Album Review: Joe Ely & Joel Guzman – Live Cactus!
Interstate 10 spans from coast to coast, but perhaps the most lonesome stretch belongs to West Texas. Aside from occasional wildlife sightings and a windmill farm it’s a desolate view–not what one would refer to as a scenic route, but it’s the fastest means of travel from one destination to the next.
One could even be forgiven if he mistook it for a monotonous landscape.
“It’s a very romantic place,” Joe Ely says fondly between songs on his latest album, “if you’ve just gotten out of the pen.”
But he says any time he starts a new record he likes to drive those lonesome roads because nothing gets in the way.
If you allowed yourself to wander from the fast pace of the interstate and explore the back roads you might find yourself rubbing elbows with strangers on the outskirts of Marfa watching mysterious dancing lights replace the setting sun. Or you might end up in Lajitas guzzling an American-made brew with Clay Henry III, the mayor, who happens to be a goat. He prefers longnecks.
If you mingle with the locals long enough you’ll surely hear tales of haunted treasures buried by ancient settlers, and a person who has spent ample amounts of time in the rugged terrain might be able to explain why the trees bend at the border.
But you could defer to Joe Ely, “The trees bend because of the wind / Across that lonesome border / The trees bend because of the wind / Almost all the time.” Romantic indeed.
The point is (because there has to be a point) a person would never witness any of these idiosyncrasies without taking a detour from the well-traveled interstate. That would be a sad thing. It’d also be saddening to pass up something as sublime as Joe Ely’s Live Cactus! album solely because it’s off the highway of what mainstream considers country music. It’s like one of those uniquely obscure landmarks that are found when least expected–like peering over the edge of the Window, the point where all the drainage pours from the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park and one of, if not the most, beautiful views in Texas.
And, it’s like fishing the enormous stock tank in Balmorhea, not catching a damn thing, and realizing that you’ve been shirtless for the past three hours without sunscreen and the thermometer in your car reads 121 degrees Fahrenheit … okay, so maybe that’s not the best analogy, but West Texas isn’t for everyone.
Ely’s songs may not be either, but they are as authentic as the land he calls home.
His weathered voice blends naturally with the backing of his acoustic guitar and the transcendent accordion work of Joel Guzman. He delivers a couple of rich story songs (listen to “Miss Bonnie and Mr. Clyde” for a unique take on the story of the notorious outlaws) interspersed with romantic songs of love, longing (“All Just To Get To You”) and goodbyes. “All That You Need” paints the harrowing picture of a family that had to sell their farm and move into town after the father was injured, Ely sings, “Mama got a job in the cotton gin / Grading cotton by the bale / She cried when a trailer full of cotton come in / From the farm we had to sell.” All of that is beveled for effect with a guest appearance from Ryan Bingham on the Townes Van Zandt penned “White Freightliner Blues.”
The next time your perusing the record store for the latest Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban offering, slow down and take a detour, pick up Joe Ely & Joel Guzman’s Live Cactus!. You might enjoy the scenery.
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