Everybody else romances the road. Joe Ely lives it. Call him what you want - a wandering minstrel, gypsy cowboy, visionary song poet, or houserocker on fire - whatever he is, Ely's covered a lot of ground in his time. He really has ridden the rails (in a circus train, no less), thumbed his way across the country, hopped boats to exotic foreign lands, and ridden horses across the prairie. All part of the relentless quest for revelation that only a journey can satisfy.
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Those sort of restless yearnings come naturally to a boy from Lubbock, Texas, where 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, as Buddy Holly did, as did Waylon Jennings, and Roy Orbison all the way to the current Lubbock Mob consisting of Ely and his compadres Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Terry Allen. Like them, Joe Ely has proved to himself before he proved to a growing number of faithful that when it comes to the mystical process of writing, singing, and performing music, there's no pretending or holding back. Where he comes from, you put your emotions on the line each and every night. That upbringing led Joe Ely to roam the earth and preach the gospel of the Roadhouse, extolling the virtues of the nowhere-else-but-Texas pressure cooker enviornment where hard core country and the rawest kind of rock and roll collide on the dance floor every Saturday night.
The first milestone was a band called the Flatlanders, formed in Lubbock more than twenty years ago by Ely, Hancock and Gilmore. Their visionary melding of country, rock, and fold immediately pegged them as three singer- songwriters who were ahead of their time and way too experimental for Nashville.
Next came the Joe Ely Band, Joe's own ensemble who once again mixed country and rock elements into something new and completely different, proving to anyone that heard them that an accordion or pedal steel guitar really could pack the same sonic punch as an electric guitar. In England, the Panhandle poets and his pickers were embraced by the Clash, the standard bearers of the nascent punk movement, who might not have shared the same cultural values as the West Texans, but who certainly knew integrity when they heard it.
Since then, Ely has gained the respect of his friends and his peers, including such kindred spirits as Bruce Springsteen, who contributes vocals on his latest album, along with old friend Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and new friend Raul Malo of the Mavericks. Whatever qualities grabbed their attention, Joe Ely remains a Texas origional. In Austin, where he now lives and works, a body of work that spans thirteen albums and his willingness to put it all on the line each and every night have rightfully accorded him status akin to royalty.
But no matter how virtuous those qualities and associations seem in retrospect, and no matter how illustrious his performing and recording career may be, all the accomplishments and accolades suddenly seem like mere preludes that have been building up to Letter to Laredo. On this collections of songs, Joe Ely simply sets out to demonstrate what all the fuss is about.
He sings of distance, about rivers and ranches, of smoldering passions and sad laments, of faraway longing and unrequited love. He sings of journeys that take him from the High Plains of West Texas to dark and mysterious flamenco bars in Spanish Andalusia, where Arab, African, and European influences commingle. And more than once he can be seen and heard chasing hearts and souls south across the Rio Grande.
The voice is that of a man who speaks fluently the patois of honky tonks and jook joints, who can hold an audience around a campfire riveted untill the break of dawn, or inspire a crowd of thousands to kick up their bootheels in a two-step or a stomp. It's a voice that can converse with a pistolero as directly as it conveys intimacy to a lover, or articulates that high lonesome feeling known to everyone who has ever hurt. So pull up a chair, cut a rug, or hit the highway. Listener's choice. The songs that Joe Ely sings are the stuff that make anyone's journey something worth remembering.
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