Joe Ely

If You Were A BluebirdJoe Ely
Tennessee's Not The State I'm InJoe Ely
She Never Spoke Spanish To MeJoe Ely
Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go DowntownHonkyTonk Masquerade
Me and Billy The KidLord Of The Highway
Highways and HeartachesLove and Danger
Slow You DownLove and Danger
Gallo Del CieloLetter To Laredo
She Finally Spoke Spanish To MeLetter To Laredo
All That You NeedStreets Of Sin



Contributor: Andrew Shields

Joe Ely first came to prominence with the great but (in its original incarnation) short-lived band, The Flatlanders – the name was derived from the monotonous nature of the landscape around the town of Lubbock in Texas in which its members lived – in the early 1970s. Although they had very little commercial success at the time, The Flatlanders are now generally seen as a crucial influence in the emergence of what has come to be described as Alternative Country or Americana music. His involvement with the group also brought Ely into close contact with two other great songwriters, Jimmie Dale Gilmore (who also had one of the great Country voices of his generation) and Butch Hancock (see Toppermost #342). It could be argued, indeed, that the collaboration between these three men never really ceased; for example, they continued to record each other’s songs regularly, even during the years before they formally reunited in 1998. Since then they have embarked on a number of tours and made a number of albums while still pursuing their solo careers. As we shall see, some of the best material that Ely was to record during his solo career came from Hancock’s pen and the combination of the latter’s superb skills as a songwriter and the former’s excellence as a performer was to produce some outstanding results over the years.

Ely’s self-titled debut album was a masterly one, which demonstrated that he was a major talent in his own right. It also introduced Ely’s trademark combination of country, folk, and rock influences. There was also often a ‘Tex-Mex’ flavour to his music, a vein which he was later to explore to great effect on one of his very best albums, Letter To Laredo, which was first released in 1998. Ely also had a particular love for early rock and roll and rockabilly music (and, in particular, for the music of Jerry lee Lewis to whom his song, Fingertips, was a tribute). From the outset, Ely’s bands were also to develop a reputation as exceptionally potent live performers (a reputation which is clearly borne out on a series of superb live albums including Live Shots and Live at Liberty Lunch).

On his early albums, however, Ely showed an enviable capacity to combine this kind of straight ahead rock and roll power (as in songs like his own I Had My Hopes Up High, an extremely witty account of some of his early adventures hitchhiking around America and Butch Hancock’s Sucking On A Big Bottle Of Gin on his debut album) with the subtlety and delicacy of the three great country-folk ballads that I have included here (another of the great songs on the album, Treat Me Like A Saturday Night, just missed out by a whisker on being included here). All three of them show Butch Hancock’s superb ability, matched only by a handful of other songwriters, to write lyrics which combine clever word play and wit with a genuine emotional depth. Of the three songs selected here, If You Were A Bluebird is, quite simply, a beautiful song, which is superbly performed by Ely. The song was also later to be covered to very good effect by Emmylou Harris on her 1998 album, Bluebird. Both Tennessee’s Not The State I’m In and She Never Spoke Spanish To Me again show Hancock’s trademark wit to very good effect, but they are also both excellent songs, musically. I have also included Hancock’s brilliant later song, She Finally Spoke Spanish To Me (“adiós was all she said”), which concludes the story begun in the earlier song.

Honky Tonk Masquerade, the album which Joe Ely released after his excellent first album, was not, perhaps, quite as good as its predecessor, but it was still a very fine album in its own right. From it, I have included his great version of one of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s best songs, Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown. It was soon after the release of that album that Ely first met the members of The Clash, while on tour in England, and he went on to develop a close friendship with them (and, in particular, with the late Joe Strummer). In the years that followed, Ely often played as a support act for the band and, perhaps, in consequence, he began to emphasise the ‘hard rocking’ element in his music. While this produced some highly effective music, it also meant that some of the subtlety which had characterised his earlier work was lost.

The albums which Ely released in this period also tended to be somewhat patchy ones and it was only with the release of his 1987 album Lord Of The Highway that he regained some of the consistency which had marked his earlier work. From it, I have selected Me and Billy The Kid for inclusion here. In my opinion, it is probably Ely’s best song, and it combines being both a masterly example of a folk ballad and, at the same, a superb display of his ‘tongue in cheek’ wit. The album also contained a number of fine Butch Hancock songs, including the title track and the Spanish-flavoured Row Of Dominoes which I would like to have included here.

On his excellent 1993 album, Love and Danger, Ely also displayed an admirable willingness to foster the talents of emerging young songwriters. It included his excellent versions of songs by Robert Earl Keen (The Road Goes On Forever and Whenever Kindness Fails) and Dave Alvin (Every Night About This Time). His own original songs on the album were also generally excellent ones and I have chosen Slow You Down (perhaps his finest love song) and the superb country rocker Highways and Heartaches for inclusion here.

Ely followed up Love and Danger with the classic Letter to Laredo which, with the possible exception of his first album, ranks as probably the best album he has made. It is a superbly atmospheric album which is heavily influenced by Ely’s admiration for the writing of the American author, Cormac McCarthy. It is also one of the most ‘Tex-Mex’ influenced album he has made and features some outstanding flamenco guitar playing from the Dutch musician, Teye. I have selected one of the best tracks from it, Ely’s definitive version of the Tom Russell classic, Gallo Del Cielo. It is also one of the finest examples of Ely’s capacity to tell a story in a song that he has ever recorded.

My last selection comes from one of the best of his recent albums, Streets Of Sin. It has been described by some commentators as his ‘State of the Union’ address and the song I have chosen – All That You Need – displays his anger and indignation at what he sees as the indifference of the American political elite to those whose livelihoods have been destroyed through the policies they adopt. As his more recent albums have amply demonstrated, Joe Ely continues to be not only a fine songwriter but also a superb live performer and an excellent interpreter of other people’s songs.

Joe Ely official website

Joe Ely biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #219


  1. David Lewis
    Mar 11, 2014

    ‘She finally spoke Spanish to me’ is a masterpiece. Just superb.

  2. Kasper Nijsen
    Apr 2, 2014

    Was just browsing the site for some new music to discover when I stumbled onto this one. After just a few listens I’m already turning into a fan. Great songwriting – thanks for the introduction.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Apr 2, 2014

    Kasper, thanks for this… Would also recommend checking out The Flatlanders and Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s solo work…
    Butch Hancock a greatly under-rated songweiter

  4. Kasper Nijsen
    Apr 3, 2014

    Interesting that you mention Jimmie Dale Gilmore, as I just heard of him in connection with Willis Alan Ramsey, a personal favourite of mine. Will have to investigate…

  5. Andrew Shields
    Apr 4, 2014

    Hadn’t heard of Willis Alan Ramsey, so now I will need to go and investigate him… Thanks for this lead Kasper.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Apr 4, 2014

    Was just playing a Lyle Lovett live cd this evening and noticed that a few of the songs (‘North Dakota’ and ‘That’s right (You’re not from Texas’) were co-written with Ramsey… Obviously part of the Texan guild…

  7. David Lewis
    Apr 4, 2014

    Ballad of Spider John, which I think is on my Sam Bush Toppermost (it is … see toppermost #155 … Ed.), is written by Willis Alan Ramsey. Brilliant song.

  8. jackie wilsonsaid
    Sep 21, 2014

    Must fix my amp so’s I can play my Joe Ely records after reading this article. Had the pleasure of seeing him several times in Dallas from 79-83 including October 31, 1981 at Nick’s Uptown Halloween with Carl Perkins. A night to remember – both were on fire, so I was reluctant to leave after the first encore, thus causing a big argument with my southern belle, who was something to leave for.
    His album Musta Notta Gotta Lotta was then current and is a classic for the title track, Dallas, Hard Livin and Wishin For You.
    Joe Ely live was magnificent – up there with the best – so Fingernails and West Texas Waltz would also be in my top 10.

  9. Andrew Shields
    Sep 21, 2014

    Joe Ely AND Carl Perkins…must say I am very jealous

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