Joe Ely & his band came to the UK in 1980 to tour as support to the Clash. There could be no cooler endorsement. Joe had released 3 LPs but they were pretty well-kept secrets over here. It was his heavy friends what got him on to the cover of the NME. “The acceptable face of C & W”, wrote some know-nothing sub-editor for whom the release of “Never Mind The Bollocks” was Year Zero. Well, with the ” the charge… the bolt… the buzz… the sheer fuck off-ness of it all” (© Don Logan) MCA recorded a London gig by the full on, honky-tonk-on-speed boys. “Live Shots”captured a great Texan band. Ponty Bone (accordion), Jesse “Guitar” Taylor & Lloyd Maines (pedal steel) all knew their way around both the country & the rock. There were,really, only 2 cowpunk groups & this is one of them.
“Shots” did not get a US release for a year. The record label was trying to position Joe as a next generation country outlaw troubadour but a young man who grew up in Lubbock, Texas, onstage with an electric guitar & crackerjack band was going to be grokking the spirit of Buddy Holly…no doubt, Joe was ready to rock. He rolled with his new popularity & worked the band harder than they wanted. His next band had hot shot guitarist David Grissom, as good as anyone, Joe did tend to get a little carried away, a little more Jerry Lee than Buddy. The showy, super bar band music was good stuff but it was the quality of the songs he recorded which reminded you that Joe was still a contender.
Before the solo deal there was the Flatlanders, Lubbock boys looking to Austin, the centre of the Texas music scene. Besides Joe the other members were not only talented men but were his lifelong friends. “Boxcars” is written by Butch Hancock, a man who has ploughed his own furrow for some time. After the wonderfully titled “West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes” his solo releases were cassettes sold at gigs. He is a sensational songwriter, Joe has recorded plenty of them, world-weary does not always do Butch Hancock justice, man those sad songs of his are properly sad. Man, Butch sounds like he’s seen some things. Jimmy Dale Gilmore went from the Flatlanders to an ashram. It was 1988 before he made his own records. Again Joe was able to use some of those early Jimmy Dale songs. If J.D. had done nothing more than appear as Smokey in “The Big Lebowski” (“Smokey, this is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules”) then that would have been enough.
It was another live LP. “Live At Liberty Lunch” (1990) which put Joe Ely back on my sound system. The introductory solo, cocky, funny, “Me & Billy the Kid” segues into the rocking “Are You Listening Lucky”, two self-penned songs showing two different sides to Joe. There are no Greatest Hits but there is a set of tried & trusted crowd pleasers/floor fillers that the band knew inside out & Joe knew better. I lost my cassette copy of the LP & bought the CD. If I needed some great Texas country music then this has been a go-to record for some time now. Here’s a version of the finely titled “Driving To the Poorhouse In A Limousine” from Farm Aid in 1986 with Grissom doing his thing & the all-time great saxophone of Bobby Keyes doing his.
This version of “Billy” is from later, from, as you can see, a comfy sit-down gig with John Hiatt & Lyle Lovett. In the 1990s Joe did a lot of solo gigs & a lot of gigs with a lot of Texan musicians. He entered the 21st century as a near-40 year veteran, dues had been paid & he got his as an elder of his musical tribe. Tours with Lyle & Guy Clark placed him with the heavy hitters, he started to release his records on his own label, Rack ‘Em Records. You can take the man out of the pool hall but…you get me. In 2002, 30 years after that lost first LP, he got the band back together.
Oh yes ! Joe Ely , on the steps of the Texas State Capital, playing a terrifically restrained but powerful version of “Well Alright”, one of my favourite Buddy Holly songs (well, Top 20 at least). The Flatlanders, Joe, Jimmy Dale & Butch, were well received & the group lived up to the promise of their reputations. The music, 3 new LPs, is a little more traditional, even folkier. Made by musicians who have known each other for so long, who know they are writing for a wider audience, the music has an authority & an appeal. I could have picked a Flatlanders’ clip, “Sowing On the Mountain” is an absolute earworm while “Because Of The Wind”, an old song of Joe’s, is just nailed. “Well Alright” gets it because I hear the rock & roll/country tradition of the Texan flatlands flexing its muscles in 2007 while reaching back 50 years to Buddy Holly, the guy with a guitar from Lubbock who inspired so many young musicians. Music for grown ups yeah.
Oh right…the other cowpunk band is Jason & the Scorchers, but you knew that right.