Honky Tonk Masquerade
Ray Wylie Hubbard's Producer/Guitarist Gurf Morlix May Have Been the Man Putting the Spirit Behind Lucinda Williams' Grit
A long line was waiting outside, and those lucky enough to get in under the fire marshal's limit were on her side. This audience had championed her long before she was discovered by National Public Radio and desperately wanted her to succeed. But as she sang one dreary midtempo tune after another, each with a repetitive singsong melody and a garage-rock arrangement that never quite ignited, you could sense the crowd's enthusiasm deflating like a punctured basketball. You could spot people tilting their heads in hopes of catching a lyric that might redeem the monochromatic music. Instead, they heard her repeat the refrain, "I wanna get swallowed up in an ocean of love," which may well be the worst line Williams has ever written.
As folks spilled out of the Music Hall into the Texas night, you could hear them complaining about the bleakness of the songs--just as you would read some reviewers complaining when the album was finally released in April. But that missed the point. Williams' songs have always tackled suicide, heartbreak, and a harsh society, but her 1988-'98 work redeemed that subject matter with seductive melodies surrounded by sparkling guitar fills. The ruthlessly edited lyrics scrubbed away all traces of sentimentality and cynicism to trace the distance between what she wanted and what she got. So her themes hadn't changed, but something else had. What was missing?
The answer presented itself the following afternoon when Ray Wylie Hubbard led his band at the Club DeVille. Hubbard comes out of the same Austin singer/songwriter community that produced Williams; he, too, blends traditional folk, blues, and country sources to write songs about a world that seldom delivers what we want. He, too, was introducing new songs from a soon-to-be-released album. But these new tunes from Growl boasted sing-along choruses, brightly melodic guitar fills, irreverent humor, and amazingly concise verses. In other words, they resembled the songs on Williams' trilogy of masterful albums--1988's Lucinda Williams, 1992's Sweet Old World, and 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. What was the connection?
Standing next to Hubbard at the Club DeVille was his lead guitarist, arranger, editor, and producer, Gurf Morlix, the man who had performed the same duties on Williams' brilliant trilogy (and on recent impressive albums by Hubbard and Mary Gauthier). Morlix, a tall, gangly man with gray hair swept back from a high forehead, is a soft-spoken, self-effacing musician, but his red Les Paul guitar is remarkably eloquent.
When Hubbard sang "Purgatory Road" from his new album, it was a slow blues that threatened to congeal into the kind of dragged-out drone that hampers Williams' album. But the lyrics described nothing as vague as an "ocean of love." Instead, they evoked a two-lane blacktop through the Texas hills that offers no way off a dried-up farm, and Morlix captured the simmering frustration of the tale with slide-guitar licks that supplied all the melodic variety the song needed. Hubbard's frizzy, salt-and-pepper hair and beard gave the impression he hadn't held a comb in 10 years, and his mischievous grin implied that he didn't care. As the song ended, he aimed that grin at Morlix in gratitude for the help in shaping the best album of his career.
Hubbard is best known for writing "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" for Jerry Jeff Walker as a minor member of Texas' outlaw-country movement. But that was long ago, and for the past 10 years he has been one of the most underrated singer/songwriters around. His Dylanesque obsession with sin and redemption is balanced by his wicked sense of humor and his adolescent exposure to Texas bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. That Texas blues influence is especially evident on 2001's Eternal and Lowdown and this year's Growl. Both albums are filled with Morlix's slide guitar, whose droning harmonies and flatted thirds and sevenths cast doubts on the singer's best intentions. When Hubbard sings, "I got to quit gettin' high," on "No Lie"; when he promises, "If I had some grains of faith, I'd keep 'em where they were safe," on "The Knives of Spain"; and when he declares, "I ain't the criminal kind," on "Rooster," the music suggests that his protagonists will never be that innocent.
But Hubbard balances out these downbeat songs with wisecracking romps. "Name Droppin'" is an infectious sing-along about Hubbard's famous musician friends, but the joke is that none of the names he mentions--Jon Dee Graham, Scappy Jud Newcomb, and Darcie Deaville--are known outside Austin. When a "Preacher" comes to the house to talk to Hubbard about heaven, the singer points to his wife bending over a laundry basket and says that's heaven right there. "Rock-n-Roll Is a Vicious Game," a sequel to the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock-n-Roll Star" and Creedence's "Lodi," paints a hilarious portrait of a dysfunctional band. And "Screw You, We're From Texas" is just what it sounds like, a greasy, rocking kiss-off to anyone who criticizes Texans for being too sloppy, too loud, and too ornery. When Hubbard sang it in Austin, Morlix and Darcie Deaville played barbed-wire guitar and fiddle solos that shoved the song's defiance right in your face.
Williams' new album, World Without Tears, is also a blues-rock project, but it is conspicuously lacking in grease and groove, hooks and humor. Some of the songwriting is just lazy. The specificity of songs such as "Side of the Road" and "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" have been replaced by such bland clichés as "Don't cause me pain; be my lover, don't play no game" and "Livin' is full of misery and pain; somebody called you a dirty name."
She hasn't completely forgotten how to write a focused lyric tied to a memorable melody. "Those Three Days" is a piercing postmortem on a brief affair, "Sweet Side" uses rapped verses, a sing-along chorus, and a country shuffle to describe a wounded boyfriend, and the title track uses a wistful chorus melody to make the case that sadness is an invaluable part of life. Several other songs--"Minneapolis," "American Dream," "Atonement," and "Words Fell"--boast some strong lines and hints of a melody. What they need is someone who isn't awed by Williams' reputation, someone who will force her to replace the weaker lines with better ones, someone who will shape the chord changes into a real melody and arrangement--someone, in other words, like Morlix.
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