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It usually begins with a wicked smile and a line like, "You know, I slept with Joe Ely at the Holiday Inn in Waco." From there it's always the same--no birthmark disclosures, no pillow talk, just the inevitable summation: "He was great!"
It's the "I Had Joe Ely" club, and it's an unbelievably large sorority in Texas. Blessed with a mischievous smile and an impeccable taste in honky-tonk duds, Ely has a power over women that is so well-known that Texas writer Sarah Bird poked fun at it in her novel The Boyfriend School. Although every rocker likes to think he's a charmer, Ely's the genuine article. And so the question remains: How does he do it?
"I was a wild, west Texas gunslinger," Ely says with a laugh. "When I came to town, people bolted their doors and locked up their daughters."
For many years, heartthrobbery and smokin' live shows were Ely's major claims to fame. His albums--the latest, Love and Danger, is his tenth--won wide praise from awestruck critics, but stiffed at the cash register.
Today, it looks as though Ely may finally be breaking through.
The door to success began to swing open in 1990. Ten years after unceremoniously dropping him and shelving a finished album, MCA-Nashville signed him up again and released Live at Liberty Lunch. Recorded during a two-night stand at that venerable Austin venue, Liberty Lunch proved the equal, both in sales and energy, of Live Shots, the rowdy set Ely recorded in 1980 while on tour with the Clash. A live recording was the perfect vehicle to kick-start Ely's popularity. Like most consummate live performers, Ely has had problems in the studio. Many of his best songs--tunes that brought down the house when performed live--came off flat and even clunky on record. On a couple of his mid-80s albums, there were also sound problems to contend with.
"Lord of the Highway was technically and sonically just awful," Ely says. "Soundwise it's a sorry-ass recording. I can say that, cause I was the engineer. The best part is that on their five-star scale, Stereo Review rated the sonic quality of that record five out of five."
With clean, crisp sound, Liberty Lunch also reclaimed and reenergized so much earlier material that it unwittingly became Ely's greatest-hits collection. Those unfamiliar with his music were suddenly confronted with the entire spectrum of what he calls his "road-smart" repertoire--from acoustic gems like "Me and Billy the Kid" and drivers like "Cool Rockin' Loretta" to definitive covers like his rendition of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Dallas."
Encouraged by sales figures and the crowds on the ensuing tour, MCA gave the green light to a new Ely studio project. Born in Amarillo but raised in Buddy Holly's hometown of Lubbock, Ely made his first record in 1972 as part of a group called the Flatlanders. As the years have passed, the Flatlanders have loomed ever larger in Texas musical history, because the group included soon-to-be-famous songwriters Gilmore and Butch Hancock. Ely says there's a good chance he and his old bandmates will reunite for a minitour next spring.
Ely's first marriage to MCA-Nashville began in 1977, when the label signed him and released his first solo recording, Joe Ely. That was followed by Honky Tonk Masquerade, an album Rolling Stone magazine picked as one of the best of the 70s. Subsequent albums--Down on the Drag, Musta Notta Gotta Lotta and even a computer-assisted oddity, Hi-Res--featured his killer band and further refined his original blend of C&W, Western swing, honky-tonk, rockabilly and Tex-Mex. Unfortunately, none of those albums sold well or received much radio airplay. That's when MCA pulled the plug. Before he could go into the studio and cut Love and Danger, Ely says he had to put his past with MCA to rest. "Back then I was mad," Ely says, without a trace of bitterness in his Texas twang. "We had an entire record done and they came and said, 'Well, gee, your contract ran out while you were making this album, so we don't really have to release it.' And they didn't. And then I was dropped.
"I've known so many people who've been stung by the music business and couldn't go on. I could have spent the next four years being mad, but I directed my anger into a new album. In this business, you have to know when to drop stuff and keep movin' on."
Known by its working title, Dig for Love, that legendary "lost" Ely recording has yet to see the light of day. After Ely was dropped, however, MCA remixed the record, adding strings, horns and female back-up singers.
"After I heard the way it ended up, I was grateful they didn't put it out," Ely says. Eventually, three songs from Dig for Love were resurrected and rerecorded. The name of the title cut was changed to "Dig All Night," which became the title of the second of two albums Ely made in his home studio for Oakland, California-based indie Hightone Records. Another old tune, "Drivin' to the Poorhouse in a Limousine," resurfaced on Liberty Lunch. The last tune rescued from Dig for Love was "Settle for Love," which appeared on a Hightone album and was recut for Love and Danger at the insistence of producer Tony Brown. A man revered or despised, depending on your taste in country music, Brown is the creative head of MCA-Nashville. "Tony kept saying he wanted us to do it," Ely says. "Finally, I said, 'Okay, we'll do one take and if it comes out, fine. If not, we move on.' What you hear on the record is just as it happened. No overdubs, no fixing, just walk in and boom!"
Ely says it was apparent even before the one-take run at "Settle for Love" that the Love and Danger sessions were something special. Ely's road-hardened band was one of the reasons. This album marks the farewell of guitarist David Grissom, a monster player who left Ely to join John Mellencamp. Still a guitar wanker when he replaced the great Jesse Taylor in Ely's band in 1987, Grissom has transformed himself into one of the most dangerous, inventive lead players in the business. Grissom's replacement is Ian Moore, another player from Austin's seemingly endless supply of power string-twisters.
The other reason Love and Danger should introduce Ely to a wider audience has to do with the singer-songwriter's own concept of success. Nothing on Love and Danger feels forced. Tunes like the Grissom-powered pop ballad "Love Is the Beating of Hearts" and the gritty Texas shuffle "Pins and Needles" are as assured as anything Ely has ever committed to tape.
According to Ely, the pressure to succeed, the shadow of being dropped, has evaporated. Now living a remarkably domestic life in Austin with his wife, Sharon, and their daughter, Marie, Ely's idea of "making it" has evolved. Although he's proud of Love and Danger and hopes it does well, Ely says he's no longer scared of so-called "make-or-break" records. In fact, he's already thinking about his next project. One possibility is an album full of Gypsy music for which he's already cut a few tracks. The other idea is an album full of song-stories about his childhood home in west Texas.
"It's like my old songs. I never get tired of playing them. And I never get tired of going back to west Texas," he says. "It sounds like bullshit, I know, but I'm connected to the soil there. Whenever I hit a dry hole in my songwriting, I go back there and look for the well."
The parched soil of west Texas is not the best place to sow wild oats. While he's more connected to the land, he's disconnected from the groupie scene. Yet Ely says he will not allow his placid personal life and advancing age to dull the musical edge he has carefully honed.
"Hell, no, I'm not done rockin' yet," says Ely, who's heard the question before. "And if I were going to slow down, I wouldn't have gone out and gotten a young guy like Ian Moore. He pushes me. And as great as he's playin', I still have to kick him in the butt once in a while, too.