Texas roots-rock pioneer Joe Ely is one of the forefathers of alt-country and Americana, not to mention a patron saint of the booming independent music scene in Austin and environs. In the early 1970s Ely, along with his friends Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, formed the Flatlanders, a scruffy band that embodied the poetic aspirations and gritty spirit of Texas's new grassroots country scene. The Flatlanders went to Nashville and failed to make much of a stir, then dissolved after returning home. Joe Ely was the first of the three singer-songwriters to rise up from the ashes, emerging in the late '70s as one of the most powerful, dynamic performers of his time. Before there was such a thing as "alt-country," Joe Ely was alt-country, playing sizzling shows and bringing alive the spirit of the rowdy, roughneck honkytonkers he'd heard growing up in the Lone Star State. Later, he got more rock'n'roll, but he's remained, over three decades of performing and touring, one of the best live performers in the roots music scene. Here's a quick look at his work...
The Flatlanders "More A Legend Than A Band" (Rounder, 1990)
To tell you the honest truth, I have never really cared all that much for this album, though there are those who praise it to the stars. Joe Ely, I agree, was a stellar talent, but I'm less smitten with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and much, much less so with Butch Hancock. Nevertheless, here they all are, way back in their youth, as a pioneering Texas alt-country ensemble whose early-1970s recordings preceeded the entire Austin-outlaw scene by a good several years. Some of the songs on here turned up later on various solo albums. This album ain't bad, but it never made my boat float of my toes curl. (Other, more recent Flatlanders releases are reviewed below...)
Joe Ely "Joe Ely" (MCA, 1977)
A jaw-dropping debut album that seamlessly mixed real country roots with roadhouse blues and poetic outlaw ramblings ala Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Willie and the like. Ely's own gruff, razor-edged person comes through loud and clear, establishing him as one of the more distinctive and alluring voices in the late-'70s alt-country scene. This includes my all-time favorite Joe Ely song, "Treat Me Like A Saturday Night" as well as other classics such as "I Had My Hopes Up High," "Suckin' A Big Bottle Of Gin," "She Never Spoke Spanish To Me" and the sweet, poetical, "If You Were A Bluebird." Ely declares his independence from Nashville in "Tennessee's Not The State I'm In," and as a result, the world is a much better place. Highly recommended.
Joe Ely "Honky Tonk Masquerade" (MCA, 1978)
Oh, wait. Did I say "Treat Me Like A Saturday Night" was my all-time favorite Joe Ely song? Hmmm. Maybe I was thinking of "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown" or "I'll Be Your Fool," which are on this album. Or maybe "West Texas Waltz..." It's so hard to choose. Oh, and there's also "Fingernails," which is a pure adrenaline kick -- loved all these songs when I first heard them on the radio, loved playing them on the radio myself, and I still love 'em to this very day. Another great album.
Joe Ely "Down On The Drag" (MCA, 1979)
The last of Ely's three essential solo albums...
Joe Ely "Live Shots" (MCA, 1980)
A rockin' live set that has enough subtlety and soul to keep clangbang-averse old farts like me listening. Opening for the Clash while on tour in England, Ely plows through a bunch of his old "hits," such as "Fingernails," "Honky Tonk Masquerade," "I Had My Hopes Up High," and several groovy Butch Hancock tunes. Carlene Carter is on hand to help him belt out a soul-striped version of Hank Williams' classic "Honky Tonkin'," while pedal steel whiz Lloyd Maines helps accordionist Ponty Bone anchor the band's rockin' rootsy sound. Originally released in Europe only, this LP came with an extra 4-song EP to fit all the stuff they couldn't cram onto vinyl in the pre-CD era... This was Joe Ely in his prime, and is justifiably seen by many as a classic. If you really wanna "get" why this guy is a live legend, check this early album out.
Joe Ely "Musta Notta Gotta Lotta" (MCA, 1981)
Things start to go sideways for Joe around here... Personally, I'm not a big fan of his rockabilly-tinged electric blues work, but I can see why he veered that way once he caught the ears of the punks and retro-rock fans. I find these early '80s albums too jittery and frenetic, but I'm sure they must have their fans...
Joe Ely "Hi Res" (MCA, 1984)
Joe Ely "Lord Of The Highway" (HighTone, 1987)
Joe Ely "Dig All Night" (HighTone, 1988)
Joe Ely "Live At Liberty Lunch" (MCA, 1990)
Joe Ely "Love And Danger" (MCA, 1993)
(Produced by Joe Ely & Tony Brown)
Joe Ely/Various Artists "SONGS FROM CHIPPY" (Hollywood, 1994)
An interesting, often compelling compilation album that was also the soundtrack for a theatre piece starring Jo Harvey Allen, and Jo Carol Pierce... Included on the ride are Joe Ely, Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, Robert Earl Keen, Wayne Hancock, who I believe made his debut on this album... Definitely worth checking out.
Joe Ely "Letter To Laredo" (MCA, 1995)
Joe Ely "Twistin' In The Wind" (MCA, 1998)
Joe Ely "Live At The Cambridge Folk Festival" (BBC/Strange Fruit, 1998)
A six-song EP, taken from a 1990 performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival in England.
Joe Ely "Live At Antone's" (Rounder, 2000)
The Flatlanders "Now Again" (New West, 2002)
An amazing reunion album! Personally, I think this is much, much better than their old stuff. Obviously, I'm a big fan of the old Joe Ely records, but the original Flatlanders album has always struck me as a bit dull and monotonous. Sure, it's legendary and all that, but the songs that Gilmore wrote really came to life later... when Ely recorded them on his classic MCA albums. As for this new record, it's much more playful and melodically rich, and is packed with plenty of catchy songs, memorable choruses and well-crafted melodic hooks. Even I -- someone who has long been singularly unimpressed by this band -- can groove along to it, and be taken in by the relaxed, masterful confidence these guys bring out in each other. Besides, it's better than anything these three had done solo for the last few years. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to find out what the fuss was about this alt.country supergroup.
