At the end of his extraordinary new album, The Grifter's Hymnal, Ray Wylie Hubbard offers a tune that is half High Plains spiritual and half blues incantation. Given its title, Ask God, there is a bit of prayer to it as well.
But with arid steel guitar lines winding through the tune, a stark and gray percussive chant as its heartbeat and Hubbard's sage vocals as a keen, confessional narrative device, Ask God isn't something you are apt to run across in your hymn books on Sunday.
Like so much of the veteran Texas songsmith's works, especially those that have surfaced since a clean, sober and creatively revitalized Hubbard began recording again in earnest during the early '90s, the spiritual cast is strictly non- denominational. It is one of many reflective turns — along with elements of folk, blues and the kind of country that can be designed only in the heart of a fertile Austin, Texas, music community — at work in Hubbard's wily and worldly music.
Best of all, when you listen to The Grifter's Hymnal in its entirety, you sense that Hubbard, 65, hasn't begun to run short of artistic inspiration or songwriting initiative.
"Well, I don't want to peak too soon," said Hubbard, who, after a 45-year career, makes his Lexington debut Tuesday at Cosmic Charlie's.
"I guess I've always had this fear of turning into a nostalgia act. That's something I did not want to do. I feel very fortunate seeing great artists like (bluesmen) Lightning Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. But I also saw people like (country legend) Ernest Tubb and all of these different, wonderful musicians who just kept doing it, you know? For people like Bill Monroe and John Lee Hooker, music is just what they did. There was no retirement for them just as there, really, is no retirement for any songwriter."
Before becoming a cherished member of an active and rapidly evolving Austin scene during the early '70s — among his creations was Up Against the Wall, a redneck anthem covered and popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker that became a staple among bar bands for years — Hubbard was an Oklahoma native who studied at the University of North Texas and spent summers forging an initially different musical voice in New Mexico.
"I started off in folk music," he said. "I was playing that back when I was in high school, when I discovered Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and all those guys. Lyrics have always been really, really important to me."
When he hit Austin, country music was king, but not the kind coming out of Nashville. The Texas version relied heavily on story line, a touch of swing, a load of blues and a hearty sense of community.
"It was a great time," Hubbard said of Austin in the '70s. "Terms like 'outlaw' and 'cosmic cowboy' were being used. But really, it was just progressive country. You had Willie Nelson, who had been working as a staff songwriter in Nashville, coming to Austin with a blues harmonica player (Mickey Raphael) with him. You had Jerry Jeff, who was a folkie but with a real rock 'n' roll sound. So it was very progressive. And the really great thing about these guys was that they were writing really, really great songs."
Early albums including 1975's Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies, 1978's Off the Wall and 1980's Something About the Night provided Hubbard with a strong regional following, even though a larger fan base outside the Lone Star State proved elusive.
The creatively fertile '70s then bled into an '80s purgatory hindered by a growing dependency on drugs and alcohol. A key Central Texas music figure who had overcome similar addictions helped guide Hubbard back to sobriety: Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"Stevie Ray was the first guy in that scene who got clean and sober but kept his edge," Hubbard said. "Not to be flippant, but he got clean and didn't become a square. He got me into recovery and showed me that you could get sober and not simply dry up creatively. Stevie helped me through a very bad time in my life. He gave me hope when I didn't have any."
Another hero helped Hubbard on The Grifter's Hymnal: Ringo Starr. The two became fans of each other's songwriting over the years. Starr took to Hubbard's whimsical Snake Farm, and Hubbard had long admired an obscure early-'70s, blues-based Starr song called Coochy Coochy. An updated recording of the latter, featuring both artists, is one of the many highlights on The Grifter's Hymnal.
"He was just so gracious and funny and so, well, Ringo," Hubbard said. "But he is also this musician who still loves writing, loves playing and loves entertaining.
"And let's face it: It feels pretty great to have a Beatle on your record."