The word “rambler” usually evokes an itinerant musician from this part of the world, who plays something like bluegrass – from Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers in the 1920s to the present-day Red Clay Ramblers. But in Texas troubadour Joe Ely’s hands, the word takes on a different geographic bearing on his fine new album “Panhandle Rambler” (Rack ’Em Records).
“Whenever I start a new record, the beginning point always seems to be the dusty old West Texas plains,” Ely says by phone from a tour stop in Phoenix. “That was especially true of ‘Panhandle Rambler.’ A lot of characters on the record ended up being the sort of people I’d come into contact with up there over the years – hobos and smugglers and all kinds of characters – and calling them ‘ramblers’ gives a little glimpse into what they’re like.”
Ely will perform at the Southland Ballroom in Raleigh on Wednesday.
With Teye Wijnterp’s flamenco guitar and Joel Guzman’s accordion adding Latino flavorings to roadhouse songs, the overall mood, sound and themes of “Panhandle Rambler” echoes works by Los Lobos and Ry Cooder, evoking the working-class struggles of trying to survive on a frontier where the borders are often shifting. Aside from the jumpy “Southern Eyes,” it’s uncharacteristically quiet and minor-key for Ely.
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Multiple songs crackle with danger, too, including the opening crime-noir sketch “Wounded Creek” and the smugglers ode “Coyotes Are Howlin’.” In that, California wound up being as much of an influence on this album as Texas.
“Every time I go to California, I think of the Dust Bowl refugees who left the Texas Panhandle behind,” Ely says. “Half my family went to California and the other half toughed it out on the plains. And after the housing bubble broke this last time, a lot of their children who’d been born in California came back from the West Coast looking for work. It was a reverse migration.”
Ely being the workaholic that he is, “Panhandle Rambler” is just one iron he’s got in the fire at the moment. He also has his first novel out, “Reverb: An Odyssey,” and earlier this year released “Where Is My Love?,” a duet with Linda Ronstadt that had been recorded but shelved sometime in the mid-1980s – a valuable artifact, given that Ronstadt now has Parkinson’s and can no longer sing.
“Lately it seems like I’ve been finding more and more things I’ve left behind as I go through life,” Ely says. “When you’re always on the move, you leave a lot of things behind.”
That applies to “Panhandle Rambler,” which as usual yielded up a lot more songs than Ely had room for on the track list. That means his next record is already in progress, sort of.
“I’m just always working,” Ely says. “When I’m working on a record, it always kind of generates other songs that might not quite fit, but they do somewhere. Most of my work now is trying to untangle everything to find out where it all fits. ‘Panhandle Rambler’ turned out a lot more linear than most of my records, and it generated other songs that could be a sequel.”
Who: Joe Ely
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Southland Ballroom, 614 N. West St., Raleigh
Info: 919-821-0023 or southlandballroom.com