Midway through his new album Satisfied at Last, Texas troubadour Joe Ely surveys his seemingly fleeting mortality from a number of angles.
There are songs of travel, departure and return, all sung with the kind of worn country confidence that only a road-tested scribe like Ely can summon.
That can make for some life lessons that are as wily as they are worldly. Take his grand exodus song, You Can Bet I'm Gone, on which Ely sets the stage against a rugged country rhythm for his own personal judgment day. In short, he asks that his ashes be stuffed down the double barrels of a shotgun and skyrocketed into the Lone Star sky.
"Get all of my friends, some windy day," sings Ely in his arid West Texas tenor, "to say goodbye, watch me blow away."
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In perhaps less demonstrative terms, Ely asserts he has no baggage to carry when the time comes to "cross that river to the other side" in Satisfied at Last's title tune. With a regal dose of Western guitar twang behind him (courtesy of band alumnus David Grissom and The Flatlanders' Rob Gjersoe), Ely sings fondly of his farewell: "You can bet when I'm leaving, I'll be satisfied at last."
There is even a postscript already prepared to send from the hereafter in the lovely cover of Live Forever, the signature tune of another mighty Texas music champion, Billy Joe Shaver. Ely's version is almost meditative, with an acoustic shuffle propelled by churchy organ and Tex-Mex accordion from Joel Guzman.
Musically, Satisfied at Last finds an affirmative middle ground between acoustic contentment and the electric dynamics that define Ely's great recordings from the '70s and '80s. The arrangements here are colored by fine contributions from numerous old friends, including steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, flamenco guitarist Teye, bassist Glenn Fukanaga and drummer Davis McLarty.
There is a curious absence, though, of a dominant guitar foil to co-pilot these songs. But that hardly proves to be a liability. Ely instead rotates the roster as to what musical voice sits in the passenger's seat. Gusman's keyboard atmospherics set the stage for the restless album-opener, The Highway Is My Home, and Maines' pedal steel howls like a distant but elegant prairie wind on Not That Much Has Changed.
Ely leaves the last word of fleeing his mortal coil on Satisfied at Last to fellow Flatlander Butch Hancock by covering his contemplative self-epitaph, Circumstance. Here the welcoming light of the hereafter beckons ("something shining over yonder hill") and Ely, only briefly, hesitates. "I know not to chase it. But I know I will.