Weekender Muse: Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Grifter's Hymnal"

by Greg Moses

OpEdNews / CounterPunch

So there I was hearing nothing but this wicked whirring Bandit Model Whole Tree Chipper rammed up against a load of Bibles, books, old newspapers, and brown-paper-covered magazines piled high as the Davis Mountains being scooped up and fed to the chipper by a Cat Ultra High Demolition Hydraulic Excavator.

And with the backup alarm blaring from a 469 horsepower Segmented Ejector Truck moving relentlessly into loading position I was finally able to focus my attention on the dusted vinyl lettering that marked every piece of equipment as the property of Ray Wylie Hubbard, Unlimited.

Because when you tune into the opening tracks of Hubbard’s freshly released “Grifter’s Hymnal” (2012: Bordello Records) you can’t help but thrill to the sound of re-shredding everything you thought you knew.

From the beats of the opening bar of the opening track you can tell that Ray Wylie is in a mood to groove right through this millennial year of long reputed doom. After all, there’s nothing at risk if your gods are archaic enough to come from places that can’t be undone. And all powers of such antiquity have something to say about eternal slyness and the essence of trickery that goes by the name of existence. Go ahead, I dare you, roll tape, then see if you don’t start smiling right away, finding yourself snakebit before you hear the first warning rattle.

Mirothane is one word you might study up on in preparation for track number one. As defined by its inventors at Mirotone.com, Mirothane PU (TM) is a “flexible sealer with good clarity, superior chemical resistance and resistant to white marking under sharp impact.” Might be a sign of Hubbard’s acquired taste for custom interiority. Might not.

By the time we get to track two, we’re tuned up, warmed over, and rockin, but not at one of those smokeless, sober, early venues like the kind they put Hubbard through at SXSW. No, no. Here we are full tilt throttled for that wide open midnight threshold where everybody grabs everybody else and jumps into the future unknown, crossing over into some other life that may or may not catch you just in time. Yes, yes.

Then, long after the midnight hour, some random mirror catches you reflecting on life and death. And if you’ve been reading Gloria Anzaldua lately, you’ll have some additional enrichment to draw upon as Wylie Hubbard sings in track number three about life up against the memory of Lazarus, who only died twice, not five times like Gloria did.

Track four finds us lighting up and looking around on “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell,” somewhat like Dante, finding all these familiar faces and refusing to be all that repentant about it. So another year comes and goes and we’re still looking at all the souls who haven’t yet been sorted where they’re supposed to be. As our judgment turns on its own temper, lookout Ma, ain’t nothin all right now.

Nahuatl poetry is what you might be thinking about while you’re listening to track number five. Indigenous juxtapositions of beauty and death. The song is called “Moss and Flowers” so you have to know that if eternity is what you’re after then it’s not the kind of eternity that can be measured with an infinity of clocks. You get a very nice experience of duet here, with the harmonies on the guitar parts split between the buds of your Skullcandy (TM).

While speaking of death, “Red Badge of Courage” takes us into war zones of the mind where we have sent our kids these past decades. Somehow, you know the song already. It’s just a matter of hearing it played for the first time. Track six is an excursion into protest music, with the weariness of our war habits sounding deep down.

“It’s unbelievable” is how I want to sing the opening stanza of track seven’s “Train Yard,” and we are indeed treated to an unbelievable metaphorical trip involving a red hot penny. Even the great Yeats would nod to the greatness of this hot penny poem, looped in the loops of its steam-powered grip.

“Coochy Coochy” is a plain song of desire with a profoundly felt absence of the one thing that makes everything else sweat. It’s a fun song, simple, and I reckon it may begin to replace “Snake Farm” as a crowd sing-along favorite the next place Ray Wylie Hubbard plays. One more sing-along song is not surprising from Mr. Hubbard who, as we say in Texas, writes sing-along songs, “so well, so well, so well.” Thing is, this one was written by Ringo.

If we find ourselves lost in a mood for another Hubbard Mother song, track nine is called “Mother Blues.” It’s the longest track on the album and may be properly styled epic. The thing about Hubbard’s Mother songs is you can’t help but find yourself laughing from the gut. You may want to get yourself checked for hernia after this track, and if a professional is unhandy, perhaps a lay practitioner will have to do.

The genre that Hubbard works in is listed on my iTunes spreadsheet as “Country,” so you’ll not find it out of place for Mr. Hubbard to sing a little song about a rooster, some chickens, foxes, a blackbird, and the way truth stains our memories like wood. The song is called “Henhouse,” but the whole family is here, including a grandpa with Dixie roots.

The blackbird from “Henhouse” reprises its appearance in track eleven. “Count My Blessings” is a song that weaves a grifter’s autobiography with reflections on the death of Sam Cooke. The grifter assures us that three card monty is a lucrative occupation if you keep the game moving fast enough. And the grifter somehow can’t forget how the jury acquitted Sam Cooke’s killer in fifteen minutes flat. In such a fast-paced world, an ironic sense of gratitude can some days help a living body try to get by.

