If one of Joe Ely's heroes, Buddy Holly, hadn't already put Lubbock on the musical map, Ely would have done it himself a long time ago. A songwriter who easily twirls the imagery of a McMurtry or McCarthy novel around crisp honky-tonk shuffles, heartfelt ballads and hard-charging rockers alike, as a bandleader Ely is equally known for his dig-all-night live performances that would test even the endurance limits of his friend Bruce Springsteen. But as he ages, his gift for vivid language continues to move even more into the foreground.
Currently he's a little more than two months into his tenure as Texas's official State Musician, a largely ceremonial post that is nevertheless a fitting reflection of Ely's considerable accomplishments. Last month he was also inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame, a prospect that seemed to strike him as amusing more than anything else.
“I never thought about songwriting as a contest,” Ely, who turned 65 last month, muses recently from his home in Austin. “It's always been a way of life to me.”
Lately Ely has been reaping even more acclaim for last fall's Panhandle Rambler, his first studio album since 2011's Satisfied at Last. Its 12 songs reflect on the windswept plains where he grew up, in equally sparse language that veers from tender to tragic. It's not quite the record Ely envisioned when he started, he admits. But when he felt it starting to tilt away from what he originally had in mind, he explains, some advice from his friend and longtime Flatlanders bandmate Butch Hancock helped set him straight.
“He said, 'Yeah, when you start a song and you really start to like it, the easiest thing to do is to overwork it. Just get out of the way of it and let it make its own course,'” Ely says. “I found that basically that's what I did on this record – just get out of the way of it and let it tell its own story, and me just write the lyrics. I think that kind of helped me create the feel of it: a little bit empty and wide-open, a little bit dangerous. And then interspersed with some lighter moments.”
Ely's definition of “Panhandle” is a little more spacious than most people's understanding of the term; his stretches all the way to Big Bend country. A territory that vast is more than roomy enough to fit Ely's rogue's gallery of characters, both human and mechanical. The oil wells that dot the landscape are reflected in “Coal Black Hammer.” "Coyotes Are Howlin'" recounts the high-stakes, perilous world of clandestine border crossings. His grandfather was a railroad man and one of his boyhood homes in Amarillo backed up onto some railroad tracks; the hobos who used to come to the Elys' back door looking for odd jobs or a stray meal pass through again on “Four Old Brokes.” Songs from two other Panhandle native sons, Hancock's “When the Nights Are Cold” and Guy Clark's “Magdalene,” reflect two of the album's more intimate moments. ("They just seemed to have a place with that kind of space," Ely says.) And “Wonderin' Where” salutes the massive radio towers that dominated the landscape where the horizon was often the only other thing to look at.
“I remember somebody telling me that's where the radio came from, and I just thought, 'Wow! What a weird concept,'” says Ely, who recalls listening to Wolfman Jack spin Howlin' Wolf and Lightnin' Hopkins on XERF, one of the famous 100,000-watt “border radio” stations with broadcast towers located just across the Mexican border to escape FCC regulations. But there were plenty dotting the countryside around Lubbock, too.
"Of course you couldn't drive in any direction without seeing some radio tower somewhere,” Ely adds. “The radio was kind of a powerful influence for me.”
Musically, Panhandle Rambler is one of Ely's more muted and downtempo albums until the very end, when the steely electric sound of his Joe Ely Band years resurfaces on “You Saved Me.” But relatively perky songs like “Southern Eyes” and “Here's to the Weary” notwithstanding, the album is otherwise dominated by the lonesome, wistful Latin sounds of acoustic guitar and accordion. Ely's dad ran a used-clothing store in downtown Lubbock, and every weekend the migrant workers who had come up from Mexico to work in the cotton fields that stretched for miles and miles around the city – as many as 100,000, Ely says – would bring their musical instruments into town and play all throughout the afternoon.
“That music has always stuck with me, and just about every record I've done has something in that kind of flavor in it,” Ely says. “This record especially did, because of the stories of, you know, the various things that are happening with the cartels and people disappearing. That kind of came straight out of Mexico. I don't know; I just like the texture that an accordion gives to a song from that windy space out there.”
Like a few other parts of Texas, the Panhandle can appear stark and unforgiving to outsiders; it can often seem that way to natives, too. But for Ely and others who grew up there, it also offers the kind of comfort and peace of mind that can be hard to come by anywhere else.
“I find myself going up there every time I start a new record,” Ely says. “I go up there and just drive around those old two-lane farm-to-market roads, and there's just something magical about it to me.”
To illustrate his point, Ely mentions something that happened about ten years ago. His band was booked to play Lubbock's annual Buddy Holly festival, an event that draws tourists from all over the world, and he looked on as a TV reporter was interviewing various people backstage.
“I was just standing there kind of observing, and she was talking to a guy from Germany, who had come all the way from Germany just for the Buddy Holly Festival,” he recalls. “She was asking him a bunch of questions about where he came from and how he found Buddy Holly. And then she said, 'What is your impression of Lubbock?' He kind of looked around, and, dead seriously, he kind of looked at the camera and said, 'It's an incredible waste of space.'
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“He just meant that in Germany everything is built up, but in Lubbock everything is one story tall,” he says. “There's no two-story [anything]. There was just so much space out there that he saw it as an incredible waste of space. For me, growing up there, I always loved that space. I always loved the emptiness of it and the fact that you could see the horizon.
“I'd get into some big city somewhere and feel claustrophobic,” he adds. “And here's this guy interpreting Lubbock, and I just thought that was really hilarious.”