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Texas Blues: Ray Wylie Hubbard at Annapolis’ Rams Head Tavern, Aug. 11

August 13, 2010

Ray Wylie Hubbard cheerfully admitted at the Rams Head Tavern Wednesday night that the title of his new album, A. Enightenment b. Endarkenment (Hint: There is no C), might be the worst album title of all time. He also volunteered that the album cover (a picture of a decapitated Hubbard holding his head in his left hand) might be the worst album cover of all time. He explained these choices by saying that as a kid he learned that you can take out the garbage every day and no one pays attention, but if you burn the barn down just one time, no one ever forgets.

Hubbard’s new album deserves all the attention it can get, for it is a brilliant blending of the Texas songwriting tradition of Townes Van Zandt with the country-blues sound of Lightnin’ Hopkins. Because it’s the first release on his own Bordello Records, Hubbard felt compelled to make his first East Coast tour in nearly eight years, venturing out of the safety of his native Oklahoma and longtime home of Texas, where he is a revered local legend. He brought along his 17-year-old son Lucas, a tasteful if sometimes tentative blues-rock guitarist, and longtime drummer Rick Richards, a master of minimalism.

Ray Wylie sat between them, his shaggy, salt-and-pepper hair and beard framing his weathered face, and finger-picked an acoustic guitar. He played too few songs from the new disc as he tried to represent the substantial body of songs he’s compiled since his last East Coast visit. One of the new numbers, the infectious “Down Home Country Blues,” defined the musical fundament for the entire evening, and another, “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” hinted at the literary ambitions of the lyrics.

But songs were drawn from all phases of his career—from his breakthrough hit, “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” best known from Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1973 recording, to his hilarious 1999 talking blues, “Conversation with the Devil,” and his 2006 sing-along, “Snake Farm.” Almost as good as the tunes was Hubbard’s between-song patter, self-deprecating shaggy-dog tales delivered as drily as the West Texas wind. A story about his father, an Oklahoma card shark, set up three songs about gambling. Like so many of his tunes, they started out funny and wound up unsettling.