As The Clash sang on 1980’s ‘If Music Could Talk’, “Well there ain’t no better blend than Joe Ely and his Texas Men.” Joe Ely has been making great music for the last 40 plus years and is a household name in his native Texas – and tragically underrated elsewhere.
Born in Lubbock, Texas – famous as the birthplace of one Buddy Holly – Ely first emerged on the local music scene in 1970; with fellow Lubbock musicians Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, he formed The Flatlanders. According to Ely, “Jimmie [Gilmore] was like a well of country music. He knew everything about it. And Butch was from the folk world. I was kinda the rock & roll guy, and we almost had a triad. We hit it off and started playing a lot together”. The Flatlanders were a great band who were way ahead of their time – that particular blend of folk, country and rock, heavily influenced by their Texan environment, struggled to make much headway at the time, though later re-appraisal would see the band hailed as an early Americana supergroup. By 1973 The Flatlanders had pretty much disbanded as the three members started to find success as solo acts.
Ely’s first solo album came out in 1977 and he bought much of the period’s punk attitude to his music. He met, and became friends with, The Clash, particularly Joe Strummer – Ely is one of the backing vocalists on ‘Should I Stay or Should I go’ – and they shared a similar ethos in their approach to their music. Apparently Ely and Strummer always intended to record together but could never make the timing work, though Strummer’s later work with the Mescaleros suggests a lot of common ground. Ely’s solo recordings are a fascinating mix of country, rock and roll, tex mex, honky tonk – a real mish mash of Americana style always delivered with swagger and panache.
In 2018 Joe Ely released ‘The Lubbock Tapes: Full Circle’ and this is a record that really shows how Ely developed his sound early in his career. The Lubbock tapes, rediscovered by Lloyd Maines, an original member of the Joe Ely Band (and an outstanding multi-instrumentalist in his own right), cover two recording periods, the first from the demise of The Flatlanders up to the recording of Ely’s first solo record and the second from 1978 when Ely and his band were recording demos for the third album ‘Down on the Drag’ – you can clearly hear the sound of the band go from a competent, honky tonk country based outfit to a really hard edged, rock based sound. This is the significant thing about Joe Ely and why he’s such an individual artist. His sound fits well with the progressive country sound we often associate with Texas, especially some of the bands coming out of Austin, but Ely has long been that bit farther out on both the country and rock extremes.
Joe Ely’s great strength lies in his ability as a live performer. His talent has been honed by years on the road, and by surrounding himself with great musicians, and he still plays regularly throughout Texas, occasionally venturing further afield in the U.S and (sadly) even more occasionally touring overseas. From the early days of his career he’s been an excellent songwriter but he’s also a very good interpreter of other writers’ songs. His recording of Robert Earle Keen’s ‘The Road Goes On Forever’ on his ‘Love and Danger’ album really helped to bring Keen to the attention of a much wider audience and is credited with being one of the big kick-starters of Keen’s own career in music. He’s also worked extensively with other Texan musicians such as Lyle Lovett, James McMurtry and guitar virtuoso Dave Grissom, who has often featured in Ely’s bands over the years.
Joe Ely is one of the true greats of Americana and if you haven’t listened to much of his music you should take steps to correct a serious oversight. At 72 he’s still going strong. An outstanding Texan Troubadour.
The Canon. Eighteen studio albums, 5 live albums and 12 compilations, along with various singles and EPs. Joe Ely has produced a lot of music and it’s all good. Then, of course, there’s the albums he’s recorded with The Flatlanders – another seven in total, though some of these are compilations. Ely’s real strength is in his live performances, as shown by the release of a live album pretty much every ten years of his career.
Key Release. ‘Honky Tonk Masquerade’ was Ely’s second album, released in 1978 it has always been particularly well regarded by critics, making Rolling Stone’s ’50 Essential Albums of the 70s’ list (at number 40) and being included in the 2005 book, ‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’. It boasts five of Ely’s own compositions, including “Fingernails”, which has become a bit of an Ely anthem. There’s also four songs from his fellow Flatlanders (three from Butch Hancock and one from Jimmie Dale Gilmore) along with a great cover of Hank Williams ‘Honky Tonkin’. If you’re new to Ely’s work it’s a good intro to his particular blend of country and rock.
Other strong contenders would be his 1992 release ‘Love and Danger’, which features the great Dave Grissom on guitar and the recently released ‘Lubbock Tapes’, a collection of demos from his early years tracking the development of the Ely sound.