One, Two, Tres, Cuatro: Mother Texas

Welcome to Texas, y'all. Meet Ray Wylie Hubbard, 'The Grifter's Hymnal,' and 'Mother Blues.'

Ray Wylie Hubbard
Ray Wylie Hubbard (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

The song opens, riffing righteously on Tony Joe White's "Polk Salad Annie."

When I was a young man about 21 years old, y'all,

all I wanted was a stripper girlfriend and gold-top Les Paul.

Be careful of the things you wish for.

You might get 'em.

It's Ray Wylie Hubbard. He's back with The Grifter's Hymnal. Chapter by chapter, verse by verse, it's all the good stuff from the wily master storyteller and then some. Like fellow local Walter Tragert's recent album A Single Drop of Rain, in which the track "Don't Rule Me Out" transcends an already excellent recording, "Mother Blues" is already in the Hubbard book of anthems, just like "Screw You, We're From Texas," "Conversation With a Devil," and "Redneck Mother."

This is the time of year when the table is so laden with riches, it bows under the weight. A taste is all you get. Every band and performer brings their best to Austin, but when 15 minutes of fame seems so cumbersome compared to 140 characters, the right five minutes and 54 seconds of music make it worth it.

There was a nightclub in Dallas,

it's called Mother Blues.

It's where Lightnin' Hopkins played,

and Freddie King even paid dues.

And all the dealers and gamblers and young white hipsters made the scene.

The girl at the door who checked IDs, she was just 16.

It was not a place for law-abiding citizens.

The Dallas music scene of the Seventies was high living in neon prosperity, a monied scene dusted with cocaine, exotic smoke, and a deep music history of its own. The city's ego was still bruised from the Kennedy assassination, but it was growing a new skin that decade, and young talent flocked to its bright lights.

Jackie Jones had him a habit.

He just couldn't stop.

He said, "Gimme $500

and I'll sell you my Les Paul gold-top."

I drove my daddy's car to Ross Avenue and I sold it.

I guess I should have told him.

He alluded to the police that someone stole it.

It was just the first of many bad decisions I was to make

for the next 20 years.

Ah, but I had me a guitar.

Confessional, a tad sheepish but unapologetic. Isn't that how we look back on our youth, those flashing chances at bliss we grasped because our instincts weren't sharp, just acute and hormone-driven?

Everybody knows that the real nightlife starts after the clubs close.

What they call after-hours.

It's 2am and everybody's gone but the band, the dealers, and Jack Jones.

And the girls from the Landing Strip club come over and put their clothes back on.

I'm at Ma Blues and I'm sitting on an amp playing "Twist & Shout."

And this tall drink o' water walks in,

looks like she has to shoot her way out.

She come up to me and said,

"You know anything good on that guitar?"

I just kept on playing.

She said, "Have you ever heard this song called 'Polk Salad Annie'?"

I just kept on playing.

"Every time I hear it, it makes my insides turn to warm butter.

And I want to take my off my clothes and dance in my underwear."

And I said, "Down in Louisiana, where the alligators grow so mean ...."

Sweeeeeet. Been there, danced that, delivered a few outrageous pickup lines, and took up a few gentlemen on theirs; didn't you? Whew. People think being confessional is easy.

Oh, that's all I knew of it, but that was enough!

So we hit it off, me and this dancer.

We hit it off like a metaphor, a metaphor for a hydrogen bomb.

We was rich uranium, super critical mass.

We was a chain reaction.

It was love and lust, mostly lust, but mutual attraction.

So there I was, boys, at 21 years old, I had it all.

I had a fine stripper girlfriend,

and gold-top Les Paul.

Oh, the future it looked promising.

But there were dark clouds on the horizon.

There ya go, boys: sex and rock & roll. Once music becomes about anything else – money, for example – the stakes change. The currency of youth is simple because music is valuable only if it matters.

She was a beautiful girl but she liked to drink tequila and that ain't all.

I come home four or five times,

And she'd pawned my Les Paul.

We broke up and she went to Hollywood.

She married her an actor.

She got a job dancing on the Hudson Brothers TV show.

And modeled lipstick for Max Factor.

I got over her, I'm glad she done all right.

I'm glad she done all right, yes I am.

Me, I never busted through the gates and to the big times of rock & roll.

For 40 years I carried around a gold-top guitar,

But love and fate are mysterious things in this funky ol' world.

It was 20 years ago, I ended up marrying that Mother Blues door girl!

That's god's truth, that Ray Wylie never reaped vaunted rock riches, the jet-set lifestyle, People magazine covers, and shelves of Grammys. Not that he wanted that, but it's a damn shame. He's Texas brilliant on the level of Townes Van Zandt and Billy Joe Shaver, who were blessed never to attain that soul-stealing level of success either.

And he was at the forefront of the Seventies cosmic cowboy movement singing "Redneck Mother," more cosmic than people knew, forever loved for the Cowboy Twinkies. He put in his 10,000 hours decades ago, and maybe it was that lack of popularly perceived success that allowed him to evolve so deeply, to wrestle demons down and sacrifice them to the wild gods of Mexico, or at least make a peace accord with life, thanks to Buddha.

We had us a boy! He's 18 years old now.

He's playing guitar, he ended up with that gold-top, yes he did.

Now I don't know if he's going to hang his life on it or not,

but I'm very grateful for the times I get to share the stage with him.

I'm grateful for the time I get to play with musicians George Reiff and Rick Richards.

I'm grateful I get to write these old songs and travel around the world,

And play them for people and they come out and hear me play.

"We had us a boy!" You have to hear Hubbard jubilantly sling the word through an Okie accent and Texas twang. "Boy" almost becomes "boa" before Hubbard reels it in with righteous pride as he relates how his son ended up with that fabled Les Paul. Hubbard is reveling in the tale of the old daze and restless nights and the rhythm guitar is pumping – what the hell, he's way beyond the statute of limitations!

Life is to be savored, not feared! There be dragons ahead, but many are slain, and getting older is about appreciating more and more the people around you, the friends and faces that enrich life with color and inspiration.

And the days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations

I have really good days.

Holy shit. That's the dust in the stitching, soft-blue denim, philosophical rock & roll barroom truth. And the song is over.

If you're here in the Lone Star State for the first time, welcome. This is Texas songwriting as good as it comes, so listen up. And if you're an old-timer with dues paid or a longtime Ray Wylie Hubbard fan, get thee to a record store and add The Grifter's Hymnal to your collection or download it to your iPod. It's the payback we get for supporting good talent in Austin.

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Ray Wylie Hubbard, Walter Tragert, Lightnin Hopkins, Freddie Hubbard, Cowboy Twinkies, JFK, Les Paul, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, The Grifter's Hymnal

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