmers, devils and chain saws in Poetry, Texas. The kicker finds wisdom in absurdity: "So I flew over to Amsterdam to do a promotional tour, and when I landed, the record company came running, all excited, saying, 'We've got you an interview with the head main, heavyweight rock critic of Europe! He writes for like the Rolling Stone of Europe. He heard your record and he wants to talk to you. So I go to meet this guy, sit down, and the first thing he says is, 'You know, there is no last train to Amsterdam. They run 24 hours a day.' Well, I had no way of knowing that. I said to him, 'It was a metaphor for death.'" He pauses. "I got five stars."

Ray Wylie Hubbard performs at Off Broadway on Thursday, May 11. Troy Campbell opens.

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