“We wanted the sound of early Buffalo Springfield or the Small Faces.” This is Ray Wylie Hubbard, on the phone from Virginia City, NV, to talk about his 16th studio album, Grifter’s Hymnal. Ian McLagen and Ringo Starr have cameos on the CD, but when Wylie appears in San Diego, it will be as a duo with his son.
Hubbard’s songs invite a listener to think. Was that his intention? “Well, no, not really. I just have a great love affair with words,” he says. “Like ‘grifter’ and ‘hymnal.’ Those words seemed a contradiction, but they work together.”
I ask about his song “Lazarus,” which is possibly my favorite Bible story. “We were recording this album and I was thinking about how we are all between the Devil and God, between heaven and hell. We may think we have it bad, but we don’t have to think about death twice.” In the New Testament, Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead. “Poor old Lazarus died.”
The year before I graduated from high school was when Hubbard released his first album. That would have been 1971. Along with Three Faces West, there must have been dreams of a measure of fame that would never materialize — that is, until Jerry Jeff Walker covered Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,” thereby elevating it to Texas-anthem status. “He’s 34 and drinking in a honky tonk/ Just kicking hippies’ asses and raising hell.” In a career marked with starts, stalls, and stops, Hubbard has aged into something far more interesting than an Austin celeb: he is prog country’s elder spokesman, with a singing voice that could charm rattlesnakes. “At the age of 41, I came out of this honky-tonk fog I was in. This fellow showed me how to finger-pick like Lightnin’ Hopkins,” he says. “Now, I value the lyrics of folk and the groove of the blues.”
Ray Wylie Hubbard: AMSD, Friday, July 13, 619-303-8176, 7:30 p.m. $20/$47.