Pretty much everything I know about country music is what I’ve learned from Willie Nelson shows, so when country music concerts end with gospel tunes I think of young Willie playing honky tonks all night Saturday and then staying up to play church Sunday morning. Somewhere the line between Saturday night and Sunday morning gets crossed, you might say. So when Ray Wylie Hubbard ends this Dionysian romp with a song about God’s light, it’s like we’ve all stayed up through sunrise. To our day-people’s routines we have been re-delivered. Nor have we forgotten to tip the night people for the things they come to do.

[updated 4/30/2012]

Undocumented Immigrants and the Tragic Palmview Rollover

By Nick Braune

On Monday April 9 in La Joya, a small town in the Rio Grande Valley, a siren signaled a van to pull over. Afraid of being arrested — the van was carrying undocumented immigrants — the driver sped away and soon lost control of the vehicle, causing a rollover accident with one dead and 17 people injured. The very next day, in close-by Palmview, another van rolled over and the results were worse, described as “horrific” by those who saw the bodies — nine people were killed and others badly injured. (The seats in the van had been removed and there were 18 people squeezed into it; consequently, when the rollover tore open the door, many of the passengers were thrown from the tumbling vehicle.)

These events have hit the heart strings of many Valley residents. Crosses were painted on the roadside. Little alters were set up with gifts for the departed, reports The Monitor, with “dozens of candles, stuffed animals and a picture of Jesus Christ. A bowl of animal crackers with a cup of milk and cinnamon sat beside a rosary.”

La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), an advocacy organization founded by Cesar Chavez, held a vigil there. They mourned the lost lives and the endless other tragedies caused by America’s failed, narrowly conceived, immigration policies.

I called Martha Sanchez, a LUPE leader. “Our vigil was a way to grieve, to show our humanity,” she said.

Sanchez and I discussed how everything about these rollovers was depressing. The driver of the van in which nine people died did survive and was arrested, but this brings no feeling of recompense. True, someone hired him to do something endangering others, but he was only 15 years old. As one internet commenter said, the youngster must have been in a total panic when he heard the siren behind him, with all manner of conflicting messages screeching at him from people inside the van: “Let’s get out of here,” Stop the car.” “Turn,” “Go straight.” The youth was way over his head and the tires had no treads. (Apparently the van had several problems.) Probably some prosecutor wants to try the kid as an adult, condemning him to decades in prison, but that won’t solve anything. It will just add more sadness.

The Monitor’s coverage through the week was sensitive and informative, but I wish they had probed the Border Patrol and the Palmview police about their pursuit policies. (The Border Patrol says there was no pursuit.) The articles, enamored of law enforcement drama and arrests, let the local sheriff weigh in that he sees few problems with pursuits and thinks law enforcement is important. I asked Martha Sanchez about the current enforcement policies. She said LUPE has expressed concern about various Border Patrol practices in the past. “So, when we heard that two vans in two days had rolled over, with immigrants dying in car chases, we wondered whether this shows some change in enforcement policy or simply shows more immigrants coming. It seemed like too many happenings…too quickly. Is something different? Is the Border Patrol upping the ante so to speak? We don’t know. A Border Patrol press conference is coming up and we’ll be there.”

I also criticize The Monitor coverage for uncritically repeating police lingo, for instance, constantly conflating two different issues: stopping drug trafficking and stopping undocumented immigration. (Similarly, by the way, Governor Perry has ordered three military “swift boats” with mounted machine guns, for Highway Patrol use on the Rio Grande, to stop drug trafficking and illegal immigration.)

Let’s save lives with real immigration reform.

[This piece appeared first in “Reflection and Change,” Mid-Valley Town Crier, 4-17-12]

From the Cross to the Dungeons of America: A Conversation with Ramsey Muniz

By Raul Garcia

As I prepared to visit Ramsey Muniz, a political prisoner for the last 20 years, I thought about the many years we have known each other. In fact, we go all the way back to high school days. Though each visit through the years has been educational and inspirational, there seemed to be something different and special about this visit. We had scheduled the visit for April 22, 2011 without my realizing it would fall on Good Friday. Maybe that’s the reason why as I dressed that morning there seemed to be something guiding me toward my black clothes — a symbolic color of what happened on Good Friday in 33 A.D.

When I saw Ramsey that morning and we sat down, he said, “Do you realize today is Good Friday, the day that Jesus Christ was crucified?” I knew then that this visit would be different, given the significance of the day. I realized that prison is like being in what the Hebrews called “Golgotha” and Latin Rome called “Calvary”, a place to suffer and die. All over the world, including America, the Christ is being crucified, particularly the innocent ones who are thrown along with the criminals and crucified along with the Christ. Ramsey believes that the arrest of Jesus was a political event, given that the Roman Empire felt threatened by a young revolutionary who would say things like “You have heard it said of old, but I say unto you.”

