The Messenger: The Songwriting Legacy of Ray Wylie Hubbard

Ray Wylie Hubbard may not be top of mind to casual Country/Americana music fans, but he certainly influenced a slew of the musicians making that music today.

It seems rather appropriate then that Hubbard’s peers and acolytes would come together to explain his musical brilliance in writing. The Messenger, though not the best book to explain the life and career of Hubbard (that one would be his own 2015 memoir, A Life… Well, Lived), it does a pretty solid job of explaining his appeal by those who know him best. Chronicled by Brian T. Atkinson, the book collects an army of interviews from friends, peers and followers; folks like Bobby Bare, Steve Earle, Ben Kweller and Chris Robinson, among many, many others. But the most touching tributes come in the forewords, by longtime pal Jerry Jeff Walker and relative newcomer (at least compared to Walker and Hubbard) Hayes Carll. One of the best stories recounted here is the 1973 live version of Hubbard’s “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother,” covered by Walker on his live album with a shout out to the song’s author in the intro, a move that brought a lot more attention to Hubbard’s own work.

The book covers his early years, playing folk music in college as part of Three Faces West, and his evolution to a folk/country singer songwriter on par with Walker, Kris Kristofferson and Guy Clark. Like his memoir, The Messenger is pretty frank about his substance problems drawing a clear distinction between his pre- and post- sober career.  A strong book, paired nicely with A Life… Well, Lived, this latest entry in the Hubbard library is further proof of just how influential his music remains today.

The Messenger: The Songwriting Legacy of Ray Wylie Hubbard/Hardcover, 272 pages/Texas A&M University Press/2019

Corb Lund – Cover Your Tracks (CD)

Cover albums usually go one of two ways: They are either exhaustingly mediocre exercises in stalling while the performer buys time until a new record is finished or, in very rare instances, it’s an example of an artist being able to stretch way beyond expectations and their relegated genre and deliver a satisfyingly compelling album. For Corb Lund, the latter applies here.

The only real downside to Cover Year Tracks, is that it’s only eight songs. Lund lends his distinctively emotive Americana vocals to songs by Dylan (naturally), Willie Nelson (makes sense), AC/DC (what?!) and Nancy Sinatra (damn!), among others. The album opens with Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” a remarkably impressive gender twist to the song (others who have covered it include Ella Fitzgerald, Loretta Lynn and Spice Girl Gerri Halliwell). And Lund is able to nearly one up that song with what is easily the best cover yet of “The Cover Of Rolling Stone,” best associated with Dr. Hook. It doesn’t hurt that Hayes Carll sits in with Lund. Other highlights here include a beautiful take on the Willie Nelson/Ray Charles song “Seven Spanish Angels.”      

The only song here that really doesn’t seem to rise to the level of the rest is his cover of Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me.” But Lund manages to recover nicely on the closing track, Dylan’s classic “I Shall be Released.”

Corb Lund – Cover Your Tracks/8 tracks/New West Records/2019

Matthew Squires – Visions Of America

Coming off with a vibe close to the first Jonny Polonsky record or the output from Daniel Johnston, Matthew Squires latest is bedroom pop at it’s best. The production, though cleaner on Squires album than the other examples, is minimal at best allowing for the songs to come across in the most organic, natural form possible.

It’s been just three years since his last release, but his knack for writing songs that manage to be seemingly both relatable and uniquely fantastical has improved immensely. The music vacillates between folk and psychedelic rock, at times recalling the Meat Puppets and Modest Mouse, but pop music always remains at the core of the songs here. Through his vulnerably emotive vocals and keen lyrics, Squires’ music is nearly impossible to ignore. Even his lighter fare, like the aptly titled “Joke Song,” comes across as a command from above. Elsewhere, his Hank Williams cover of “Lonesome,” a song that has been covered ad nauseum, still demands rapt attention thanks to his pleading vocals.

Based in Austin, the wildly prolific musician, with a constantly-changing band has set a remarkably high bar for himself with Visions Of America.

