If you catch Joe Ely on tour this fall playing songs from his new album Panhandle Rambler (released on Rack 'Em Records), don't be surprised if the show is a lot more subdued than the last time you saw the Texas singer-songwriter. Don't misunderstand: it's a terrific record that's right up there among the best works of Ely's career. But aside from the loopy barroom delirium of "Southern Eyes," the other 11 songs on Panhandle Rambler are as quiet, literate and noirish as any that Ely has ever recorded.
"It's not a dance record by any stretch of the imagination," Ely tells Rolling Stone Country with a laugh. "It did surprise me, when I started seeing connections between all these songs together, just how many were in minor keys — I usually don't have that many. But I'd gone through a couple of rough years, so it reflected a little more introspection than some of the others I've put out. There's nothing wrong with a minor key if it's what works with the song."
Personal travails aside, the 68-year-old Ely is in the midst of an impressive stretch of career milestones, including the 2014 publication of his first novel, Reverb: An Odyssey, a semi-autobiographical rumination with a cast of characters living in a "normal state of static chaos." Recent accolades for Ely include induction into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame as well as the Texas legislature declaring him the official Texas State Musician for 2016 (an honor that has previously gone to Lone Star State artists like Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson.)
Ely being Ely, he told one state senator that he was going to put his newfound political clout right to work "to have every speed bump in the state removed."
Panhandle Rambler is a very fine reminder as to why such honors are deserved. Punctuated throughout by Joel Guzman's rippling border accordion, the album deftly evokes the dark and wide-open ambience of the high Texas plains that remain Ely's spiritual home even though he moved south to Austin long ago. But for all the specificity of the sound, most of the lyrics are open-ended. Lead-off track "Wounded Creek" sets a mysterious tone, sketching out the details of a crime scene without ever revealing what happened.
"The sequence of songs was important to me because I wanted them to fit together but not tell the whole story," Ely says. "I wanted to leave most of it to the listener's imagination. For me, a big part of songwriting is what you leave out, which is sort of the reverse of writing a book where you're always expounding on things. Guy Clark is a master of not telling the whole thing, but just enough."
Not coincidentally, the second song on Panhandle Rambler is a cover of fellow Texan Clark's 2006 ballad "Magdalene." Ely also covers his Flatlanders bandmate Butch Hancock's "When the Nights Are Cold," but Ely's own compositions — populated by a cast of border country miscreants, hobos and ne'er-do-wells — make up the album's heart. The most direct song is an openly autobiographical pledge of love to Ely's wife Sharon, the closing track "You Saved Me." Ely wrote it while stuck in a blizzard after a gig.
"That was three days, but it was productive because there was nothing else to do but write," Ely says. "So I wrote that song and finished another. You never know how things are gonna happen on a record, which is part of being on the road. You never know where you'll be next."
Perhaps emboldened by his new government-sanctioned bonafides, Ely has also been making the occasional onstage political statement in song. He recently resurrected "Borderless Love" for his live set, a song that first appeared on a Flatlanders album six years ago but sounds as if it could have been written in response to Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
"All this crazy stuff Trump is talking about, like deporting 11 million people, that's insane," Ely says. "Somebody once said that most places have lines but Texas has borders. A third-world country is right next to the richest country in the world, which has made the border even more interesting to write about. But it's also a very dangerous situation. So we've been doing 'Borderless Love' again. 'A wall is a mirror that can only reveal/One side of a story that passes for real' — that's a mouthful, but it feels like it fits things better now than when we wrote it."