Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Joe Ely, a Texas-born singer, songwriter, and guitarist, has developed a significant cult following, both as a solo performer and as a parttime member of the legendary band the Flatlanders. Ely has released more than a dozen albums under his own name, beginning with his critically lauded solo debut in 1977. His output includes a number of live albums that capture the energy and passion Ely has put into every performance, whether a solo acoustic gig, a rollicking rock-and-roll concert with a backing band, or a jovial Flatlanders show. Featuring self-penned tunes as well as gems written by fellow Flatlander Butch Hancock and other artists, Ely's albums contain a broad range of tracks: rousing, lyrically simple foot-stompers reside alongside contemplative, nuanced story-songs. Regardless of the style, most of Ely's songs are firmly grounded in the culture and geography of Texas. In a biography of Ely at his official website, Joe Nick Patoski addressed the subjects that have preoccupied the performer for decades: "[Ely] sings of distance, about rivers and ranches, of smoldering passions and sad laments, of faraway longing and unrequited love."
Joe Ely was born in Amarillo, Texas, the son and grandson of railroad workers. Around 1960 Ely moved to Lubbock, a city in West Texas known for its dry, windy plains and a conservative religious culture, as well as the many talented musicians it has spawned, including Ely and his fellow Flatlanders. In the biography of Ely posted at his website, Patoski suggested an explanation of Lubbock's impressive musical credentials: "the flat dusty landscape, endless sky, and vast horizons have inspired several generations of young creative types to fill up all that empty space with music."
Born a Traveling Man
As a boy Ely took guitar lessons from a door-to-door music teacher who had taught rock-and-roll pioneer Buddy Holly, a Lubbock native, how to play the Hawaiian steel guitar. "When I first came to Lubbock [Holly] had just died," Ely related in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com that was posted on his website, "so everybody in Lubbock had a Stratocaster [guitar]." Feeling stifled by his existence in Lubbock, Ely dove into the life of a professional musician at the age of 15. He began playing in clubs around Lubbock, and by the time he was 16, Ely had dropped out of school. Within a couple of years he realized that his desire to travel the globe and his aspirations as a musician were perfectly compatible. Thus began many years of restless wandering, an existence he described to Jay Cocks of Time magazine as "colorful misery." He hitchhiked and hopped freight trains to reach his destinations. "I traveled any way I could, with just a guitar and a sleeping bag," Ely told Amusement Business magazine. "I spent six or seven years doing that." At some point during his wanderings, Ely even joined the circus, tending to the llamas and the World's Smallest Horse.
Around 1970 Ely found himself back in Lubbock, spending time with musician friends Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The three decided to start playing together in a band. They shared a house in Lubbock, a place that became a focal point for all-hours impromptu jams and creative musical exploration. After the recruitment of additional band members, the group, known originally as the Supernatural Playboys, began playing gigs in their house, the homes of friends, and occasionally in local clubs. With the promise of a record deal, the group headed to Nashville to make an album with Sun Records, a company long past its glory days as the recording home of Elvis Presley. A comment from the album's producer, Royce Clark, about the "flatlander" Texans performing music more commonly heard in the hills of Tennessee led the band to a spontaneous name change. Upon the release of the album, Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders, it became clear that radio stations had no idea how to categorize the band's unique hybrid of country, rock, and folk—all wrapped up in the West Texas high lonesome sound. Consequently the album, in a limited release on eight-track tape only, languished, and the Flatlanders eventually drifted apart. Gilmore moved to Denver, Hancock studied architecture and contemplated a solo career, and Ely formed a backing band and began preparing for his solo debut.
A Texas Troubadour
Ely released Joe Ely on MCA in 1977 to enthusiastic reviews, but, as with the Flatlanders' album, the radio industry was unsure how to define his music, an issue that would dog Ely for most of his career. His raw, hardcore mix of country and rock occupied a musical no man's land. His second effort, Honky Tonk Masquerade, is considered by many to be his masterpiece, but it also engendered confusion among radio station programmers. When quizzed by the press about the category his music should be placed in, Ely declined to tack on a tidy classification. "I don't like definitions," he told Cocks, "and I write my own labels." His renegade spirit and hard-driving music appealed to Joe Strummer of the Clash, and Strummer invited Ely and his band to join them on a tour of England in 1979. While the musical styles of the Clash and Ely may suggest an odd combination—British hardcore punk-rock meets Texas country-rock—audiences found common ground between them, relating to Ely's often bleak yet impassioned songs. The 1980 release Live Shots captured Ely's performances on that tour, showcasing "Joe Ely and his band at their rocking best," according to Brett Hartenbach of All Music Guide.
Ely followed Live Shots with 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, an album he supported, as he had in the past, with a grueling touring schedule. He and his band traveled for months on end, playing wildly rocking shows in small clubs night after night. The years on the road finally took their toll, and in 1982 Ely's group disbanded, badly in need of a break. His next effort proved an unwelcome departure for both his fans and his label, MCA. Hi-Res, released in 1984, showcased Ely's newfound interest in computers and synthesizers. The album signaled the demise of his relationship with MCA, and Ely next showed up on the independent label HighTone. He recorded two HighTone albums, which would later be repackaged as the 2004 release Settle for Love. Ely returned to MCA in 1990 with the release of Live at Liberty Lunch, followed by the 1992 studio album Love & Danger.
