It seems 20th anniversaries of albums are everywhere now. Off the top of my head, I know that Shelby Lynne, Wilco, and Todd Snider are all celebrating twenty years of something. Of course, some of that is because of the resurgence of vinyl, which makes it a win/win for both the artist and the consumer. I was curious about one of the albums I consider to be in the top ten of best albums ever written, and lo and behold, it was put out in 1994 – making this year the 20th anniversary.
Ray Wylie Hubbard is a great songwriter. Undisputed. Most known for songs like “Snake Farm”, “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother”, and “Screw You, We’re From Texas”. He is also known for his live shows that combine wit, rock ‘n roll, blues, country and humor, often self-deprecating.
However, with the release of LOCO GRINGO’S LAMENT in 1994, he became much more than that. He became one of the smartest men and one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard. Each song holds up on its own, but as an album, each song bleeds into the next, culminating with the last three songs that show more than any other, the songwriting genius Ray Wylie really is.
Listen to it. I dare you. Listen to it and try not to feel, try not to think, try not to empathize.
Twelve songs – all linked thematically by despair, tragedy, hope, redemption and love.
“Dust of the Chase” sets the tone for the entire record. Simple, straight-forward, haunting. Illustrates the dichotomy of man. The album’s internal struggle of good vs evil and believing vs non-believing is personified by the gambler himself. The song is full if great verses, including “Patience is a virtue that I don’t possess” and “And when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I take along Samuel Colt”
“Love Never Dies” is a ballad and “Little Angel Comes A-Walkin’” is a blues number that picks up the tempo of the album a little bit. “After the Fall” is the classic redemption song. I don’t ever want to say autobiographical, however, his voice as the narrator oozes credibility. This song is not a story about hope, it is telling you that there is hope and he forces you to believe it. There is the same feeling throughout the album and especially on “I’ve seen that Old Highway”, “Bless the Hearts of the Lonely”, and “Didn’t Have a Prayer”.
“Wanna Rock and Roll” is probably the most famous song on the album. Covered by Cross Canadian Ragweed and featured on several albums, it is the rocker of the album. (However, the best version of this song is on his live album when he incorporates Johnny Cash and Lead Belly songs into “Wanna Rock n Roll.”)
“Loco Gringo’s Lament” is about the tragic endings that occur in the music business, from Hank Williams to musicians just beginning to make a name for themselves.
“The Real Trick” is by far my favorite song on the album. The lyrics are like a boxer pounding the body. Each one takes a little more breath away, each one does more than sting.
Christopher turned 16 on a chemical dependency wing
And on family week his momma come up and she says I ain’t gonna stay for this whole thing
She says I’ve got more important things to do than to listen to this ungrateful son
Chris said if being a parent so tough how come just anybody can be one?
We are all lengthening shadows cast by a sinking sun
So we need to find this reason to believe in something or someone;
but it is hard to believe with just faith alone
We feel betrayed by life when the infidelity is our own
I don’t concern myself with how Jesus was born or if he was raised from the dead.
It just comes down to the things that he said
So many more than Judas have betrayed his name
And this beautiful ancient wisdom has been prostituted for personal gain
The album comes full circle and ends the way it began with “The Messenger.” Much is made about his use of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. But if you examine the real album cover and not the reissued one, I think the song is telling us who the real messenger is.
I am wearing old boots with high Cuban heels
Our souls they are worn and we stand here by grace
My trousers are torn and my jacket is borrowed
I am wearing my time behind the eyes in my face
Now I have a mission and a small code of honor
To stand and deliver by whatever measures
And the message I give is from this old poet Rilke
He said “Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures?
The real question is do we have the ears to truly hear the message?