There comes a time in every songwriter’s career where the fire begins to subside from the belly, and they fail to find the same potency of words that marked their once high-flying careers. It’s an inevitable reality of life for all of us that the skills and talents that once used to be so readily available at out fingertips will begin to fade away. That day looms large in the future for every soul, but for one songwriter, his ability to stave of complacency and a cessation of his skills has been remarkable. Maybe because his career was never marked by the sweet taste of mainstream success. Maybe it’s the mark of good genes. But Ray Wylie Hubbard keeps delivering songs most 20-somethings wish they could compose, and along with the impact of the songs themselves, the effortlessness of Hubbard’s delivery seems almost ethereal.
A songwriting guru and surviving member of the original Austin crew that lit a fire under the ass of country music in the 70’s and put it back on its righteous path— Ray Wylie Hubbard released a new album earlier this year called The Ruffian’s Misfortune. Whether it was the crush of news and other priorities that allowed a review from Saving Country Music to be forgone, or because I’ve spilled so much ink for this man over the years that new words were hard to find, it never happened. But I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t stop down and at least talk about this one particular song, “Stone Blind Horses.”
To be honest, there were a few songs on The Ruffian’s Misfortune that had me fearing that Hubbard was slipping into a predictable groove. His most recent output has been favoring a country-flavored version of the blues, which is fine. But his propensity to write songs whose chorus repeats three times before resolving had me worried he was becoming comfortable with a particular style. In fairness, The Ruffian’s Misfortune is apparently part of a trilogy that includes his previous album The Grifter’s Hymnal, so the similarity in content makes a little more sense in that context.
At the same time, The Ruffian’s Misfortune had some spellbinding folk songs that cut through everything else to arguably become career-level contributions from an already highly accomplished songwriter. The first is “Too Young Ripe, Too Young Rotten.” It catches you completely off guard—something that usually doesn’t happen from an artist who is in such a late era of his career. The other was “Stone Blind Horses.”
This song is so good—whether it’s the album version, just Hubbard with his guitar, or with a four-piece band like he played it on Conan—at first I truly believed it had to be a cover of a hit from a previous era that had been forgotten about. The song feels so classic, yet remains fiercely original, it’s a wonder how it was never written before. Ray Wylie Hubbard is not especially known for his singing, and he will be the first to tell you that. But “Stone Blind Horses” is the perfect forum for his raspy groans to find their sweet spot of emotional expression.
About someone coming to religion after a life of sin (or whatever you wish it to mean), “Stone Blind Horses” is something most any listener can relate to, and find deep resonance with. It’s one of the best songs of Hubbard’s already formidable career, and one of the best so far in 2015.
Two Guns Up.
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