Panhandle Rambler, the 14th studio album by veteran alt-country troubadour Joe Ely, is a thoughtful 12-song meditation on life in the Texas Panhandle. More dusty and windblown than anything he’s done in years, he creates a world of wide-open vistas, bleak desert fringes, and the folks who call that square plot of Northern Texas and the Southern Oklahoma plains their own. A native of Lubbock, Ely has always had a heart full of the Lonestar State, and the eerie Southwestern flavor he presents here, while familiar to fans of his music, feels particularly robust and concentrated on this set of tunes. Rather than create a strict narrative, he describes the region in evocative sketches on songs like the lonesome “Wounded Creek” and “Coyotes Are Howlin’,” each rippling with nimble Spanish guitars and fluttering accordions. The production is effectively sparse, even on more uptempo tracks like the strident barn burner “Southern Eyes” and the warm honky tonk of “Here’s to the Weary,” a name-dropping paean to the hard-living traveling musician. Ely is at his best, though, on the moodier, more introspective tunes like “Cold Black Hammer,” a haunting ballad of Texas’s ever-present oil rigs, and especially on his cover of fellow Texan (and close friend) Guy Clark‘s “Magdalene,” which provides the most poignant vehicle for his gentle timeworn tenor. As a thematic mood piece, Panhandle Rambler hits its mark squarely, and the songs themselves are of the consistent high quality listeners have come to expect from Ely who, for reasons unknown, still seems to be one of Texas’ more underappreciated exports.
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