Ray Wylie Hubbard plugged an 81-year-old guitar into a 56-year-old amp and hit a chord built with the depth of his 68 years, one full of outlaws, bluesmen, barrooms, myths and mystery.
“The tone felt really right,” he says. It sounds like good and evil brawling with broken bottles and bad intentions. Outcome: unknown.
So that’s the first thing you hear on Hubbard’s latest album, “The Ruffian’s Misfortune.” No count off, no fade in, just a gnarly racket made on a 1934 Supro (“One of the first 1,200 electric guitars made,” he says) and punched through a 1959 Fender Vibrolux amp.
And then things get interesting, which, as career taglines go, would be a good one for Hubbard, who on Aug. 1 plays The Palms Playhouse.
“The Ruffian’s Misfortune” is the follow-up to 2012’s “The Grifter’s Hymnal,” continuing a run he’s been on since, oh, let’s say 2001’s “Eternal and Lowdown.”
That’s a 14-year run made possible by sobriety and learning to finger pick in his 40s. That led to learning open tunings. That led to stone cold country blues, dusty and dirty and cool, played with swagger and written with a master craftsman’s eye for detail.
Hubbard has packed those records with songs about snake farms and French poets from the late 1800s, songs about heartaches, grease, rock ’n’ roll, the people who play it and the tools of the trade. His inspiration is anything that interests him.
“I’ve mentioned this before,” Hubbard says, “but sleeping with the president of the record label (Bordello Records) is advantageous.”
That’d be his wife, Judy Hubbard.
“I can just write a song where there’s this blackbird talking,” he says. What’s that blackbird say? “The gods can’t save us from ourselves.”
That song – though the blackbird is a reccurring character watching over many of Hubbard’s musings – is the song kicking off “The Ruffian’s Misfortune.” On “All Loose Things” that blackbird first mocks the fools working the harvest, because they don’t have wings. There’s a scarecrow singing a song by Kevin Welch, and “thunder is rumbling as if the devil himself did belch.”
“All loose things end up being washed away,” Hubbard sings.
Many things in Wimberley, Texas, where Hubbard lives, were washed away earlier this summer when heavy rains led to massive flooding. His house came through with just a few leaks, so he and Judy were lucky to be able to help neighbors clean up from the mess. Hubbard played the benefits that were natural for a community 38 miles southwest of Austin.
The song took on added meaning, as did the thread of rebirth and redemption that runs through “The Ruffian’s Misfortune.” If his last album included “Conversation With the Devil” and “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell,” then the new album allows Hubbard to talk a walk around the promised land. “Barefoot in Heaven” imagines his kind of afterlife, where instead of the halo, wings and harp, you get Sister Rosetta Tharpe in concert.
“That’s almost the invention of rock and roll,” he says.
The presence of God and gods, of good and evil have existed in many of his recent records – not because of some great religious awakening, but because of the passenger seat in the tour van.
“My road guy refuses to let anyone else drive,” Hubbard says. “So I get to read” about those old French poets, older philosophers or even older religions. Time guest stars here, too. It’s also hard not to cast at least a sideways glance at the finish line, and tally up the miles. There’s not a lot of metaphor in ‘Hey Mama, My Time Ain’t Long.’
“I’m at the age where I’m hoping God grades on a curve,” Hubbard says.
Sure, he had his wild years running around with Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker (who covered Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” in 1973) and the rest of the Cosmic Cowboys, the crew that would become outlaws. “But I’m not Attila the Hun,” he says.
He’ll work through some of that in an upcoming memoir, “A Life … Well, Lived.” The rest he’ll put on record and take to the stage. A little will be left to chance.
He opened “The Ruffian’s Misfortune” with all that noise. In just under 34 minutes it covers Charlie Musselewhite, Jesse Mae Hemphill, Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde. It features “Bad on Fords” a song Hubbard co-wrote with Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn that was covered by Sammy Hagar on his 2013 album “Sammy Hagar and Friends.”
But the record ends on the sweet, mournful strum of “Stone Blind Horses” and the hope that somewhere along the line, someone might have said a prayer not just for Hubbard, but for the “wild young cowboys, old drunks, paramours and thieves.” For all the interesting folks.