Joe Ely "Streets Of Sin" (Rounder, 2003)
The Flatlanders "Wheels Of Fortune" (New West, 2004)
Some songs old, others new... The second album from the revitalized Flatlanders trio has less of a dynamic, organic feel to it, seeming more a series of songs than an exploration of a newly-renewed creative partnership. Ely, Gilmore and Hancock still bring a wealth of roots music road warrior experience to bear, but the songs seem disconnected from each other, and too tightly crafted in parts, more of a carefully crafted studio creation than a joyful old-timer jam. I really liked the last record, and while this one may grow on me, for the moment I'm a little nonplussed.
The Flatlanders "Live At The Knite: June 8th, 1972" (New West, 2004)
What an amazing document of this band, live in action during its faint, glimmering, short-lived first incarnation. These recordings were apparently made in front of an audience of less than a dozen people, the sum total of the patrons of a teensy Texas watering hole known as the Knite... You'd never know it was a near-empty room, though, from the intensity with which the threesome tackled each and every song. They were clearly a powerful, powerfully earnest band, covering oldies and adding new tunes to the hard country canon... These soundcheck recordings are remarkable for a variety of reasons... First off, songwriter Butch Hancock doesn't sing at all, while Jimmie Dale Gilmore was the main vocalist, surprising in itself, but made even more remarkable when you hear Joe Ely's vocals cut through on a couple of tunes -- Ely, the growling, grizzled road-warrior-to-be, singing with a high, youthful, almost nervous voice, singing beautifully, with a sincerity that matched the music. Although the studio album that came out of this group's first year was a bit on the reserved side, these live recordings are passionate and compelling: this is what a real 'billy band sounded like, back in the earliest days of the "outlaw" era. And it was mighty fine. Highly recommended!
The Flatlanders "Live From Austin, TX" (New West, 2004)
A live album, recorded at at a 2002 reunion gig.
Joe Ely "Silver City" (Rack 'Em, 2007)
Joe Ely "Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch" (Rack 'Em, 2007)
Joe Ely & Joel Guzman "Live Cactus!" (Rack 'Em, 2008)
The Flatlanders "Hills And Valleys" (New West, 2009)
(Produced by Lloyd Maines)
Nice stuff from these three old, grizzled pals. This album begins on a strongly political note, with several tunes designed to shake off the hangover of the George Dubya Bush years, about hard times, economic dislocation, Hurricane Katrina, and the much-reviled billion-dollar "wall" along the US-Mexico border. Of these songs, "Borderless Love" is perhaps the best, revealing an emotional openness that still allows for both sincere shock and gooey, love-your-neighbors altruism. This humanist streak runs throughout the album, which is a sly and strident proclamation in favor of people and emotion over pragmatism and hard-heartedness. The Flatlanders pick up the weatherbeaten, dust-blown flag of the semi-redneck hippie faction of what was once called "the counterculture," and make a pretty strong case for their beliefs. As the house of cards that was our economy falls down around our collective heads, these mellow folkie appeals to common sense and compassion sound a whole helluva lot better than anything you'll hear on the cable news channels. Admittedly, there is an air of forced profundity that has to be dealt with -- towards the end of the album, almost every couplet of the lyrics strains to deftly deliver some poetic insight or wry life lesson -- but even so, I'm a huge Jimmie Dale Gilmore fan and any chance I get to hear him sing, I'm happy. Indeed, this is probably one of the strongest, most cohesive Flatlanders albums, and it's definitely a record that came out at exactly the right time to be heard by exactly the right people. Check it out.
Joe Ely "Satisfied At Last" (Rack 'Em Records, 2011)
Joe Ely "Milkshakes And Malts" (Sunstorm, 1988)
A collection of Butch Hancock compositions...
Joe Ely "Whatever Happened To Maria" (Sunstorm, 1988)
Joe Ely sings Joe Ely...
Joe Ely "No Bad Or Loud Talk: The Best Of Joe Ely" (Edsel, 1995)
Joe Ely "Time For Travelin': The Best Of Joe Ely, v.2" (Edsel, 1996)
Joe Ely "The Best Of Joe Ely" (MCA, 2000)
This 20-song best-of mostly sticks to Ely's catchiest, older material... Sure, getting the original albums will probably be more rewarding, but this is still a damn fine set of music. Really, it's quite good. I prefer the studio original of "Fingernails" over the live version which is included here -- but other than that, what's to complain about? Recommended!
Joe Ely "From Lubbock To Laredo: The Best Of Joe Ely" (Universal International, 2000)
Joe Ely "Settle For Love" (HighTone, 2004)
This is a handy single-disc set that gathers the best of alt-country road warrior Joe Ely's two albums for the HighTone label -- ten songs off of Lord Of The Highway and Dig All Night, along with a couple of one-offs and an added video track for his song "My Baby Think She's French." It's a nice look back at his mid-period career; you could also track down the original albums (and hear the stuff they left out) but this is a nice summation of his rock-tinged, late-'80s sound.
Joe Ely "The Millennium Collection: The Best Of Joe Ely" (MCA-Nashville, 2004)
This is great music, but are twelve songs really enough to do this guy justice? This'll probably leave you wanting more, so it might be worth going for one of the fancier packages, or the original albums, if you can swing it.
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