Matthew Squires – Visions Of America/Self-Released/ 2019 / Domain /

Jesse Malin – Sunset Kids

At the invitation of longtime friend Lucinda Williams, Jesse Malin caught her opening set at Tom Petty’s final show. That moment eventually led to Malin writing the beautifully sanguine “Shinning Down” (complete with a perfect Petty jangle guitar sound throughout), a track midway through Malin’s latest Sunset Kids. The song is a brilliant encapsulation of the record, carrying on Malin’s punk-bred singer/songwriter vibe that has defined his solo career; songs rooted in the streets, but almost always with that glimmer of optimism or at least survival.

The album, his first in four years, was produced, aptly enough, by Williams. And much like his earlier efforts, Malin is genre agnostic, combining elements of country (most obvious on “Room 13,” co-written by Williams), rock and even pop. No stranger to sharing the mic from time to time (Malin even coaxed Springsteen into the studio to guest on vocals years ago), he brought in Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong on “Strangers & Thieves,” a track Armstrong co-wrote with Malin. The other real standout on the record is the piano-led mellow “Shane,” and ode to the Pogues’ singer/songwriter Shane McGowan.

There are few surprises with Sunset Kids, and that’s far from being a bad thing. The record is Malin in his element playing memorable character-driven songs, genres be damned, that stick with you long after the music stops playing. 

Jesse Malin – Sunset Kids / Wiked Cool Records/2019 / Bandcamp /

Ezra Furman – Twelve Nudes (CD)

Ezra Furman made the declaration recently that Twelve Nudes is his punk record and as much as he’s flirted with the genre over his past few albums, the anger, spiked guitars and red-throated vocals are clearly front and center here. That vibe is underscored perfectly with the scorching opening track “Calm Down aka I Should Not be Alone” careening to a crash after a Ramones-appropriate two-minutes-and-22 seconds.

Some of the most fun on the record is found in songs like “Rated R Crusaders” with its buzz saw guitars and staccato vocals. That’s not to say the entire album is all distortion and screams; songs like the slow-tempo-ed “I Want To Be Your Girlfriend” and the quiet, angered “Evening Prayer aka Justice” and “Transition Nowhere To Nowhere” give the album a satisfying balance.

Part of Furman’s appeal is his genre defying track record, which in the past has toyed with everything from indie rock, glam pop and even doo wop at times. Twelve Nudes is just another musical side of the always engaging, constantly evolving Furman.  Ezra Furman – Twelve Nudes/Bella Union/2019

Rob Laufer – The Floating World (CD)

It’s been almost a decade since Rob Laufer last focused on his own music. In the interim, he served as a producer, songwriter, guitarist for hire and music director for Wild Honey Orchestra. While he was in high demand from others, his voice as a solo artist was sorely missed over the past nine years. The Floating World is proof that not a bit of rust set in on his own work.

The record, despite a slow start, quickly slips into some of the most compelling songs Laufer has ever committed to tape. The music swerves in and out of lanes, from lush dream pop (songs like the sublime “Fence”) to solid power pop (“Left of Blue”), with hooks and ridiculously beautiful melodies. Laufer brings to mind a slew of brilliant pop-forward singer songwriters from the past few decades, everyone from Marshall Crenshaw to Michael Penn, and adds another solid album to the genre.

Based on the songs here it appears Laufer’s two strongest muses this time around were The Beatles and Tom Petty. He clearly did justice to both influences.

Rob Laufer – The Floating World/10 tracks/Self-Released/2019 / Domain /

Jason Hawk Harris – Love & The Dark (CD)

“The Smoke And The Stars,” the opening track off of Jason Hawk Harris’s debut album is an impressive, emotional ballad, but one that belies what’s to follow shortly. The building swell of strings and deeply personal lyrics sounds amazing, but ultimately (and thankfully), Harris devotes much of the record to a more stripped down, laid back, wink and a nod approach to Americana.

“Cussing At The Light,” the very next song, kicking off with the line “Well, I think it’s about time I had a drink …  I’m probably gonna have more than a few,” and is a far better representation of the album taken as a whole. The honky tonk piano and the sly lyrics are a perfect calling card for Harris. Based in LA now, but originally from Houston, Harris’s knack for writing lyrics that manage to be both personal and deeply witty at the same time bring to mind a slew of fellow Lone Stare Staters, everyone from Rhett Miller and Lyle Lovett to Willie himself.

Covering everything from love and death, addiction and survival, all in the span of just nine song, there is absolutely no fat to trim off this record. And while there’s not a weak song on this album, the distortion-laden, religion can be scary shit “I’m Afraid” is a tune Harris is going to have to close out his shows with every night from now until to the end of his career.   

