At 68, Ray Wylie Hubbard is more raw-boned, knotty, knobby and rough-hewn in his post-psycho-country approach to drifter’s rock than ever. Guitars hiss, sting and slash; the beats haunted and tribal all underscore a voice that’s parched earth—as much by design as what’s leftover from a life lived to the hilt.
Hubbard, whose initial fame came from “Up Against The Wall (Redneck Mother),” has been hell-bent and sanctified, squalid and profound. On the loose and juicy-grooved Ruffian’s Misfortune, he is all those things. But what elevates the rabble-rousing rejectionist is his ability to hybridize polemics for the divine transformation of the blues on “Chick Singer, Bad Ass Rockin’” or the plain-dirt delivery of the gospel reward “Barefoot in Heaven,” marked by swampy female vocals and serpentine electric guitar etching.
Having seen it all, writing the rabid strip-club celebration “Snake Farm” and unrepentant “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” Hubbard recognizes the commonality in duality. The blues in RWH’s hands is the same as high-plains country: full of bravado and humility, organic and faltering. On the closing “Stone Blind Horses,” coated with wheezing harmonica across the bridge and marked by the philosophy of making do in the gaps of faith on the verses, he offers the set’s final benediction: “all the young cowboys, old drunks, they’re mostly thieves.”
Given his age, there is consideration to the narrowing of days, salvation and religion. The factory pendulum weight of “All Loose Things” and the stark shanty reel of the regret-strewn portrait “Too Young Ripe, Too Young Rotten” suggest the quest for something beyond the temporal.
Between those stakes of the wages of life built on the temporary, there’s the old Western stoicism of “Hey Mama, I Believe My Time Ain’t Long.” Whiskey straight, Marlboro Reds and “Smokestack Lightning” evoked—along with his fellow travelers embracing “Sister Morphine,” high courtesans and whatever else pleases them—this is a man who knows the cost of how he’s lived, and he’ll level-eye whatever’s to come.
For all of the elegiacs, though, this is not a somber affair. “Hell on Fords,” all lust, vigor and rump-shaking breeziness, is the snort of no surrender. The acoustic guitar, harmonica and tambourine-fueled “Mr. Musselwhite’s Blues” witnesses how hard, but also how visceral, the rough side of living can be.
That may be RWH’s greatest gift. Whatever is dealt him, he scrapes the roots, boils the marrow and gives up songs that rabbit punch with delicious truth. Like Keith Richards, an outlaw who doesn’t need the tag, Hubbard’s reality is the rogue’s romance completely inhabited.