Over the years, the buzz about the obscure, ground-breaking 1972 Flatlanders album grew, with music aficionados in Texas and elsewhere salivating over the prospect of one day hearing the increasingly famous recording. As each of the three core Flatlanders members—Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock—built significant and critically acclaimed solo careers, curiosity about their early-1970s joint venture heightened. Finally, in 1990, Rounder Records released the album on CD, appropriately titled More a Legend Than a Band. Reviewers and fans rejoiced, and the cult status of the group and its individual members deepened. Major commercial success continued to elude Ely and his compatriots, however, a fact due in large part to their refusal to compromise their musical principles in an attempt to please mainstream audiences.
Moving Ahead, Looking Back
During the spring of 1995 Ely took a bad fall climbing a fence, breaking his hip and shoulder. The ever-restless artist was compelled to spend several months recovering at home, a period that awakened in him a new appreciation for staying put. He had left Lubbock decades earlier, settling with his wife in a home near Austin, Texas's musical mecca. While recuperating from his injuries, Ely spent time honing artistic skills of a different sort, and becoming an accomplished painter. Ely's albums from this period, 1995's Letter to Laredo and 1998's Twistin' in the Wind, incorporated a distinctive touch of flamenco into his usual mix of genres. Ely had developed a love for Mexican music as a child in Lubbock, when the tunes of the migrant workers could be heard in the downtown streets at night. Both Laredo and Twistin' offered a more moody, introspective, and pared-down version of the trademark Ely sound.
For the Record . . .
Born on February 9, 1947, in Amarillo, TX; married Sharon Ely; children: Marie Elena.
Formed Flatlanders with core members Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, early 1970s; recorded first album with Flatlanders, Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders, and received limited release, 1972; released self-titled solo debut album on MCA, 1977; released follow-up, Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1978; toured with punk pioneers the Clash, released Live Shots as document of tour, 1979-80; left MCA, recorded two albums with HighTone, 1987-88; Flatlanders reissued 1972 recording, renamed More a Legend Than a Band, Rounder Records, 1990; recorded several albums for MCA, 1990-98; reteamed with Flatlanders for Now Again, 2002, and Wheels of Fortune, 2004; released Streets of Sin, Rounder, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Rounder Records, 1 Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Management— Mark Hartley, Fitzgerald Hartley Company, 34 North Palm Ave., Ste. 100, Ventura, CA 93001. Booking— Gary Buck, Ron Kaplan, Monterey International, 200W. Superior, #202, Chicago, IL 60610. Publicist— Lance Cowan, L.C. Media, P.O. Box 965, Antioch, TN 37011. Website—Joe Ely Official Website: http://www.ely.com.
For the next several years, Ely split his time between his solo work and the new music emerging from a reunion of sorts with the Flatlanders. Asked to contribute a song to the soundtrack of Robert Redford's 1998 film The Horse Whisperer, the Flatlanders agreed to get together for a songwriting session. They wrote three songs in a matter of days, one of which, "South Wind of Summer," made it to the soundtrack. The notion of making another Flatlanders album suddenly seemed viable and appealing, and in 2002 the band released Now Again, followed up two years later with Wheels of Fortune.
In between the Flatlanders' recording sessions and the tours to support the albums, Ely recorded Streets of Sin, released in 2003. Ely wrote all but two of the tracks on the album, which Mark Deming of All Music Guide described as "a collection of songs about people struggling along life's margins." Reflecting a somber perspective, Streets of Sin told stories of small-town struggles, tales of the chasm in the United States between everyday people and the powerful elite. "I didn't want to make a big record," Ely recalled in the Barnes & Noble.com article. "I wanted to make a little record of little stories, not big headlines." Regardless of the tone of his songs, whether sober or lighthearted, Ely has coaxed listeners along on his journey because, as Michael Tearson pointed out in Sing Out! magazine, he is committed and passionate. Tearson wrote: "He always sounds like singing is the most damned fun he has in the world. You can hear the smile in his voice."
Joe Ely, MCA, 1977; reissued, MCA, 1991.
Honky Tonk Masquerade, MCA, 1978; reissued, MCA, 1991.
Live Shots, MCA, 1980; reissued, MCA, 1993.
Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, MCA, 1981; reissued, MCA, 1991.
Love & Danger, MCA, 1992.
Letter to Laredo, MCA, 1995.
Twistin' in the Wind, MCA, 1998.
Live at Antone's, Rounder, 2000.
Streets of Sin, Rounder, 2003.
Settle for Love, HighTone, 2004.
Amusement Business, May 11, 1998, p. 4.
Austin American-Statesman, May 21, 1998.
Billboard, November 28, 1992, p. 14.
Sing Out!, Winter 2004, p. 121.
Time, May 11, 1981, p. 78.
"Joe Ely," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (November 4, 2004).
Joe Ely Official Website, http://www.ely.com (November 5, 2004).
"Man on the Street," Joe Ely Official Website, http://www.ely.com/BarnesNoble.comMusic-CountryInterview.html (November 5, 2004).
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