It’s my turn to contribute to the Classic Americana Albums series again and I always worry that I won’t be able to find a good album to write about. This series has been running for a while and we’ve all written about some fantastic albums over the years – it’s hard to imagine there are any classics left unvisited. Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered that, not only has this great album not been featured before now but Joe Ely himself has never been covered in this series! How can that be, I ask myself? Definitely, time to put that glaring omission right.
I’ve long been a big fan of Joe Ely and wrote about him in the ‘AmericanA to Z’ series a few years back. To me, he’s one of the great Texan road warriors of americana, so my first inclination was to feature one of his live albums and I was teetering between 1990’s “Live at Liberty Lunch” and 2000’s “Live @ Antones”, both terrific live albums. It’s never a good idea to teeter. Teetering causes all sorts of problems because, once you teeter, space is created to start thinking about other things and, invariably, if Joe Ely is what you’re teetering on, those other things include all the great albums he’s made. Once you start down that route there’s really only one album you can end up with, especially when Ely has never featured in this series before. His second-ever album, released in 1978, “Honky Tonk Masquerade”.
What a superb album this is and it shows exactly why Ely is such a giant of the Texas scene. Dallas Morning News writer, Mario Tarradell, once noted that “There’s no mistaking a Joe Ely album. His stinging, road-hued voice commands lyrics about life, love and the wandering spirit. When you listen to his music, you’re enjoying the essence of Joe Ely. That’s the essence of Texas music.” I can’t sum it up any better than that. Ely’s music is all about his home state and that comes through loud and clear on this album. Many artists struggle with their second album because they’ve used all their good material on their debut recording, and Ely’s eponymously titled debut had been critically acclaimed and well-received by all, so many critics were braced for a dip in quality with this second album; Ely confounded all the critics and delivered a second album even stronger than the first and, when you listen to it, it’s not hard to see why it was so well received. It has Ely’s trademark musical muscularity, with his voice well to the fore and backed by a really solid band, honed from their long time on the road. It’s got that Texas sound he does so well, a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, a touch of Tejano flavouring and a lot of attitude. It’s got five Ely original songs, including the great title track and his infectious piano boogie, ‘Fingernails’, it’s got three top-drawer Butch Hancock tracks, and after Butch himself, nobody does his songs as well as Ely. There’s one song from his other Flatlanders bandmate, Jimmie Dale Gilmour, and an excellent cover of Hank Williams’ ‘Honky Tonkin”. Then, on top of all that, you’ve got the great Lloyd Maines on pedal steel and all over everything, plus Tex-Mex accordion wizard, Ponty Bone, who plays superbly throughout.
While I originally thought of featuring one of Ely’s live recordings in this article, “Honky Tonk Masquerade” reminds you why Ely and his band are so good live. They were touring solidly at the time they made this so came into the studio totally focused on their playing and many of the tracks on the album were recorded in a single take. You can hear how tight they are as a band on this recording. It’s simply one of the great country-rock recordings of the 70s and an album to die for.
In Rolling Stone magazine, Steve Pond made it number 40 on the list of their “50 Essential Albums of the 70s” and it’s also included in Robert Dimery’s excellent 2005 book, ‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’. Joe Ely has made 19 studio albums and has released a further 6 live recordings. Many of them are great records, but none of them is better than “Honky Tonk Masquerade”. A true ‘Classic Americana Album’.