Classic Americana Albums: Joe Ely “Honky Tonk Masquerade”

MCA, 1978

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’.


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About Rick Bayles 272 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!

4 Comments

  1. When Joe Ely came to Nashville to record with producer Chip Young he made clear he wanted to use his own band. ‘Studio pickers are out’, he told the folks from MCA. Not so common in Nashville. As a matter of fact, Ely didn’t like it at all over there he said in an interview in Dutch magazine Muziekkrant OOR in 1978. He complained that musicians in Music City USA were working jobs from 9 to 5 and that there was hardly any live music in town. Things have changed for the better since then, but it’s still not like Austin, Texas, live music capital of the world.
    Of course Ely was right wanting to use his own band. And you didn’t even mention the great guitar player Jesse Taylor. The interplay between Lloyd Maines on steel guitar and Taylor is legendary. I bought Honky Tonk Masquerade when it came out in 1978. I was 16 years old and very much into country rock. My favorite records were from the last part of the sixties and the first half of the seventies. That seemed like such a long time ago in 1978. My friends at school were not really into country rock. And I was also losing interest because it moved into the direction of lame soft rock. But Joe was rocking as hard as The Clash. I’m still waiting for the moment the recordings Ely and his band made with The Clash (made after the gigs that came out as Live Shots) will come available on cd. And of course that still to be released album should be called Lubbock Calling.
    But first I would like to ask all readers to buy Honky Tonk Masquerade. You won’t regret it. It’s my all time favorite album!

  2. Yet again Rick hits a nail on the head. This is a great rocking country album and I also endorse John G’s comments about Jesse Taylor and his interplay with Lloyd Maines. There is no musical sound that I enjoy more than good pedal steel and guitar interplay and this is as good as it gets. I saw Joe and the band a couple of times at the late, lamented Venue in London (’79 and ’80) and they delivered live too.
    Don’t pass over the eponymous first album though – it’s even better in my opinion and the pair are now available as a twofer. If you don’t know these albums already then give yourself a treat.

  3. Nice piece on a very much underrated figure. His association with The Clash helped to created a link between Punk and country rock that had a great influence on the development of Americana, Live Shots is a perfect example of what a great band they were, and seems to be available as a double CD with Down On The Drag.
    A mention for Lord Of The Highway, simply because it contains what may be his best song – Me and Billy The Kid. Otherwise, thanks for the article.

  4. Thanks for the great comments – good to know there are more Joe Ely fans out there. Apologies for not commenting on Jesse Taylors’ fine guitar playing and the interplay between him and Lloyd Maines, you’re right, of course. Such a good band all round.

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