I used to think the first 40 seconds of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” made for one of the most tension-filled, terrifying opening segments in rock ‘n’ roll.
I still do, but I have to tell you something, right now: ol’ Ray Wylie Hubbard has managed to rival it. “South of the River”, on his new album The Grifter’s Hymnal, gets the job done in half the time. And only two chords. (The Stones used three.)
Uh-huh – ‘tis true, boys and girls. At first, all you hear is the dry, dry voice of RWH’s acoustic guitar; then there’s a dull wump of bass and a gentle warning from the piano off in the shadows. Ray Wylie’s moans may not be Merry Clayton-caliber sonically, but they’re just as powerful when it comes to setting the tone of what’s about to strike. A crackling rhythm guitar and a thump of a drum:
Wake that thing up and put some clothes around it
You lost your prescription; I found it
And all of a sudden you know that nothing – nothing – good is going to come of this little scenario, but, _Jesus _ … these bastards know how to rock.
And that’s how it begins and that’s how it ends. The Stones warned of global apocalypse; Ray Wylie’s singing and a’growling about “shootin’ salvation and funk into your soul” at the risk of personal apocalypse. It might be on a smaller scale, but trust me folks, it’s no less scary. Have mercy …
The Grifter’s Hymnal is like that. Hubbard – having gotten clean and sober a couple of decades-plus ago – is so damn good at being himself these days that he radiates the essences of his musical roots while just plain being Ray Wylie Hubbard. Yeah, there’s plenty of Let It Bleed / Sticky Fingers –era Stones on this album. Along with old Texas blues and taste-it-in-your-mouth tube amp stink and even some Small Faces swirl if you listen real close. And every one of those things – and a few thousand more – are all Ray Wylie Hubbard. If you have some pre-conceived notion of “outlaw country” or whatever, just toss that into the dented galvanized trash can out front before you get into this thing: The Grifter’s Hymnal is a big helping of roots, grease, and grit, loaded with Hubbard’s trademark wit, clever word ‘rassling, and grooves, grooves, grooves.
You say you want to hear some gee-tar? Oh, Lord … close your eyes and drop the needle on this thing wherever you want to, keeping in mind that one of Hubbard and co-producer/bassist George Rieff’s ground rules for the album was, “No effects pedals.” Everything you hear is some funky old guitar with a cord running from its hind end to an equally-funky old amp. The end result? The sweet parts couldn’t be any sweeter – and the raunchy stuff (majority rules) couldn’t be any raunchier.
Ray Wylie Hubbard is truly one of the modern-day masters of the grease guitar, from Lightnin’ Hopkins-style finger picking to John Lee Hooker stomp rhythms to scary-good slide. And when you’re that good and that easy to work with, then you just naturally attract other great players. Here we have Audley Freed, slathering just-right growl and twang all over “Count My Blessings” and helping light them eternal fires on “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell”. (Note to Jimmy Perkins: sounds like you’re bound to burn, man.) Billy Cassis offers up some wickedly nasty acoustic slide on “Lazarus”, keeps “Train Yard” chugging along to its killer one-liner conclusion, and shines some eerie six-string moonlight on “Moss And Flowers”. Brad Rice lays down the crunch on the aforementioned “South Of The River” in true X-Pensive Wino style.
And then there’s Ray Wylie’s son Lucas, who, even at the tender age of 18, is already blessed with the ability to play wild-assed and tastefully at the same time. That would be Lucas you hear playing the living dog snot out of an old Gold Top Les Paul through a cranked Marshall on the opening franticness of “Coricidin Bottle”, matching the Old Man’s moans with his own bent-string wails. And, yep, by the time Ray Wylie gets to the closing verses of the twisted, autobiographical “Mother Blues”, you realize that’s Lucas on lead, firing off cool licks on the very same Les Paul that his daddy’s stripper girlfriend pawned all them years ago. (It’s a long story – you’ll just have to listen for yerself.)
At the rhythm core of The Grifter’s Hymnal are Rieff on bass and drummer Rick Richards. Richards is totally in sync with the vibe of Hubbard’s tunes, playing just what’s needed and no more than that. (Part of the key to his sound is the choice of tools: sometimes you need a full drum kit; sometimes just a kick drum and a tambourine – or maybe a bird feeder – is what the job calls for.) And as far as Rieff goes, sometimes it’s what he doesn’t play that seals the deal: there are a few tunes that have no bass whatsoever (but don’t lack for a pulse), while others benefit from the bass’ appearance a ways in. Again, this is a case of a producer who understands what the artist is hearing in his head and soul and concentrates his efforts on bringing that vibe to life.
The album’s “Wait – Is That Really …?” moment comes on the stomp-the-boards-right-off-the-porch “Coochy Coochy”. Yep – that’s Ringo Starr a’shakin’ and a’clappin’ and a’singin’ and sounding like he’s having just about as much fun as he’s had for a long, long time while backing up Hubbard as he hoots and hollers and squeezes some moans out of his National resonator. And check out Freed’s fine mando work while you’re at it.
And the “Oh Man – You Nailed That Groove” award goes to “Henhouse”, for sure. Somewhere up above, the great Doug Sahm is grinning behind his sunglasses, man: Cassis’ sharply-chopped rhythm guitar and guest Ian McLagen’s piano combine to give “Henhouse” a Tex-Mex-flavored Augie Meyers-style backbone with a side order of head bop.
Hubbard, who’s now 65, really started figuring out just who Ray Wylie Hubbard was when he got clean and sober at the age of 41. The humor and the weirdness never left; they just made room for his guitar playing and songwriting to grow and flourish.
Ray Wylie has told more than one interviewer over the years that his later-in-life success is due to the fact that “I didn’t want my career to peak too early.” Yeah, well … that’s all well and good, Ray, but these damn albums keep getting better and better – when are you gonna peak?
You’re scaring me, man.