Joe Ely - Biography
Joe Ely is maverick Texas singer/songwriter who struggled for years to find a niche. His label tried to market him as an outlaw, but he was more eclectic in his style than any outlaw you can name. Too country for rock, too rock’n’roll for country, too loud for folkies, and too folky for honky tonk rockers, Ely is now recognized as a Godfather of the style called Americana. After a long and varied career, Ely finally won a Grammy in 1999, for Best Mexican-American Record for his contribution to Los Super Seven (1998 RCA) a superstar collaboration of Latino and Tex-Mex artists that included Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, David Hidalgo and Caesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Mexican country star Rick Trevino and Tejano legend Ruben Ramos. Ely is seldom off the road and maintains a relentless touring and recording schedule as he enters his 50th year in the business.
Joe Ely lived the kind of ramblin’ life he always dreamed about. He was born in Amarillo, Texas in 1947, but grew up in Lubbock, home to Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, Bob Wills, and Buddy Knox. Maybe there was something in the water, or the wide-open lonesome plains, but it got to Ely too. He picked up a guitar early and left school in his teens to join the circus. From there he jumped freight trains, hung out with beatniks and hippies in Greenwich Village, played in a cover band in New Orleans, and joined a theater group for a tour of Europe. By 1971, he was back in Lubbock where he joined Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock in the legendary band ,The Flatlanders - who made one unreleased album, More a Legend Than a Band, before breaking up.
Ely formed his own band with muscians who are now legends, including Lloyd Maines (pedal steel) and Jesse Taylor (lead guitar). They became the house band at Lubbock’s Main Street Saloon and were soon packing the place every Saturday night. When the Outlaw thing took off, MCA signed Ely, hoping to cash in. He didn’t make it big, but his first four albums for the label Joe Ely (1977 MCA), Honky Tonk Masquerade (1978 MCA), Down on the Drag (1979 MCA), and Musta Notta Gotta Lotta (1981 MCA) remain the high points of his career. The Clash asked Ely to open a US tour for them and then brought him along to Europe where he recorded Live Shots (1980 MCA). Hi-Res (1984 MCA), his fifth release, was one of the first all-digital albums, but fans and label were puzzled by its space age vibe. MCA dropped Ely, but he soon turned up on Oakland’s HighTone label with Lord of the Highway (1987 HighTone) and Dig All Night (1988 HighTone) a pair of stripped-down, balls-to-the-walls rockers.
Ely returned to Europe and released a couple of great British-only albums Milkshakes and Malts (1998 Sunstorm), a set of Butch Hancock tunes and Love and Danger (1998 Sunstorm), a best of compilation. MCA re-signed him in 1990 and he released Live at Liberty Ranch (1990 MCA), Love and Danger (1992 MCA), and Letter to Laredo (1995 MCA), which featured Bruce Springsteen and Raul Malo on backing vocals.
In 1995, Ely broke his shoulder and hip and was forced to take a few years off to recuperate, in turn reassessing his career. He recalled his fondness for Mexican and Tex-Mex music and got together with Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez and started working on the project that became Los Super Seven. Ely's Twistin’ in the Wind (1978 MCA) had some of the same Soutwestern/border flavor, while Los Super Seven (1998 RCA) helped introduce modern Tex-Mex to a new generation outside of Texas, with contributions from Doug Sham, Joel Guzman, David Hidalgo and Caesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Mexican country star Rick Trevino and Tejano legend Ruben Ramos. When Rounder released the long lost Jimmie Dale and The Flatlanders album as More a Legend Than a Band (1990 Rounder), the response was so strong that the band regrouped and cut Now Again (2002 New West,) Wheels of Fortune (2004 New West) and a DVD Live from Austin TX (2004 New West.) He moved to Rounder for Streets of Sin (2003 Rounder) and made another Los Super Seven album I Heard It on the X (2005 Telarc) that concentrated on the 50s and 60s sounds of border radio.
In 2006 Ely started his own label, Rack ‘Em, and released Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch (2007 Rack ‘Em), Silver City (2008 Rack ‘Em) and Live Cactus! (2008 Rack ‘Em), an acoustic set with Los Super Seven accordion player Joel Guzman recorded at the Cactus Café. In 2009 he released Live! Chicago 1987, followed by Satisfied At Last in 2011.