Day for Knight

There are moments in Ray Wylie Hubbard's past he would prefer to forget, as well as some he honestly does not remember. But he offers one tale that he can recall from his lost years with neither embarrassment nor the barely concealed glee of the unreformed.

"I came out of a blackout, and there I was sitting in a Pentecostal church during the Sunday-morning service with two strippers on either side of me." He chuckles a bit at the memory, then adds in his typically wry fashion, "I guess I wanted to go in and hear the music."

Soon after Hubbard recounts this story, we turn off the highway and drive past a church. A little farther up the hill, we take a few more turns and climb the driveway to Hubbard's home in Wimberley, Texas. Ray and his wife, Judy, like to call their little hilltop refuge "Mt. Karma," a fitting name for their cozy, almost chic log-cabin house. From the sunlit dining room, where a few ornamental crosses hang on the wall, the view of the surrounding Hill Country feels beatific in the way the sensual curves of the land and the shimmering greenery suggest not only the notion of a higher power, but an aesthetically concerned one at that.

If Ray Wylie Hubbard had kept on going as he had been for the better part of the 1970s and '80s, he certainly wouldn't be where he is on this day -- in the crisp, clean air of a hill above Wimberley, sitting poolside with his wife and 6-year-old son, Lucas, nearby. Perhaps he might not even be proverbially here with us at all. Almost as if to atone for the one notable, if double-edged, accomplishment that launched him onto the Texas music scene -- writing the song "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" -- Hubbard transformed into the very nightmare he meant to parody.

Just as the song went from an off-the-cuff jab at good ol' boys on a bad night to an anthem for Lone Star beer-swilling fans of deep-fried Texas country, Ray Wylie forged a legend fueled by booze and cocaine that did his best-known song's subject one better, especially when it came to the line, "He's not responsible for what he's doing."

Hubbard was both the crown prince and court jester of honky-tonk anarchy, and the man who put the fright into what has become rightfully known as the "great progressive country scare," spawned in this state in the early 1970s by Waylon, Willie, Jerry Jeff, Ray Wylie, and the boys. And for all the gigs, and his stature as a flag-waving champion of C&W rebellion, he had nary a recording or song worth a damn -- at least in his opinion today -- to show for it, aside from he dubious honor of penning "Redneck Mother," which was all but an epitaph waiting for Hubbard to occupy the ground below its headstone.

Then, on November 13, 1987, his 41st birthday, Ray Wylie Hubbard got clean and sober. Five years later, he released what he no doubt considers his true first album, Lost Train of Thought. He followed Lost Train with four more releases that similarly clashed with his wild-man past. In less than a decade, he has fashioned a genuine oeuvre where the songs and the music are suffused with a heady ether composed of vivid poetics, the mythology of the old and new American West, an almost Eastern spirituality and mysticism, and the country-folk melodiousness of an artist weaned on a rock-and-roll sensibility. In short, he's the legend of the phoenix made human, arising from the flaming shambles of his life and career to become something as beautiful, graceful, natural, and fertile as the Hill Country vista his home overlooks.

It's no surprise that even while he was still on his decade-and-a-half bender Hubbard found his way to a church in the midst of a chemically induced blackout. Although "Ray carries water for no religious brand name," as critic Geoffrey Himes puts it in his liner notes to Hubbard's latest disc, Crusades of the Restless Knights, one detects the fingerprints of God, and the devil, in the music he makes today. From 1994's Loco Gringo's Lament through 1997's Dangerous Spirits to the just-released Crusades, Hubbard has tracked a hat trick of genuine art that carries an eternal resonance, as well as a profound sense of humanity. To anyone who might have come across the Hubbard of yore tearing his way through the biker bars and strip clubs of Dallas, where he grew up and lived until just a few years ago, this is nothing short of a miracle.

Ray Wylie Hubbard didn't set out to be the poster boy for honky-tonk mayhem and righteous substance abuse. What he actually started out being was a folk singer. Born in Hugo, Oklahoma, he was reared in Oak Cliff from the age of 8 on. During his junior year at W.H. Adamson High School, he formed a folk group called The Coachmen with two classmates. Later known as Three Faces West, they took up a summer residency in Red River, New Mexico, where they opened up a coffeehouse that "was the only entertainment in Red River. It was an incredible success," recalls Hubbard.

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Rob Patterson