The liner notes for Eternal and Lowdown, Ray Wylie Hubbard's new record, open thusly: "If F. Scott Fitzgerald had known Ray Wylie Hubbard, there's no way Fitzgerald would ever have conceived that notion about American lives having no second act, much less put forth the idea." And if the story of Hubbard's life were to be committed to celluloid, the result would not be a boring, billion-dollar blockbuster with blinding explosions and giddily cackling villains. Rather, it would be a quiet human drama in which the hero's greatest struggle is against the evil inside him, and he is redeemed after finally discovering the secret to defeating his demons.
On Eternal's gritty, low-down bluesy "Didn't Have a Prayer," Hubbard sings of taking comfort "from the loneliness with whiskey" and standing in spiritual rags, "blinded by the dust of pride." Here is a man looking back on his past with regret but also thankful that it is no longer his present. He has learned grace, but only by walking through fire.
Hubbard's trek through the spiritual wasteland began innocently enough. In the nascent stages of the progressive country movement of the early '70s, the Oklahoma-born and Dallas-bred folk singer opened up a coffeehouse in Red River, New Mexico, with his band Three Faces West. It was there, after a particularly tense beer run to a country bar, that "(Up Against the Wall) Redneck Mother" was born. "It's a throwaway song; I wrote it when I was about half-drunk. We'd play it at parties just as a goof; it wasn't even a real song," Hubbard says in a deep Dust Bowl drawl. "Then Jerry [Jeff Walker] calls me up and says, 'I wanna do "Redneck Mother" on [Viva Terlingua!].' There wasn't even a second verse, so we made it up over the phone."
Ray Wylie Hubbard with Houston Marchman
And that's when Hubbard's troubles began. "As my friend Chris Wall says, the problem with irony is that not everybody gets it. So it was kind of written as a hippie countersong to [Merle Haggard's] 'Okie from Muskogee,' then all of a sudden it started getting played in country bars. So I got kind of thrown into that, where I was playing country places, but I was really a folk singer. It got me some notoriety, but that whole scene, being known just for 'Redneck Mother,' was just...funky. It was confusing, as far as where my music was going."
Of course, blaming the ironic success of a cheesy novelty song for one man's lost decade and a half is a bit of an oversimplification. Hubbard experienced other tragedies and setbacks, including a broken marriage and the deaths of his parents. But the career heartbreaks are often the ones that cut the deepest, especially in a time and place in which we define ourselves by what we do for a living. Particularly unsettling for Hubbard was the record he and his band the Cowboy Twinkies made for Warner Bros. The label overproduced it beyond recognition, which served as a major blow to Hubbard's self-esteem.
"I tried to do a record and just fell. I couldn't have my feet in both worlds, trying to be a folk singer but playing in country bars. And the record that I did for Warners [Ray Wylie Hubbard & The Cowboy Twinkies] was a very confusing record, so then I just stayed in Texas, just played honky-tonks, played with the Lost Gonzo Band, and we toured, but I never could get the records together or the songs." Meanwhile, he drugged and drank hard to add a ripple or two of excitement to his stagnant career.
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The turning point came on Hubbard's 41st birthday in 1987. "I came out of this honky-tonk fog and said I want to get back to what I wanted to do, which was be a folk singer." As is the case with many people, recovery forced Hubbard to be more true to himself and face down what was inside. This proved to be the key to his success. "All of a sudden I got to that point that I couldn't drown it or run away from me, and there was this need to write. But it seemed that the alcohol and all that stuff was burying it. Once I got clean and sober and learned my craft better, then there was a way for this to come out. I didn't want to be Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, but I wanted to play in front of their audience."
The first step was to hone his guitar skills by learning to fingerpick. "I was a honky-tonk singer for so long, just beatin' the soup out of a guitar, and I wanted to try to be like a more valid songwriter, so I learned to play better guitar." And it didn't stop there; in fact, if there were some sort of infrastructure in place to award musicians a continuing education bonus, Hubbard would be set for life. "I try to keep learning new things. At age 43, I learned to fingerpick. Then I got a mandolin, and I learned enough to write on the mandolin. Then I got into the bottleneck slide, so that's what I'm doing right now."
Which works well for the current album, a blues-informed journey through Texas storyscapes that many critics say is his best yet. It's a fun record, but not without its darker elements, including the aforementioned "Didn't Have a Prayer." On the flip side, the historical "Joyride" name-checks the Continental Club in Austin and Doug Sahm, and it's a killer snapshot of a time in Texas music history we'll never see again. Meanwhile, the cheery, old-timey "Black Dog" would be right at home on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
This is a piece of work created by a man whose writing talents were as wasted in the hard-drinking honky-tonk world as Hubbard once liked to get in the honky-tonks themselves. His story is one of artistic drive trumping self-destruction. "Real writers write because they have to," he says. "Otherwise, we have no joy." Luckily for us, Hubbard shares the fruit of that joy, which was buried so long.