Jason Hawk Harris – Love & The Dark (CD) / Domain /

The Hollywood Stars – Sound City (CD)

Not long before Kim Fowley pulled together and ultimately terrorized (or inspired depending on whose version of the story you’re following) the brilliant teenaged, all-female rock band The Runaways, he helped establish the nearly as brilliant, but short-lived, glam rock/power pop five piece The Hollywood Stars.

Fowley pulled in a disparate collection of Southern California musicians and went about co-writing, producing and working on his Svengali-in-training role with the group. The result, tragically cheesy moniker aside, was some stellar gigs opening for everyone from The Ramones and The Kinks to Bo Diddly, a record deal, some impressively catchy songs and then a whole lot of bad breaks. Record label issues held up the release of their debut for 39 years (not a typo), but several of the songs ended up on albums by Alice Cooper and Kiss. There were some lineup changes and in 1976 the band got to work recording 10 more tacks. And in true Hollywood Stars fashion, those songs likely would never have been heard if not for the folks at Burger Records who are finally putting out Sound City (this time, 43 years late).

There was a solid, self-titled album released in 1977 on Arista, but many of the 10 tracks here, are arguably far better than those off the debut or the 1977 release. Though clearly a time capsule of a post-prog, pre-punk mid- ‘70s rock world, have held up remarkably well. While no one would assume this record was made for a 2019 world, the glam rock vibe on songs like “Escape” and “Too Hot To Handle” is a much-needed dose of fun and unpretentiousness in the current mostly guitar-neutered music scene of today.

The band reunited for a one-night benefit concert in 2018, sadly without singer/guitarist/songwriter Mark Anthony who passed away in the early 2000s. And thanks to the long-overdue release of Sound City, the band played a show last month at Hollywood’s Whisky A Go Go, their first time headlining that venue in four decades.      The Hollywood Stars – Sound City/Burger Records/2019

Dylan Disaster – Remission (CD)

Stripped-down blue collar punk rock anthems are certainly not a new phenomenon. Everyone from Tim Barry and Frank Turner to Dave Hause have made a living crisscrossing the globe for the past decade-plus playing Springsteen meets The Clash-inspired ditties. But, Dylan Disaster’s latest, Remission, proves there’s still room for at least one more on the tour bus.

Thirteen tracks cram the latest from this Long Island native, now calling Austin home. And while the songs are not wholly mold breaking in concept, they are still infectiously fun, nonetheless. While his strength tends to be the mellower, acoustic-based fare like “Restless Heart” and “Halfway Home,” the full-throated shouted choruses on “Milestone” –  one of the more obvious punk-inspired tracks here and one that deftly tackles depression and mental health – goes a long way to proving Disaster is more than just another tattooed punk with an acoustic guitar.

Coming four years after his solo debut, Remission finds Dylan Disaster writing and singing with a more focused drive. With a few exceptions here and there, the songs are stronger, confident and more personal than any of his earlier efforts, taking what could have been just another generic punk folk record and turning it into an album worth going back to again and again.

Dylan Disaster – Remission (CD) / Facebook /

Mike Jacoby – Long Beach Calling (CD)

Although Mike Jacoby offers hints of Americana and even rockabilly throughout his third solo offering, the record is still firmly planted in the world of rootsy rock and roll.

Jacoby cites folk troubadour Todd Snider as an inspiration for Long Beach Calling, but it’s just as easy to pick out influences from folks like John Fogerty and The BoDeans here. The opening song, the rollicking title track with its Johnny Cash-like rumbling train guitar sound sets a high bar for the rest of the songs that follow. And while that one is easily the album’s high mark, there are still plenty of other great songs spread throughout the record, like the lyrically savvy “Pine Box” and the superb “Just In Case,” sounding like a long lost Kinks rarity.

The album gets weighed down a bit toward the end with a handful of less-inspired tracks (like the mediocre “BBQ Pit” or the unnecessary “Play Like Richards,” an answer to Maroon 5’s long-since forgotten “Moves Like Jagger”); But not so much that it takes away from the highlights that dominate the rest of the record.

Mike Jacoby – Long Beach Calling/11 tracks/ Self-Released /2019 / Domain /