As skilled as Joe Ely has been as a songwriter through the years, from the barroom air of his country roots records to the unassuming drive of his most ribald rock 'n' roll recordings, nothing quite beats the music that gathers the dirt of his West Texas heritage and tosses it into the prairie wind.
That happens time and time again on his splendid new Panhandle Rambler album. The album's 12 tunes (10 of which are originals) are neither as honky tonk in nature as the elemental country works he fashioned in the '70s or as broadly assertive as his rock outings from the'80s. Panhandle Rambler is instead the work of a Lone Star storyteller who, at age 68, approaches his music with a sage-like subtlety. Every crease, every hard won tale and every slice of unease is translated not in sounds as obvious as country or rock, but with stark folk narratives, a flourish of flamenco or strains of Tex Mex mischievousness. It makes for some Ely's most contemplative but deliciously unsettling music.
You hear it at once in the album opening Wounded Creek, a song that, lyrically, bears a construction similar to a traditional British Isles ballad. But instead of "walking one morning in May," as the Celts were prone to do, Ely goes "out one afternoon for a walk down Wounded Creek." From there, there is no mistaking where we have landed. Showers of flamenco guitar and strains of pedal steel guitar that seem to cry out from another county tell a story of misery and mystery so vivid that you practically feel the arid West Texas sun beating down and the red dust rising as doors slam and cars tear off in the distance.
That's not to say Panhandle Rambler is all darkness and regret. Early in the Morning is a rise-and-shine parable with a lazy bones attitude. The relaxed accordion strains of Joel Guzman adds a cantina air to the wry detail of Ely's vocals and, especially, the carefree feel of his lyrics. "I take a bus downtown, early in the morning," Ely sings with wily reverence. "Then I just walk around."
Ely covers a pair of tunes by two major contemporaries (and pals) — Guy Clark and Butch Hancock. But as a West Texas song stylist, he is without peer for eying the human detail buried within the bustle of slow yet unsettled Lubbock area life. His tales present Texas-style mood swings — from the busted giddiness of Four Ol' Brokes to the perilous Cold Black Hammer to the country affirmation of Here's to the Weary (one of the few instances on the album where the Texas winds blow in with a sense of honest cheer). But all are served with unassuming honesty by a champion rambler who is never at a loss when comes to spinning a golden Lone Star yarn.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic