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He also dropped out of school and began playing music professionally in local clubs, forming a band called the Twilights that became successful enough for him to quit being a dishwasher. Soon after, however, he became sufficiently restless to begin traveling, at first to other cities in Texas, then California, and later New York, with even a trip to Europe working for a theatrical company. This peripatetic period in his life lasted a full seven years, from 1963 to 1970. In the summer of 1971, back in Lubbock, he teamed up with a couple of singer/songwriter friends with whom he was living, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, along with some other musicians, to form the Flatlanders, a country-folk group. They attracted interest from the small Nashville record label Plantation Records and in March 1972 went to Nashville and cut an album that Plantation barely released, credited to Jimmie Dale & the Flatlanders. (The album is reputed to have been issued only as an eight-track tape.)
Ely returned to rambling around the country, but he was back in Lubbock by 1974, when he began putting together a permanent backup band to play there and around Texas. The Joe Ely Band featured Ely on acoustic guitar and vocals, Jesse Taylor on electric guitar, Lloyd Maines on steel guitar, Gregg Wright on bass, and Steve Keeton on drums. A demo tape made by the group was passed to members of Jerry Jeff Walker's backup band, who gave it to Walker, who gave it to an A&R representative of Walker's label, MCA Records, and in the fall of 1975, Ely was signed to MCA. During 1976, he recorded his debut album, Joe Ely, which was released on January 10, 1977, along with a single, "All My Love," that reached the Billboard country charts. That song was one of five original Ely compositions on the LP; the other five had been written by Hancock or Gilmore.
Over a year later, on February 13, 1978, Ely followed with his second album, Honky Tonk Masquerade. (By this point, accordionist Ponty Bone had joined the backup band.) Again, the collection was a combination of Ely originals, including the title song, "Fingernails" (a Jerry Lee Lewis-styled rocker with piano by Shane Keister), and "Cornbread Moon" (all of which were released as singles), and songs written by Hancock and Gilmore (the latter's "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," co-written with John X. Reed, had appeared on the Flatlanders' album). There was also a cover of Hank Williams' "Honky Tonkin'." Honky Tonk Masquerade was well received critically upon release (and a 1990 article in Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the essential albums of the 1970s), but it didn't sell. Ely was back in record stores a year later with Down on the Drag, released in February 1979. Another four Hancock compositions were introduced, along with five Ely originals. The album reached the Cash Box country chart.
Ely and his band toured extensively in the late '70s, headlining small shows and opening for bigger acts. Among these, surprisingly enough, was the British punk rock band the Clash. The group befriended Ely, however, and asked him to open shows for them back in the U.K. This expanded his following overseas and exposed him to rock audiences. The British division of MCA took advantage of the attention to record an Ely live album during the tour, and Live Shots, credited to the Joe Ely Band, was released only in the U.K. in the spring of 1980. (By this point, Robert Marquam had replaced Steve Keeton as Ely's drummer.) Meanwhile, the British reissue label Charly Records licensed the Flatlanders' recordings and gave them their first widely distributed release on a compilation called One Road More.
Back in the U.S., the American division of MCA initially declined to release Live Shots, preferring to wait for Ely's next studio album and continue to try to break him as a country artist. That album, Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, appeared in March 1981 on SouthCoast Records, an imprint founded by Ely's manager, still manufactured and distributed by MCA. (By now, Michael Robberson had replaced Gregg Wright on bass; Smokey Joe Miller [saxophone] and Reese Wynans [keyboards] had joined the band; and Lloyd Maines had dropped out of touring, although he continued to participate in Ely studio recordings.) Again, it mixed Ely originals like the title song with songs by Hancock and Gilmore (the latter's contribution being "Dallas," another song drawn from the Flatlanders' album). The commercial response to Musta Notta Gotta Lotta reflected Ely's increasing profile in both the country and rock markets. It reached the Cash Box country chart and even the Billboard and Cash Box pop charts, with the title song earning enough airplay to reach Billboard's mainstream rock chart. In October 1981, SouthCoast/MCA finally bowed to popular pressure and released Live Shots in the U.S., packaging it with a bonus four-song EP, Texas Special. It reached the Billboard pop chart.
By the end of 1982, Ely was arguably on the cusp of breaking through commercially as a country-rock crossover artist. He had opened shows for the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and even the Rolling Stones. But he had been touring continually for years, and the pace wore on him and his band. His guitarist, Jesse Taylor, quit. His drummer, Robert Marquam, died. He broke up what was left of the band and retreated to his home in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Sharon Glaudt and, soon after, a baby daughter, Marie Elena. There he began writing songs intended for a movie and toying with computers and synthesizers. The financing for the film ran out, but by then he had a batch of songs that he took to Los Angeles and recorded in synth rock arrangements, calling the resulting disc Hi-Res. It appeared in May 1984, his first new music in more than three years, receiving mixed reviews and not selling.
Ely submitted another album to MCA, which the label declined to release, bringing his contract to an end. In a sense, he started over, assembling a new band and hitting the road. The new group featured lead guitarist David Grissom, bassist Jimmy Pettit, and drummer Davis McLarty, plus keyboardist Mitch Watkins, a holdover from Hi-Res. Ely signed to the independent HighTone Records label and in July 1987 released his sixth studio album, Lord of the Highway. Reviews were favorable, for a disc that again contained a couple of Butch Hancock songs, although Ely's own "Me and Billy the Kid" garnered the most attention, with covers recorded by Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Marty Stuart, among others. Dig All Night followed in October 1988. All the songs were written by Ely, with the title track co-written by Watkins, who did not perform on the album. (Some had been written prior to Lord of the Highway for the rejected MCA album.) Among them were "Settle for Love," which was covered by Kelly Willis, and "For Your Love," which Chris LeDoux took into the country chart in 1993.
By the late '80s, Ely's sound, having long since lost its more overt country elements, had moved toward the mainstream rock style of John Mellencamp and Tom Petty. At the same time, however, a more rocking style had become more acceptable in Nashville, where, for example, Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams Jr., and Steve Earle had all topped the country album chart in recent years. In that atmosphere, MCA again became interested in Ely, re-signing him and issuing his second concert recording, Live at Liberty Lunch, in November 1990. Ely's first live album in a decade, it found him performing the best of the songs he had recorded since Live Shots. It spent five weeks in the Billboard country chart. Also in 1990, Rounder Records released the Flatlanders' More a Legend than a Band, a revised version of the group's barely released 1972 album.
In early 1992, Ely joined together with John Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, and James McMurtry in an impromptu country-rock singer/songwriter supergroup called Buzzin' Cousins to record a Mellencamp composition, "Sweet Suzanne," for the soundtrack of the film Falling from Grace, in which Mellencamp starred. The track reached the country singles chart. In September 1992, MCA released Ely's eighth studio album, Love and Danger. Ely turned to acting in July 1994, appearing in the musical Chippy: Diaries of a West Texas Hooker at Lincoln Center in New York City. He also contributed songs to the score and appeared on the cast album, released by Hollywood Records. MCA released his ninth studio album, Letter to Laredo, in August 1995, by which time Ely's bassist was Glenn Fukunaga. If not quite "unplugged," it was more of an acoustic effort than previous releases and prominently featured flamenco guitarist Teye, with occasional harmony and background vocals by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Raul Malo of the Mavericks, and Bruce Springsteen. It reached the Billboard country chart.
Although Ely had produced albums by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, the three resisted calls for them to reunite as the Flatlanders until 1998, when they resurrected the band name to record the song "South Wind of Summer" for the soundtrack to the film The Horse Whisperer, issued in April. In May, Ely followed with his tenth studio album, Twistin' in the Wind. It spent four weeks in the Billboard country chart, but after releasing four albums without scoring a big hit, MCA again dropped Ely. In September, he participated in the self-titled debut by the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven, alongside Freddy Fender, Joel Jose Guzman, Flaco Jiménez, Rubén Ramos, Doug Sahm, Rick Trevino, and David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, and he shared the album's Grammy Award for Best Mexican-American/Tejano Music Performance.
In 2000, Ely had two live recordings in release. His 1990 solo acoustic appearance at the Cambridge Folk Festival in the U.K. resulted in the six-song EP Live at the Cambridge Folk Festival on BBC/Strange Fruit Records in Great Britain. And he signed to Rounder, which released his third full-length concert collection, Live @ Antone's, in June. His band for the shows, taped in January 1999, consisted of returning members Jesse Taylor and Lloyd Maines, along with Teye, bassist Gary Herman, drummer Rafael O'Malley Gayol, and accordion player Joel Guzman. The album reached the Billboard country chart. The Flatlanders, meanwhile, had taken another step toward reconstitution by launching a national tour in the late winter of 2000. In May 2002, Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock finally re-formed the Flatlanders for a new full-length album, Now Again, released by New West Records. Ely co-wrote 12 of the 14 songs and produced the set, which reached the Top 20 of the Billboard country chart. Ely's 11th studio album, Streets of Sin, was released in July 2003. It reached the Billboard country chart. Having waited 30 years between their first and second albums, the Flatlanders were ready with their third, Wheels of Fortune, within two years. Again produced by Ely, it was released in January 2004 and spent 11 weeks in the Billboard country chart. Among the four Ely compositions on the disc was "Indian Cowboy," a song he had not previously recorded, but which had been recorded over the years by Guy Clark, Tom Russell, Townes Van Zandt, and Katy Moffatt. Six months later, there was another Flatlanders album, the archival Live '72.
Ely had sat out the second Los Super Seven album, Canto, in 2001, but he returned for 2005's Heard It on the X. Leaving Rounder, he founded his own record label, Rack 'Em Records, and in February 2007 released his 12th studio album, Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch. The same month, the University of Texas Press released his book of memoirs of life on the road, Bonfire of Roadmaps. That spring, he embarked on a tour with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Guy Clark. At the same time, in April, Rack 'Em had its second release, Silver City, an acoustic collection of early Ely compositions in newly recorded performances featuring only Ely and accordionist Joel Guzman. Ely and Guzman were co-credited on Rack 'Em's third release, Live Cactus!, which appeared in March 2008. Ely returned to the studio in 2010. Those sessions resulted in the album Satisfied at Last, his first record of new material in four years. It was issued by Rack 'Em in 2011. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi