Hillbilly Highway – Take heed of the Grifter’s Hymnal

by Sheldon Birnie

Ray Wylie Hubbard is a goddamn beauty, bottom line.

If you’ve never heard Hubbard’s particular brand of “deep-groove-in-the-blood-masterless-samurai-folk-poet-blues,” then it’s about time you did. I’m sitting here, in my boxer shorts with a pair of buckskin moccasins over my ugly toes, digging an advance copy of his latest platter, The Grifter’s Hymnal, which drops March 27. Man, is it good.

The tunes of Grifter’s Hymnal are classic Hubbard. Tales of strippers, cards, chickens, guitars set to open-tuned blues riffs and spiced up throughout with literary allusions to the Bible, the old god’s of the blues and rock n roll, and modern prophets like Martin Luther King Jr. On the opener, “Coricidin Bottle,” Hubbard “lays down a groove like monkey getting off.” “New Years Eve at the Gates of Hell” sees Hubbard playing the Dante game, dragging the rock gods and the record execs that made/leached-off them through the river Styx. “Coochy Coochy” features none other than Ringo Starr, a big Hubbard fan himself, rocking along and getting down and dirty with Ray and the boys.

I first come onto Ray Wylie the way many likely done before, by way of Jerry Jeff Walker’s version of Ray’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” and on the recommendation of Hayes Carll. I dug up his 2005 beauty, Delirium Tremolos and became a convert to the Gospel of Ray. The opener to that disc remains one of my favourite songs of all time, and a definite comfort to any of apostles riding the Hillbilly Highway. The sprawling bookend to “The Beauty Way”, “Choctaw Bingo” is to me a modern southwestern equivalent to some of Dylan’s mid-60s long-formers, like “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” but about the American family on the skids rather than a wife.

Perhaps Hubbard’s most recognized song, or certainly the most recognized in his modern oeuvre, would be the greasy-as-all-hell ode to strip clubs “Snake Farm.” Even my French-Canadian pal Matthieu, who can barely speak English, has got the chorus to this bad-boy locked and loaded in his cerebrum, and can sing along at the drop of case of beer. That whole disc is full of deep grooves and odes to bacon grease, Mexico, rock n roll, and guitars. Essential listening when riding the white lines in search of salvation.

Having said all that, I don’t know much of Ray Wylie’s back catalogue, but for the gem I dug out of the Turntable in Victoria a couple years back. When I asked Hubbard, at last year’s Folk Fest, if he was going to play any of Cowboy Twinkies during this stay in Bird’s Hill, he just laughed.

“I don’t remember much of those songs,” he said. “I was in another dimension, then.”

Still, the disc has got a couple good numbers to it, as I’m certain most of his mid-70s through early 90s “lost years” records do. I just can’t tell you for sure, because I’ve never come across them, at record stores or on the pirate seas of the Interweb. (If you’ve got a copy of Loco Gringo’s Lament, slide it my way!)

If I haven’t impressed upon you the wealth of talent ol’ Ray Wylie Hubbard possesses by this time, friends, I don’t know what else to say. Just look the man up already and pray to the Old Gods that he makes his way up to Winnipeg again soon. The old boy’s got some serious wisdom to share. Amen to that.

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