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Snake Farm

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Album Review

Since Ray Wylie Hubbard reappeared on record in the late '80s, he's been continually honing and refining his sound, getting as close to his muse as possible; now they rub up against one another heatedly. These paths have led Hubbard down the path of the dusty, bleary-eyed, weather-beaten, spiritually hungry poet — Dangerous Spirits, Loco Gringos Lament, Crusades of the Restless Knights — the itinerant Texas rockers, Eternal & Lowdown and Growl, and the folkie Delirium Tremolos. Having followed the winding and beckoning call of the creative heart is not an easy task, but with Snake Farm, it seems he has found the place he's always hearkened to enter fully: the swampy, greasy, gritty blues and country-rock he heard in the Oklahoma wind all those years ago. This doesn't mean, of course, that the poet has gone missing, nor has the folkie troubador; they've been integrated. Hubbard co-produced the record with Gurf Morlix, and the band is small: Hubbard, Morlix, Rick Richards, and George Reiff form the core. The are a few guests, most notably Ray Bonneville, Jeff Plankenhorn, Peter Rowan, Ruthie Foster, and Hubbard's 13-year-old son Lucas wailing on his six-string on "Old Guitar."

The images in Hubbard's songs have always been arresting, and there's no exception here. The electric, raw, slippery feel of these tunes root these images not in the mystical beyond, but in the everyday working class life to which Hubbard is no stranger. Check the second cut, "Kilowatts," where beyond the reverbed drum sludge of Richards, Morlix's slide guitar begins its rumbling roar. It's rockabilly blues turned inside-out, there's a tambourine in the shadows, but it's Hubbard's moaning vocal that gives the blues the freedom to roam between the spirit and the flesh: "God coughs and puts out the cigarette/and says what's this got to do with you/It's hard to get a rascal's attention/I keep raising the stakes until I do/Death kind of puts a damper on things/So you might want to remember this/See yourself as you'd like to be/Then winds his watch and he blows me a kiss/All it takes is some grains of faith/and a few kilowatts of sweat and grace..." The guitar roll down the middle comes undone at the end of the tune, and it clatters to a close. The funky Texas blues make an appearance on almost all the songs here, but on "Heartaches and Grease," they lead the night parade. "Way of the Fallen" is one of those dry, dusty, Texas morality tales spun via the grimy slide guitar blues. Dark spirits — in the form of broken human beings who might have been heroes had they been able to absolve themselves of their demons — paint their plaintive moans and complaints against the roiling guitars and Richards' snare drum. Sure enough, restless ghosts speak through these protagonists, and their misery surely gives the devil a laugh. It's spooky; full of sharp teeth and spiritual empathy. "Resurrection" is a tune by the late madman poet and music historian Al Grierson. Hubbard cut it on Dangerous Spirits for Philo, but this version blows that one completely out Hubbard's oeuvre. This one comes from somewhere on the desert horizon. Hubbard and his pals dirty it up, scuffing their boots on the original tune and bringing Grierson's epiphany out of the ether and into the blood and bone. Ruthie Foster's backing vocals on the refrain add a late-night gospel feel to the band's spectral blues. The shimmering acoustic guitars, brushed drums, and a distant slide guitar usher in "Wild Gods of Mexico," one of Hubbard's meditations on the spirit world and myth, and their implications in everyday life. The darkness is real, but so is the light. Hubbard's grainy near-whisper provides tension in the narrative, and it is answered by guitars coughed up from the depths.

Snake Farm is the anchored-in-dirt side of Hubbard's musical vision. Lyrically, it's rooted in the heart and backbone of the human condition, which tries to make sense of things that don't necessarily add up. In his melding of the blues and desert Texas outlaw music, Hubbard offers the view that the heart, as it is revealed in song, inhabits many dimensions simultaneously, and that life is gloriously messy, full of omens, signs, and redemption for those who seek it creatively. Snake Farm is his masterpiece — thus far.

Biography

Born: 13 November 1946 in Soper, OK

Genre: Country

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

A leading figure of the progressive country movement of the 1970s, singer/songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard remains best known for authoring the perennial anthem "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother." Born November 13, 1946, in Soper, Oklahoma, Hubbard and his family relocated to Dallas during the mid-'50s; there he learned to play guitar, eventually forming a folk group with fellow aspiring musician Michael Martin Murphey. Befriended by the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Hubbard...
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Snake Farm, Ray Wylie Hubbard
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