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 McClin- ton, 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 driv- ing for hours down those country roads is still the best place for me finish my songs.”
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. “Won- derin’ Where,” perhaps Panhandle Rambler‘s most beautiful melody, pays tribute those trembling towers, the railroads which carried other things equally uni- maginable 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 great musical 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 al- ways win, but, as in “Magdalene” and “Coyotes are Howlin,'” it’s the one thing that carries a sense not so much of per- manence 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 terri- tory is covered by “Four Ol’ Brokes,” which combines a hobo yarn with the bal- lad 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 re- spect, 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 musi- cians. Panhandle Rambler, largely re- corded 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 Fu- kunaga. There were also Nashville ses- sions, with Music City’s usual superb playing, led by guitarist Gary Nicholson. Joe wrote all but two of the songs: “Mag- dalene” by Guy Clark and Ray Stephen- son, 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.