The Jesus movement had grown so big, that a new direction, a new vision, a new ethic came out from the lips of Jesus. The authorities had to get rid of him, so they monitored him wherever he went. The authorities had to get rid of him. Muniz thinks and believes that his own arrest was also a political event in order to silence the leaders of the Chicano movement. Reises Lopez Tijerina, a leader of the Land Grant Alliance in New Mexico, once said to me that Chicano leaders were constantly monitored during the height of the Chicano Movement. He showed me evidence which he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Let us keep in mind that Jesus was betrayed by some of his closest followers, some for money, others because their egos mattered to them more than the one who had come to speak in the name of Justice. Yes, justice is also a form of salvation, both individual and social. Muniz thinks that he, like Christ, was betrayed as the years went by, as the silence of some who were close to him during the movement ran scared, like the followers of Jesus who scattered and hid in and around Jerusalem.

It was Mary Magdalene to whom Jesus appeared first after the resurrection, she whom Jesus loved the most, and in whom He entrusted his deepest secrets which not even the disciples were privy to. yes, she rallied the doubters, the scared, the deniers. It is no accident that Ramsey’s wife , Irma, has suffered all these years along with her husband, for she knows him like no one else does, and has worked incessantly in his behalf.

Ramsey said to me that he now understands the agony of the Christ on the Cross, an agony that is so profound that it pierces the heart of the soul. From the dark dungeons of America, Ramsey has come to understand why Jesus himself felt totally abandoned on the cross. But through loneliness and suffering, he says, Christ became a pure man, a man of spiritual strength, to which I added that perhaps that is the reason why we can also see Jesus’ divinity in the strength of his humanity made pure through the holiness of suffering and sacrifice. But just as Jesus forgave those who abandoned him or did him wrong, Ramsey likewise forgives those who accused him of a crime he did not commit.

In the end, Jesus was given a death sentence just as Socrates was sentenced to die. Because he raised the standard of love and holiness in a world gone astray, Jesus was crucified, while Socrates faced death because of his devotion to truth in a world built on falsehood. The death penalty comes in difference forms. That’s why Muniz refers to his life imprisonment, which is a life sentence with no possibility of parole, as a death sentence.

After our theological conversation Ramsey touched on other matters. He said he’d been thinking of Cesar Chavez, the great civil rights leader whom Archbishop Mahoney of Los Angeles called the prophet of the poor. Ramsey said that Chavez once told him that La Raza was no longer afraid, that the people would no longer hold back and would speak without fear. He said that Chavez was convinced that the future would be ours.

This is why Ramsey Muniz says that we need to reach the young, for they appear to be clueless about our history and do not seem to know what is going on in the world. There is no excuse for this, he says, given the power of the Internet as a vehicle for communication within the masses. I mentioned to him that this is how the Zapatistas in Chiapas had gained world-wide support by mastering the new technological forms of communication. Mastery of this modern form of communication, he says, is going to be a major key in the role we play in the 21st century. He says that history is on our side, that the rising speed of the growing Raza population is overwhelming the centers of power which do not know how to handle us other than by passing futile immigration laws. Laws cannot stop the inevitable.

When Ramsey says that history is on our side I cannot help but think of the great prince Cuauhtemoc who rallied the Aztecs when the Sun seemed to be in an eclipse as they fought the European invaders. Though defeated temporarily, Cuauhtemoc prophesied that the people of the Sixth Sun would rise again.

Finally, before we ended the visit, my friend of 50 years asked that we pray, which we did. We had visited on Good Friday, the day of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But we both knew that history does not end with crucifixion and death. It does not end with a tear or with suffering, for there is always an Easter, always a day of freedom and joy.


Raul Garcia, a graduate of Baylor University, presently teaches at Lamar State University.

Grassroots Leadership Calls for Scrutiny of Pecos Prison


For International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10), please join us in condemning the human rights abuses against immigrants incarcerated in the Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, Texas. At least nine deaths in the last four years have been reported at Reeves and countless prisoners live daily with fear for their lives.

Reeves is run by the private prison company GEO Group for the Bureau of Prisons. Those held at Reeves are segregated based on their immigration status. Many, including several who have died, served 5 or 10 year sentences for immigration violations.

Were on lock down 21 hours a day. When you’re sick they don’t call you till a week or a month later. There’s people that put in request for surgery over six months ago and they still haven’t gotten it. – Reeves County Prisoner

Grassroots Leadership joins with prisoners’ families, the ACLU of Texas, Southwest Worker’s Union, and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to denounce the serious human rights abuses at the Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, Texas.

Please join us in the coming weeks in a series of actions to stop these abuses.

We urge the Obama Administration and the Department of Justice to end the contract with the controversial GEO Group, investigate the abuses at Reeves, and ensure humane conditions for all inmates.

Bob Libal and Luissana Santibañez
Grassroots Leadership

International Human Rights Day at GEO in New Braunfels
Thursday, December 10, 12pm-1pm
GEO Offices, 1583 Common Street, New Braunfels, TX
Austin carpool and RSVP: blibal@grassrootsleadership.org

Vigil at the Reeves County Detention Center
Saturday, December 12, 11a.m.
Reeves County Courthouse,
100 E. 4th Street, Pecos, TX
More info and RSVP: thayes@aclutx.org