Artist: Joe Ely
Album: Panhandle Rambler
Label: New West
Release Date: 09/18/2015
Country music from the West Texas plains kicks up whorls of dust and settles souls in familiar, beautifully multicultural ways. Spanish guitars share space with beat up acoustics. An accordion is likely to accent the wind. Songs with deep meaning are sung from deep within. And at the head of this sweeping, infatuating style of music stands Joe Ely, as strong as ever, 43 years after recording his first song with Flatlanders mates Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. Ely actually inspired punks in England in the early 1980’s with his then-ferocious rocking and rolling. But he’s always best when he’s playing the defining sounds of his home in the vast upper square. Panhandle Rambler will thrill Ely’s faithful, and damn, it ought to gain him plenty of new converts. Delivered by Ely and a large roster of longtime, respected collaborators such as guitarists Lloyd Maines and Robbie Gjersoe, there’s a purposefulness to the album as a whole—telling the story of being there. Most songs are brand-new Ely originals, save Guy Clark’s fragile, utterly gorgeous “Magdalene,” and Butch Hancock’s “When the Nights are Cold,” equally elegant but with an unyielding sense of strength in love. Flamenco guitarist Teye Wijnterp colors the opening “Wounded Creek,” a dramatic Western mystery brought to life in Ely’s incredibly youthfully-nuanced tenor. “Southern Eyes” gears up and sprints gleefully, while “Four Ol’ Brokes” paints a vivid picture of not blokes, but men broken and being taken for a ride in a boxcar—justifiably it seems. This is West Texas allegory at its best. You can hear the tears and the terrain in a Joe Ely song. He put a lot of care into this album, a triumph from performance to production.
– Tom Clarke
Review Take Two:
When I pulled into Lubbock, TX 25 years ago, there were still hitching posts for horses in front of the store fronts. I also recall seeing the many huge radio towers that dominated the totally flat, uninteresting landscape that Ely references in “Wonderin’ Where,” one of the many excellent tracks on this, perhaps his best, studio album since 1995’s Letter to Laredo. That album, my first listen to a studio Ely effort, had me soon exploring his vast catalog. It still amazes me that such beautiful music can emanate from this place.
Joe has had many personas over the years as a country outlaw, rock n’ roller and Americana stalwart. This recording focuses on his songwriting and has many of the same elements of that same disc that impressed me twenty years ago. It has the aura of the dusty, barren landscape and the West Texas textured acoustic sound colored by accordion, flamenco guitar and acoustic slide. Many of the same players are aboard including Teye, Lloyd Maines, Davis McLarty and Glenn Fukunaga. They are joined by many other long-time Ely sidemen like Joel Guzman on accordion/keyboards, with Robbie Gjersoe and Jeff Plankenhorn on various guitars.
It’s fitting that this album comes out as Ely is about to be inducted into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame. Ten of the dozen are Ely penned with only “Magdalene” (Guy Clark/Gary Stephenson) and “When the Nights Are Cold” (Butch Hancock) as covers from two other notable Texas songwriters. Given that it’s been four years since Ely’s last studio album, you can definitely sense the care and thought that went into these tunes. As Joe often does, he leaves Austin and heads to Lubbock. As he says, “Somehow, just driving for hours down those country roads is still the best place for me to finish my songs.” They are a mix of personal and story songs, bearing the imprint of the windy, arid land and its stubborn, determined, creative people. Among several likely to be enduring songs are “Here’s to the Weary,” which pays tribute to Woody, Bob Wills, Muddy and several early rock ‘n’ roll originators. “Wonderin’ Where” best captures the feel of Lubbock, “Wounded Creek” is a good yarn and “You Saved Me” is a loving tribute to Joe’s wife, Sharon. Emotions run deep throughout and this album will ultimately stand as one of Ely’s best.