The panhandle of the title is the Texan one, not the Floridian, and the album comprises a something of a tour of the writers and the styles that we associate with the singer/songwriter culture of Texas. All but two of the songs are written by Ely, though they reference many others, including Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, and Guy Clark. There are two covers, a nice take on Clark’s “Magdalene” and Butch Hancock’s “When the Nights Are Cold.” Ely doesn’t bring anything particularly new to either, and both serve as reminders of how great the originals were. Which, perhaps, is partially the intent.
Ely has spent the bulk of his career straddling the folk/country/rock divides, such as they are. In 1972 he founded The Flatlanders with Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, though the band was short lived. Their “Dallas” was meant to be a hit, though it wasn’t. (It’s puzzling that it didn’t catch on a bit more, actually.) Some sessions from 1972 weren’t released until 1991, and then bearing a title that is as good a précis of the band’s career you could ever hope to find: “More a Legend than a Band.”
Commercial success is fickle, of course, and whatever opportunities the Flatlanders were unable to make something of, on breaking up the members went on to find success as solo acts. Given the focus of their individual careers—Hancock tends to gravitate to folk music, and Gilmore to country—it’s easy to wonder if the Flatlanders suffered a crisis of identity more than anything else, with each member pulling in different directions.
Certainly, a more complex place than we might be prone to give it credit for. Ely has said that he was surprised at how many minor keys he used here on the songs that he wrote for the album. It’s darker than we expect out of Texas, perhaps, and light years away from smiles and winks of Bob Wills. This album isn’t folk, or rock, or country, but a conflation of them all. But it’s the songwriting that, rightly, pulls the focus.