It was pure chance. By choosing not to edit out his offhanded intro to “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother”—“This song is by RAY WYLIE HUBBARD”—on the seminal 1973 album ¡Viva Terlingua!, Jerry Jeff Walker turned the Dallas folkie into a household name. Hubbard celebrated this lucky turn for twenty years, until sobriety lit a fire under him. Since then he has released a string of recordings, each bearing the stamp of a man making up for lost time. Hubbard, who now resides in Wimberley, has flexed his songwriting muscles with increasing ease over the course of these uneven releases, and THE GRIFTER’S HYMNAL (Bordello) stands as his most consistent album to date. He’s a great storyteller, and there are many songs here that will be right at home in his amiable live shows (or already are), such as the Stones-like rocker “South of the River,” the autobiographical “Mother Blues,” and a trifle by Ringo Starr called “Coochy Coochy” (with Ringo himself on vocals!). As a former folksinger, Hubbard takes the idiom’s talking blues style of half-singing narration and applies a helping of stomping country-blues/rock over the top. Nearly every song follows this model, but he still finds new ways to fill the mold. “Red Badge of Courage” is an insightful home-from-war dirge; “Count My Blessings” gets inside the skin of an inveterate gambler; and “Ask God” channels Mississippi Fred McDowell with genuine grit. These are all surprising turns from a veteran artist who isn’t content to simply look back.
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