Album Review – Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Co-Starring”

photo: Alan Messer

Steal yourself for a detour into the seedy underbelly of life, where rapacious criminals and desperate harlots paw at your unsecured possessions and challenge your every scruple with temptation around every turn, with the only respite being a shot at redemption if you can make it out the other side of this lost alley of debauchery. No, we’re not talking about taking a stroll down Music Row in Nashville (though that’s not far off). We’re talking about spinning the latest record from the living patriarch of the country blues, Ray Wylie Hubbard.

March 12th, 2020 was the bulls-eye date when the entire world was unraveling due to the impending onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Entire sectors of the economy were shutting down, major sports leagues were canceling seasons indefinitely, and all kinds of other mayhem was unfolding, with nobody really knowing what the future would hold. But perhaps the most bat shit development of that day among all the other madness was news that Ray Wylie Hubbard had signed to Big Machine Records—the label that launched the careers of Florida Georgia Line, Taylor Swift, and so many others responsible for some of the worst ills in country music in the last decade.

But any concern that at 73-years-old and after five decades of making some of the most gritty roots music around, the great Wylie Llama would strike a sell out move and start tractor rapping with Thomas Rhett over 808’s was immediately eradicated with the opening line of the first song of Hubbard’s Big Machine debut that groans, “Don’t get any on ya if you go to Nashville…”

Instead, Co-Starring is a spirited, ambitious, well-written and performed late career effort by Ray Wylie that makes a strong case why he deserves major label backing, why all the praise and opportunities he’s been receiving lately (however late) are warranted, while also making a worthy introduction into why so many revere this man, for those who’ve never taken the time to listen to him before.

Far from a Sonny & Cher-style affair, though collaboration is one of the focal points of the record, Co-Starring is still very much a Ray Wylie Hubbard experience. He just roped in some of the most skilled co-conspirators he could find to pull off this heist, and the amount of talent and some of the specific names he was able to assemble speaks to the respect Hubbard has earned throughout the music scene, and the influence he’s peddled for half a century.

Ringo Starr, Joe Walsh, Pam Tillis, and Ronnie Dunn aren’t going to take time out of their weeks for just anyone, while names like Ashley McBryde, Aaron Lee Tasjan, and Elizabeth Cook also answered the call. Some of the collaborations feel perfect. Who better to sing a song with Ray Wylie about “Outlaw Blood” than Ashley McBryde? Aaron Lee Tasjan got the mood Hubbard was going for on “Rock Gods” just about perfect with his guitar work.

Maybe The Cadillac Three get a little too crazy at the end of “Fast Left Hand,” or Larkin Poe a little too expressive on “Rattlesnake Shakin’ Woman,” but it all lends to a much more diverse and interesting experience for a Ray Wylie Hubbard record than you would otherwise get. Though his last trilogy of records was a fun ride (Grifter’s Hymnal, Ruffian’s Misfortune, Tell The Devil), it was beginning to get a little tedious in the similarity of approach. Here the archaic references to Vick’s Vapor Rub and club soda that Hubbard loves to slide in pop more potently due to the enthusiasm carried through the collaborations.

Co-Starring is also just about the perfect showcase for what Ray Wylie Hubbard does, whether it’s the opening “Bad Trick” that puts his dirty approach to songwriting on display, his slyness with country that you see in the smartly-written “Drink Till I See Double” with Elizabeth Cook and Paula Nelson (one of the few “duets” on the record), or even the heavier stuff, like “R.O.C.K.,” which reminds you of Hubbard’s earlier hit “Wanna Rock & Roll” that he killed and Cross Canadian Ragweed later covered.

Even Hubbard’s gospel side comes out in a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, and his folk and singer-songwriter side is on full display in the excellently-written and performed final song on the record, “The Messenger.” Sure, Ray Wylie Hubbard’s voice is shot, if it was ever loaded. But he understands that more than anyone, and writes songs that work best with his buckshot moans.

Most of the time in the music business, once the old greats peak past commercial applicability, they’re mostly forgotten, only to be remembered and praised too late in scant obituaries on obscure blogs and local newspapers nobody reads. But similar to John Prine and other fortunate souls, Ray Wylie Hubbard is enjoying a second wind, from finally getting to play the Grand Ole Opry and Austin City Limits, to having a big Nashville label backstop his latest record.

But none of this would matter as much if Ray Wylie Hubbard wasn’t still able to deliver. Fortunately he does with a big assemblage of friends on Co-Starring.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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