Longtimer still lights up country scene

Ray Wylie Hubbard likes to play with punctuation. A few years ago, he released an album title with two periods, a colon and a set of parentheses, and as he prepares to stop in Huntington Beach, he's at work on an autobiography whose title can work as a self-endorsement or an admission of defeat.

Spoken out loud, it's "A Life Well Spent." But look at it on the book cover, and it reads "A Life. Well, Spent."

So has the country singer's life been well spent, or is he, well, spent? Hubbard leans toward the former.

"I feel very, very fortunate, you know?" the Texas resident said last week in a phone interview. "As an old cat out there gigging and still writing and producing records, I feel that I'm still valid as far as a songwriter — you know, that I'm not a nostalgia act.

"I'll do some of the old songs, but I'm still writing and putting out records, producing records. So, yeah, I'm not done yet."

On the other hand, if Hubbard's life is indeed, well, spent, at least he was an eclectic shopper. Over his 40-year career, he's shared bills with Willie Nelson and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, penned the country classic "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," curated the annual Grit 'n Groove Fest in Texas and recorded with Ringo Starr. And if he's working now as an independent troubadour rather than a major-label stadium act, he relishes the freedom.

On Saturday, Hubbard will bring his latest tour to Don the Beachcomber, performing in a minimalist combo with drummer Kyle Schneider. (Jonathan Tyler, a friend of Hubbard's, will open.) His son, Lucas, who sometimes plays guitar for him, will be in Colorado for a gig of his own, but the show will still be a family affair in part: Hubbard's wife, Judy, serves as his manager.

For that matter, she serves as his label executive. Since 2010, the couple have released two albums on their own Bordello Records — "A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C)" and "The Grifter's Hymnal" — and plan a third for release in early 2015. The autobiography, which Hubbard hopes to finish within a month, doesn't have a publisher lined up yet, but he may put it out himself.

That may fulfill the words of AllMusic.com critic Thom Jurek, who wrote about Hubbard's last album, "His D.I.Y. aesthetic would make a punk rocker proud."

Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "dean of American rock critics" and one of the tougher in the business, awarded the disc an A- and called it "dark and hilarious and gone so fast you're too busy tapping your inner foot to cavil about pitch or timbre."

Don the Beachcomber's website bills the upcoming show as "Ray Wylie Hubbard Comes to the OC." Christopher Burkhardt, the venue's event promotions manager, is anticipating the visit — as are others, evidently.

"He's got a real cult following, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there are hundreds of them in the Southern California area, including his cousins who live in Huntington Beach," Burkhardt said. "So they'll be at the show. We've even got people flying in from as far as North Carolina to this show."

Those who make the trek will get, among other things, a link to history. As a teenager in Texas, Hubbard haunted folk clubs and saw influential figures — Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins, Ernest Tubb — whose birthdates have passed the century mark, and he later shared festival bills with the late Pete Seeger (whom he remembers as "powerful" and "just gracious").

When Hubbard rose on the scene in the 1970s, his style, like that of Nelson and other rootsy performers, was dubbed "progressive country" as an antidote to the slicker commercial sound of the time. In terms of how the music has progressed since then, Hubbard said he's not the person to ask. He seldom listens to modern country and jokes that the genre "started going downhill the day Johnny Cash quit doing pills."

Ultimately, nothing inspires Hubbard like his own muse. That long "Enlightenment" title, for example, came from a black sparrow who uttered the words in a dream. The title appears on the album cover with boxes next to "Enlightenment" and "Endarkenment," inviting the consumer to check one or the other.

"Ringo, by the way, checked 'Endarkenment,'" Hubbard said.

If You Go

Who: Ray Wylie Hubbard with Jonathan Tyler

Where: Don the Beachcomber, 16278 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach

When: Doors open at 7 p.m. Saturday; Tyler onstage at 8:30; Hubbard at 9:30

Cost: $20 general admission; $25 premium; $35 VIP (add $5 on day of show)

Information: (714) 434-2579 or http://www.donthebeachcomber.com

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