Ray Wylie Hubbard | Co-Starring | (Big Machine)
4 out of 5 stars
He was one of the first musical “outlaws” and remains a legend in the roots world. Yet Texas (by way of Oklahoma) icon Ray Wylie Hubbard has never broken through to a wider, mainstream audience; even in Americana, a genre whose category he predated. But it’s where his music now lives and thrives.
Perhaps that’s why he invited higher profile names in on this, his 17th studio release. While Ray’s past association with similarly styled stars such as Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson didn’t translate into substantially raising his commercial viability, Hubbard has gained a fervent cult over the decades. Some of those followers are fellow musicians and a handful are happy to sit in for this typically gutsy set.
On leadoff track “Bad Trick,” Hubbard’s band– a somewhat odd but enthusiastic combination of Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Walsh and Chris Robinson– grinds out serious swamp rock. Hubbard barks “Everybody turns a bad trick now and then” with the grizzled growl of someone who knows that from personal experience.
It’s a powerful yet inviting opening that finds the mid-70s Hubbard in rugged, fighting form. His crusty, flinty voice sounds like a combination of Lucinda Williams’ southern drawl with the talk/sung cadence of Tony Joe White, both of whom know their way around muscular, ornery and edgy Southern roots rock. Although some established players like bluegrasser Peter Rowan, Ronnie Dunn and Pam Tillis are on board, Hubbard generally leans to younger, edgier talent. Aaron Lee Tasjan, Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown, and Ashley McBryde (whose duet on “Outlaw Blood” singing “Some women got the outlaw blood…some women is as tough as rehab” is one of this disc’s highlights) all help fill the titular co-starring role.
Hubbard explores darker blues on “Rattlesnake Shakin’ Woman” with aid from the sisters of Larkin Poe. He also unplugs to pay tribute to the legendary “Mississippi John Hurt” (“His living soul’s with a loving God, his bones in the cold cold ground”) as Pam Tillis accompanies on vocals. But the bulk of the disc finds the groove between country, swamp rock and the raw singer/songwriter approach Hubbard has honed throughout the years. Anyone who thinks he’s too old to rock needs to push play on the appropriately named “R.O.C.K.,” with Bryant and his band cranking out reverb guitars, to see how influenced Hubbard is by the Stones circa Exile on Main Street. Whether this is a better album because of the guests is debatable, especially since Hubbard’s last handful of releases successfully traversed similar stylistic ground without the big name assistance. But having them along for the ride sure doesn’t hurt. And if only a fraction of their fans find and explore Hubbard’s rich catalog, the world will be a better place.