Few songwriters are as driven as Ray Wylie Hubbard; at 65, he's writing, recording, performing, producing, touring, and scoring movies, and doesn't give a damn if you don't get it. His D.I.Y. aesthetic would make a punk rocker proud: he owns his own label and publishing company. For the past decade, Hubbard's distilled his sound to its essences. The Grifter's Hymnal, co-produced by Hubbard and George Reiff, is an organic follow-up to 2010's A: Enlightenment B: Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), but it's wilder, nastier. Hubbard's lyric trademarks are intact; he continues to poetically detail the intersecting worlds he lives in, cultural, spiritual, carnal, past and present -- his poignant observations are balanced by his wicked sense of humor. But it's the sound on Grifter's Hymnal that grabs the listener initially. It captures the raw experience of music-making in the moment. "Coricidin Bottle" threatens to derail from the jump, a burning electric solo by his son Lucas and careening kick drums and floor toms by Rick Richards push it into the red. Ian McLagan's piano fills out the punchy, electric guitar strut on "South of the River." "Lazarus" (one of five songs with no bass) is populated by ramped-up, nearly distorted acoustic slide, handclaps, drums, and bird feeder (!) by Richards. Hubbard's grizzled delivery keenly observes America's contradictions before razoring in on gratitude, stating with deadpan certainty: "At least we ain't Lazarus/who had to think twice about dyin'." The burning rocker "New Year's Eve at the Gates of Hell," is bitingly funny; yet it asks deep questions about the root nature of good and evil. Audley Freed's electric guitar duels with Hubbard's slide, Richards' kick drum, and Reiff's bass. Its grit hits with chaotic force. "Train Yard," written with Liz Foster of the Trishas, is a dirty-ass sexual love song. Ringo Starr's "Coochy Coochy" features the Beatle on backing vocals and percussion. Loose, swampy rock fuels "Mother Blues" (named for the legendary Dallas club); it's part autobiography, part cultural history, and part reverie; but it's all lyric gold. Hubbard makes it nearly cinematic without being wordy. "Ask God" evokes the spirit of Lonnie Johnson in its spooky, minor-key gospel blues. The Grifter's Hymnal is truly inspired. It's a swaggering, sexy, shake-your-ass, greasy, deep roots record. It pursues the same mercurial muse that bit everyone from Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf to the White Stripes, the Black Keys, and Black Angels, down alleys, in bars and bedrooms, across history, myth, and space. Hubbard and company have captured it alive and kicking here. Play it loud.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek