"Maybe it means I’m funky and cool — maybe it means I’m on ‘Austin City Limits’!"
You can forgive Ray Wylie Hubbard for freestyling a little during his song "Rabbit" as he kicked off an hourlong taping for the iconic television program Wednesday evening at ACL Live. This one had been a long time coming. While his Texan peers — from Rusty Wier to B.W. Stevenson to Townes Van Zandt — paraded through the show’s first season in 1976, Hubbard somehow got left on the bench.
Fast-forward 44 years, and finally Hubbard was getting his turn. He made it count with a 10-song set that had been eagerly awaited by his legions of fans in Texas and beyond, while serving as an introduction to some "ACL" viewers who might not have heard him before.
Hubbard acknowledged that latter group early on. "If this is the first time you’ve seen me perform, you’re probably a little bit nervous after those first two songs," he said slyly after following "Rabbit" with "Snake Farm," a dirty-blues anthem celebrating a strange I-35 roadside attraction. Hubbard’s music is, as he noted later, "an acquired taste." But once you fall into his groove, you hardly want to dig out of it.
That was especially true on this night, with his regular backing crew of guitarist Lucas Hubbard (Ray’s 27-year-old son) and drummer Kyle Schneider supplemented by ace Austin musicians Gurf Morlix on bass and Bukka Allen on keyboards. The band supported Hubbard’s songs perfectly, laying back when he was on one of his trademark talk-singing rambles and flooring it when the intensity built up to a fever pitch.
The impetus for Hubbard finally getting on the show was partly his new album "Co-Starring," released in July by Nashville major label Big Machine. Its title refers to an impressive cast of guests on the record, including Ringo Starr, Joe Walsh, Chris Robinson and Don Was (that’s just on one track alone).
In non-pandemic times, this might have turned into an all-star cameo affair. But it may have been just as well, as the limited circumstances — this was the fourth "ACL taping" in the past two months to be done without a studio audience — kept the focus on Hubbard’s songs.
READ MORE: Our 2017 interview with Ray Wylie Hubbard
A barroom philosopher who reels off nuggets of wisdom effortlessly — "It’s the night people’s job to get the day people’s money," "You’ve got to have some scars if you want to be a poet," "I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations" — Hubbard likely had trouble paring down this decades-in-waiting set list to just 10 songs. He made some interesting choices, notably leaving out "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," immortalized in the 1970s by Jerry Jeff Walker’s rendition.
The furthest back Hubbard ventured was "Wanna Rock and Roll," from 1992’s "Lost Train of Thought." He touched on most of the albums he made in the past decade, playing the Hayes Carll co-written "Drunken Poet’s Dream," the winding autobiography "Mother Blues," and the title track from 2017’s "Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can." A midset stretch focused on the new record as Hubbard and band tore through the album’s first three songs in sequence, highlighted by a salute to Tom Petty in "Rock Gods."
The live chat that accompanied the livestream on the "Austin City Limits" YouTube channel offered some colorful input from fans. "I thought I recognized that hat," noted Austin singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, referring to the hat Morlix wore that once belonged to the late Texas country singer Don Walser. Chiming in from afar, Sue Porkola said the taping "makes me feel like I’m in Austin." And Rodney Preslar likely summed up the thoughts of many Hubbard die-hards: "Modern country music can suck it. This is real!"
After the performance, Hubbard joined "ACL" executive producer Terry Lickona for a 10-minute interview that covered topics ranging from the new record to Hubbard’s literary inspirations to his wry sense of humor to the challenges of making music during the pandemic. "Even though it’s a very dark time right now," Hubbard said, "each day I keep coming back to find something to be grateful for. And that helps."
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