Album of the Day: Ray Wylie Hubbard “Co-Starring”

Posted by Greg on Jul 12, 2020 in Music |

These days it’s getting harder and harder to recognize country music. Be it Kane Brown partnering with Marshmello or Keith Urban dabbling in EDM, the trappings of traditional country music seem to be fading like a Nashville sunset. Thankfully there’s still folks like Ray Wylie Hubbard out there. His debut release for the Big Machine Label Group is Co-Starring, a sterling set of ten old-school country gems. Each of the ten songs features Hubbard partnering with an artist or band he’s befriended over the past decade.

Album opener “Bad Trick” is haggard and weary and finds Hubbard mining a dark and dusty blues landscape with the slightest twinge of Johnny Cash. Flanked by friends Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Wash and Chris Robinson, it might be the most compelling opening track of any country album released this year. Ostensibly a song about lawlessness it very much epitomizes the term outlaw country. There’s more blues guitar on the somber “Rock Gods” a song inspired by the death of Tom Petty and featuring guitar work from Aaron Lee Tasjan. Ominous and foreboding from the very first notes, “Rock Gods” is imbued with first-rate guitar work and a veneer that calls to mind Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

“Fast Left Hand” begins smooth and slick and breezes along with clever wordplay and searing guitar leads from country-punks The Cadillac Three. Hubbard’s vocals may be in their final years, but with bristling guitar work doing much of the heavy lifting, the idea of him slowing down seems few and far between. “Fast Left Hand’ is a song meant to be played loud with the top down.

“Mississippi John Hurt” features a spartan arrangement and Hubbard sharing vocals with country icon Pam Tillis. The entire effort is subdued and restrained and is bolstered by spartan production. Tillis’ vocals are deeply affecting and the song rises second by second as Hubbard pays homage to one of his heroes. The album’s A side concludes with “Drink Til I See Double,” a honky-tonk throwback awash in pedal steel, slide guitar and an ageless chorus that simmers long after the final seconds. Featuring vocals from Paula Nelson and Elizabeth Cook, “Drink Til I See Double” is probably the most commercial and radio-friendly cut on the album and a tremendous way to close out the album’s first act.

A slinky blues groove marks the arrival of “R.O.C.K,” a scorching roadhouse stomper that seems tailor-made for a live setting. Backed by a fist-pumping chorus and rumbling guitars from Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown, “R.O.C.K” is proof that Hubbard is most assuredly firing on all cylinders, The song also serves as the moment at which Co-Written dives into another stratosphere and makes a most indelible mark. Sure it may be dressed up as a novelty album, but make no mistake about it, this is some solid Texas sass.

Critical darling Ashley McBryde lends her vocals to “Outlaw Blood” a supple and somber effort featuring finger-picked guitars and clever wordplay. Immediate, accessible and wholly engaging, “Outlaw Blood” is damn near perfect and another splendid cut from Hubbard.

Ostensibly the weakest song of the lot is “Rattlesnake Shakin’ Woman,” a dusty, blues romp that rises on the wings of whip-smart lyrics but does little else to distance itself from the pack. Though it does pick up steam as it goes along, there’s just something ho-hum and middle-ground at work here. Even the likes of Larkin Poe can’t save the song from itself. Thankfully, Hubbard responds favorably with the spartan back-porch ballad “Hummingbird” Easily the most restrained song to date, “Hummingbird” finds Hubbard quoting the Book of Psalms while waxing rhapsodic about nature, his guitar and gospel music. Winsome and warm, “Hummingbird” seems destined for TV or film placement. There’s just something so familiar, comforting and inviting about it. In short, it’s the perfect song for a quarantine summer.

Co-Starring concludes with “The Messenger” a defiant and muscular statement song that finds Hubbard remarking how content he is with the life he’s lead. Backed by Ronnie Dunn and Pam Tillis, and anchored by a plaintive fiddle reel “The Messenger” is the perfect closing track to an album that delights from the very first note. In an era when country music is getting harder and harder to define, an album like Co-Starring is a welcome and fitting addition to the canon of 2020.

Now five decades into his career, Hubbard’s 18th album is one that reminds us of all that is good, true and heartening about country music. Quite simply, we can’t ask for much more.

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