Ray Wylie Hubbard is an “Americana” musician. That’s how they label people today who don’t fit the Nashville or the Pop mold. He plays music that, thirty years ago, we all agreed was Rock and Roll. When he was a young man, he wrote Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother. Today he seems slightly embarrassed by that, except twice a year, he says, when he goes to the mailbox to get the royalty check.
Labels may have changed, but Ray Wylie Hubbard has not. I first saw him play in Dallas, with my friend Cliff, at a bar called Love and War in Texas. We watched from stage left, near some tipsy cowgirls wearing cut-off jeans and cowboy boots, a fashion I have always found appealing. We drank beer from long-neck bottles. When I tally up the good days I’ve had during my lifetime, that Sunday counts as one of them.
I had my first exposure to Americana music a year or so before, when a friend offered me a ticket to see a Robert Earl Keen concert at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas. I had never heard of Robert Earl Keen, but being away from home with nothing better to do on a Saturday night, I said I would go. The show was outdoors, under a star-filled Texas sky. I watched, mesmerized, beneath a cluster of live oak trees whose trunks were wrapped with strings of white lights. It would be a ridiculous exaggeration to say that the experience changed me forever, but I did come away hooked on a musical sound that I later gave a label of my own. I called it Texas Music.
After that night in Helotes, I immersed myself in Texas Music. I discovered Ray Wylie Hubbard and Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams and Mary Gauthier. I saw Tom Russell and Billy Joe Shaver in Austin, Joe Ely and Rusty Wier in Dallas. I sought out the up-and-comers like Carolyn Wonderland, Reckless Kelly, The Gourds and Jon D. Graham. I found Guy Clark, John Hiatt, Todd Snider and James McMurtry. And Willie Nelson, who I didn’t so much discover as re-discover.
So, what is Texas Music? Well, to me, it’s a bit of Bluegrass, a dash of Blues, and equal parts Rock and Roll and Country, but not that saccharin Country shit Nashville spews out today about sexy tractors and motorboatin. The Country in Texas Music is about love and loss and fightin and cheatin and drinkin.
Texas Music has an edge to it. That’s what I find appealing. It’s not the product of fortune seeking ex-jingle writers relocated to Music Row. It’s born of poets and artists who have stories to tell. As a rule they are personal stories, not always pleasant, but never dishonest, and rarely trite.
There are some exceptions, however, that integrity forces me to confront. Last year, Ray Wylie Hubbard released a song called Snake Farm. Twenty years from now, if he is still with us, I’m betting he will be slightly embarrassed by that, too. Except twice a year, when he goes to the mailbox to get the royalty check.