Joe Ely’s Panhandle Rambler spotlights a sharp narrative songwriter in peak form (“Wounded Creek,” “Southern Eyes”). Better still: The Lubbock, Texas, native backs his buoyant originals with an inspired cover (Guy Clark’s “Magdalene”). CMT recently spoke with Ely about the excellent new collection.
“Like most records, you feel your way around,” Ely says. “I wove in and out of different songs. I’d get something recorded and then I’d see a different way that the record would go and I’d change a few songs. I don’t know how to explain it. That would make it a lot easier.”
CMT: How exactly did you change the songs?
Joe Ely: I changed which songs I’d put on it and which I’d leave off. I look at each record like it has a story that makes sense to me. I’m not sure if it makes sense to anyone else, but it has a beginning and an end and also I like for a record to feel like it has a place physically. This record ended up in my old stomping ground in the panhandle of Texas and the big old Western desert out there.
Explain how the title represents that.
Well, the top of Texas is called the panhandle and I define it as a broad area from the square top of Texas that touches Oklahoma and on down through El Paso and Marfa. The panhandle is actually the top square, but I extend it in some of these songs into the desert.
Tell the story behind writing “Wounded Creek.”
Yeah, I’m not sure exactly where that takes place, but I just tried to catch the sense that there’s something going on, something wrong. I think of it as somewhere like the Palo Duro Canyon. There’s something going on but you don’t really know what it is. I didn’t want to tell the whole story. I tried to hint at it so whoever listens to it can paint their own story. I gave it a place and a couple characters and a lost dog and the rest of the song can unwind in people’s heads.
Explain how these songs represent your evolution as a songwriter and narrative storyteller.
I’ve gone through many different phases of songwriting back to when I started playing in a band in Lubbock as a teenager. This part of my life, I like to tell stories but not make them have a beginning and an ending. I don’t know why that is. Also, I like to paint the landscape.
Like “Cold Black Hammer.”
Yeah, in “Cold Black Hammer” I tried to do a painting of those oil pumps working day and night. There’s so much new drilling and fracking, so I made it like a twisted love song between the oil well and the environment (laughs).
Explain how Guy’s “Magdalene” fit in with your theme.
Well, you know, over the last 10 or 20 years, Guy and Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt and me have gone out and done at least a couple hundred cities and told stories and played songs back and forth. Guy has a great knack of telling a story with the least amount of words. I generally come from the Lubbock school with Butch Hancock, who adds as many words as he possibly can make work. I had never recorded one of Guy’s songs and I thought it was time. “Magdalene” fit exactly into place. I had to put it in there.
Guy always says great songwriting is about the holes you leave in the story.
Yeah. I think it really depends on the song, but I have found myself becoming more minimal the older I get. I like leave it to where you don’t tell everything that happens. Space has a lot to do with it. I came to the realization several years back that growing up in the dusty plains in Lubbock, I’ve always tried to fill in the empty stuff. A song can help fill it in but still let the wind blow. That’s an abstract thing, but you have to be there to feel that. There’s a lot of horizon out there.
Does the actual writing process get easier or more difficult over time?
That’s hard to say. I don’t think it’s easier or more difficult. It depends on the song and when a song is done. Sometimes a song is not done until the perfect instrument paints the mood. On this record, it was a lot of Joel (Guzman)’s accordion and different slide players like Lloyd (Maines). It’s when the music and the chord progression and the song meet and agree where they are. I just have to let that happen and stand out of the way, really. I let the song tell me where to go. Some songs take a few days and some take several years.
How did “Southern Eyes” come to you?
That’s really just a road song. I started that many years ago and just finished it this year. It’s the one song on the record that’s a Saturday night, let your hair down and watch out (song.) There’s danger around, but it’s good fun while it’s lasting. It didn’t have any philosophical thing to it. It was just a song that I could let gallop.