Panhandle Rambler is Joe Ely back home, returned to the always dusty, perpetually
windy, generally arid, frequently smoldering, and seemingly barren landscape around
Lubbock where he grew up and first began playing music. A place that has hosted
generations of dry land farmers and wildcatters. It’s where Joe found his calling as a
writer and performer. First located that unmistakable voice. Learned to carry himself
upright and open, to move with determination.
In the rock’n’roll era, the vast spaces of west Texas have been filled with great music.
Joe Ely stands in a tradition born out on these gritty plains. It includes Roy Orbison,
Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Tanya Tucker, Guy Clark, Delbert McClinton,
Don Walser, Terry Allen, Lloyd Maines, his daughter Natalie Maines, and Joe’s enduring
musical partners, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
It is a land where you can see for miles and miles and miles. Only those who don’t know
it find it barren. For it’s full of stories if you know where to seek them. And it has
customs and amusements all its own. Even the forever dipping oil wells have their role.
“In high school, we used to get somebody to buy us a six pack and go out there to the
fields and ride the front part of those oil pumps all night long,” Joe remembers.
Now, Ely lives in Austin and spends much of his life on the road. But when
he’s accumulated enough song ideas, Lubbock is where Joe heads. “Somehow, just
driving for hours down those country roads is still the best place for me finish my
Panhandle Rambler is one of the most personal albums Joe Ely’s ever made. It brings
forth this terrain, the spirited people it produces and that special sense of destiny, be it
terrible or glorious, that its very vastness creates. “Wounded Creek” starts the album
with what you might call a Western fantasy, except that the “bushes and the brambles,”
the traffic light, the stray dog and the cold wind are all completely brought to life.
“Sometimes, when I was a kid, you’d look outside and the only things you’d see would
be these huge radio towers, must have been fifty of a hundred feet tall, just swaying
in the wind,” Joe said. “Wonderin’ Where,” perhaps Panhandle Rambler’s most beautiful
melody, pays tribute to those trembling towers, the railroads which carried other things
equally unimaginable distances, the “cross between a river and a stream” where he
played, and the dreams and nightmares that flitted across that kid’s mind and heart,
and the loneliness of bearing such secrets. If it is possible to write a love song for a
place, this is one of the great ones, “trying to find a verse that’s never been sung
to hearts that need relief.”
“Here’s to the Weary” is the story of all the greatmusical refugees, from
Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills and Muddy Waters to the rockabillies—Buddy Holly,
Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, the shadows of the others—who soothed our
“weary and restless souls” with nighttime musical magic.
It’s also typical of all the songs on the album. The place doesn’t necessarily always win,
but, as in “Magdalene” and “Coyotes are Howlin’,” it’s the one thing that carries a sense
not so much of permanence as of inevitably. The two sides are fully summarized in the
almost giddy “Southern Eyes” and the fatalistic “Early in the Mornin’.”
Of course, every Lubbocker album needs its legendary tales. Here that territory is
covered by “Four Ol’ Brokes,” which combines a hobo yarn with the ballad of
a gambling scam, and “Burden of Your Load,” in which true love triumphs over evil, if
just barely, we hope.
Equally legendary, but true in every respect, is the closing song, “You Saved Me,” which
is a love song to Joe’s wife, Sharon. The lyric never mentions her name, but no one
who’s known Joe Ely longer than about a day could mistake her.
Legendary tales and legendary musicians. Panhandle Rambler, largely recorded in
Austin, features some of the most respected local musicians: drummer Davis McClarty,
guitarists Lloyd Maines and Robbie Gjersoe, Jeff Plankenhorm, and Gary Nicholson,
bassist Glen Fukunaga. There were also Nashville sessions, with Music City’s usual
superb playing, led by guitarist Gary Nicholson. Joe wrote all but two of the songs:
“Magdalene” by Guy Clark and Ray Stephenson, and “When the Nights are Cold” by his
original Flatlanders sidekick Butch Hancock.
This is a classic Joe Ely album. It has moved me, every time I’ve heard it, with a
certain kind of awe. One reason is that, long before you hear “You Saved Me,” he put
everything he has into telling the world about a place in the world, and through
that, reaching his own emotional center. It’s beautiful and it’s inspiring.
— Dave Marsh
July 25, 2015