It doesn’t much matter what you want to call it: alt-country, Americana, Deadneck music . whatever. If you need to pin a title on tunes that are a little too rough and real and strange and true to be mainstream anything, then go for it.

Me, I’m not going to worry about such matters. I’m too busy sitting here by the woodstove thinking that it’s only a few hours into the new year and I’ve already heard what’s bound to be one of 2010’s best releases in that alt-neck realm. Or the cosmic country hippie music category. Or the tie-dyed-and-blues-drenched Muddy-Waters-meets-Doug- Sahm rock-n-roll-folk-poetry-through-a-raspy-tube-amp territory. Whatever. The point is, if Ray Wylie Hubbard’s new A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C) isn’t stuck on a bunch of “Best-Of-2010” lists 12 months from now, something’s wrong. (The only problem I have with the critter is the name, which is clever as hell, but too long for me to repeat 4 or 5 times in this review. Henceforth, I’ll be referring to this album as A. Enlightenment – okay? Okay.)

For those who tuned in late, ol’ Ray Wylie could’ve come and gone a long time ago, burning out in a fiery spiral and ending up best remembered as the answer to the trivia question, “Who penned Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1973 hit ‘Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother’?” Although he definitely lived the “outlaw country artist” lifestyle in the ’70s and ’80s, there was more to Hubbard and his music than being effed-up while wearing a big hat. We can thank the late Stevie Ray Vaughan for
inspiring him to get cleaned up in 1987; as Hubbard puts it, “He saved my life.”

If Hubbard was a catalyst for Something Different in the early years of his career, he has become a downright Deadneck Dalai Lama over the last couple of decades, inspiring peers and younger artists alike with his talent. For all of Hubbard’s rough edges and raunch, there has always been an underlying foundation of wisdom and humor to his writing. Sobriety only made Hubbard’s wit sharper, his guitar playing greasier, his appreciation of life that much greater – and his ability
to write about the gonzo side of things as solid as you’d expect from a card-carrying traveler of that world.

A. Enlightenment takes flight right off the bat with the ghostly stomp of the title track. A spin on Poe’s “The Raven”, Hubbard’s tale finds a black sparrow haunting him while acoustic guitar, mandolin, and harmonica weave around each other over a pounding shake-the-floorboards-of-the-cabin-loose beat. Ray Wylie’s voice is just as real as he is, crackling with every mile he’s traveled, but dead-nuts-on when it comes to conveying the emotion of the moment.

“Drunken Poet’s Dream” sounds just like it reads, starting off slow and shaky with the strange and out-of-control stuff lurking just beneath the surface. With lyrics that would do Robert Hunter proud and a band that gets it following his every lurch, Hubbard growls his tale of failure pissing on the shoes of brilliance.

My harmonica’s got a busted reed
My lips are chapped and about to bleed
She says, that’s nothing when she was a kid
She danced with the dead at the pyramids

(Capitalize the “D” in “dead”? Your choice. It’s a great movie in your head either way.)

I’m gonna hollar, and I’m gonna scream
I’m gonna get me some mescaline
Then I’m gonna rhyme that with gasoline
It’s a drunken poet’s dream

After the second pass through the chorus, Hubbard lets loose with some just-right harmonica, then turns things over to Gurf Morlix, who fires off a blistering blast of guitar squall. As off-kilter and doomed as it all seems, in the end, there’s hope and salvation for our hero:

I got a woman who’s wild as Rome
She likes being naked and gazed upon

Or something like that.

Production on A. Enlightenment was overseen by Hubbard himself, along with George Rieff (who also handles bass chores on the album). It’s truly a case of the creator knowing what’s best for the tunes, as each song is captured perfectly, be it “Opium”, a junkie’s lovesong:

Beautiful smoke, beautiful smoke
Whispers nevermind, whispers nevermind
Opium, opium

Makes the deep things appear
Makes the deep things appear
Opium, opium

Sugarcoats my blues, sugarcoats my blues
It’s such an elegant decay, such an elegant decay
Opium, opium

or the infectious joy of “Whoop and Hollar”‘s gospel choir vocals and shake-yer-hips rhythm.

With its mix of raggedy-ass-blue-jeans blues/rock, Stray Gators-style country moments, flashes of salvation, and brutal honesty, A. Enlightenment is worthy of 2010’s first comparison to the Stones’ Exile On Main Street (it had to be done sometime). Whatever you want to call it, this is Ray Wylie Hubbard’s best work to date, with lessons to learn for all from the man who doesn’t want to teach or preach. He’d rather just play his guitar.

Take it on out of here, Ray Wylie:

She called me up one time and said let’s go get tattoos
I said well lemme brush my teeth and find my shoes
She come down the street in a stolen Volkswagen
She smiled and said she’d decided on a crimson Chinese dragon

We all gonna bust loose one of these days
We all got to stay loose come what may
We all wanna cut loose on payday
Now we ain’t ever gonna break loose of these old rock and roll ways

Crazy ol’ bastard.