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Rock - Released May 31, 2011 | Shout!

Lord of the Highway, Joe Ely's sixth studio album, is something of a return to form for him, in both qualitative and stylistic senses. Ely released five albums (four studio sets and the concert recording Live Shots) on major label MCA Records between 1977 and 1981, gradually modifying his style from country to rock. 1984's Hi-Res took the transition a step further, as Ely returned to record stores after a three-year break with an album on which synthesizers played a major part, but fans and critics had mixed reactions. Ely then parted ways with MCA, and Lord of the Highway, another three years on, finds him with the independent HighTone Records label. Mitch Watkins, who played those synthesizers on Hi-Res, is still around on keyboards, along with an otherwise all-new backup band (Davis McLarty on drums; Jimmy Pettit on bass; David Grissom on guitar; Bobby Keys on saxophone). But the roots rock sound of Lord of the Highway is much closer to 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta than to Hi-Res. Taking more time to write, Ely makes several excellent additions to his songbook, starting with the shaggy dog Western saga "Me and Billy the Kid" and including "Are You Listenin' Lucky?" The lengthy "Letter to L.A." is musically reminiscent of the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," a connection accentuated by the presence of Keys, a longtime Stones sideman. The concluding "Silver City" seems to be an allegorical cautionary tale about what happens to the dreams of an idealistic young man when he encounters the outside world. As on earlier Ely albums, Butch Hancock provides a couple of strong compositions, the title song, and "Row of Dominoes." In 1981, Ely seemed to be on the verge of stardom. He doesn't anymore, but Lord of the Highway suggests he will still be out on the road playing his powerful music for some time to come. At a transitional time in the record business, Lord of the Highway was released as a ten-track album on LP and cassette, but in order to stimulate sales of the CD format, that version came out simultaneously with an eleventh bonus track, "Screaming Blue Jillions," a rock & roll song set to the Bo Diddley beat and the sort of enjoyable minor number that used to be reserved for the B-sides of singles. ~ William Ruhlmann

Country - Released May 31, 2011 | Shout!

Joe Ely took three years between the release of his fourth studio album, Musta Notta Gotta Lotta (1981) and his fifth, Hi-Res (1984), then another three between that and his sixth, Lord of the Highway (1987), after putting out his first four in five years (1977-1981). His seventh studio album, Dig All Night, reverted to the old pace, following Lord of the Highway by only 15 months, and unlike his usual practice, it consisted entirely of his own compositions (the title song was co-written by Mitch Watkins); no covers of songs by his friends Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. It would be easy to suppose that the album consisted of trunk songs, however, since it presents Ely as a sturdy songwriting craftsman, but has little of the idiosyncratic imagination that sparks his best writing (e.g., "Me and Billy the Kid" from Lord of the Highway). There's nothing wrong with these songs (and some proved to be valuable copyrights when covered by others, such as Chris LeDoux, who took "For Your Love" into the country charts five years later). It's just that they aren't all that distinctive compared with earlier efforts. Musically, Ely, who for once does not play guitar on the album, leaving that entirely to David Grissom, is moving very much toward the mainstream Heartland rock of John Mellencamp and Tom Petty, notably on such tracks as "Dig All Night." He also recalls the style of the Rolling Stones on "Grandfather Blues" and "I Didn't Even Do It." The Tex-Mex death ballad "Behind the Bamboo Shade" retains some of the flavor of his earlier work. But much of this is the sort of music that, if marketed properly, could appeal to a wide swath of classic rock fans. ~ William Ruhlmann

Rock - Released July 15, 2003 | Concord Records

Texas singer/songwriters tend to be a hardy breed, and Joe Ely is no exception; more than 25 years after he released his first album, the man remains a potent honky tonk poet following his own muse. Streets of Sin, his first studio set in five years, finds him paring back his sound much as he did on Letter to Laredo (though with a subtle but strong electric edge and a willingness to periodically up the tempo), for a collection of songs about people struggling along life's margins -- a family struggling to hold together a failing farm ("All That You Need"), a veteran carny drifting from show to show ("Carnival Bum"), a gambler desperate for a winning bet on a horse ("Run Little Pony"), and the people of a small town desperate to beat their retreat before a flood swallows their homes ("A Flood on Our Hands"). With the exception of two songs from Ely's gifted friend Butch Hancock, Ely wrote all of the material on Streets of Sin, and the disc has a thematic unity and musical consistency that's confident and compelling in its tightrope walk between emotional strength and the fear that collapse lurks around the corner. While it's a smart and ambitious album, Streets of Sin also finds Ely occasionally repeating himself and treading water in territories he's explored with more energy and fresher vision in the past. But while this isn't quite top-shelf Joe Ely, it still captures a superb singer and songwriter doing his work and doing it well, and if it isn't a masterpiece, anyone who has found something special in his work in the past will find some moments to revel in on Streets of Sin. ~ Mark Deming

Pop - Released January 1, 2001 | Geffen*


Country - Released January 1, 1992 | Universal Music

Despite some great songs, notably Dave Alvin's "Every Night About This Time" and Robert Earl Keen's modern-day western "Whenever Kindness Fails," Love and Danger rocks hard but never finds its groove. ~ Brian Mansfield

Country - Released January 1, 1981 | Universal Music

Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, Joe Ely's fourth studio album, appeared two years after his third, Down on the Drag, and those years were eventful. Ely had been signed to MCA Records in the wake of the Outlaw movement in country, and on his first three albums he had come across as a potentially successful country artist in that vein, both because of his own songs and those of his friends Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, former bandmates in the Flatlanders. But in 1979, Ely was taken up by the Clash and opened shows for the British punk rock group in both the U.S. and U.K., leading to the release in Britain of the concert recording Live Shots in 1980. MCA U.S. held off on the disc (it was subsequently issued domestically in October 1981), but Musta Notta Gotta Lotta demonstrates the influence of Ely's new compatriots. It may also simply show that he has moved in a more aggressive direction after years of playing to as many rock as country fans. Simply put, this is much more of a rock album than a country one. Lloyd Maines' steel guitar is still listed in the credits along with Ponty Bone's accordion, but neither is much in evidence. Ely claimed Jerry Lee Lewis as his first inspiration, and that inspiration is on display right up front here in the title track, which is steeped in 1950s rockabilly. Even Gilmore's "Dallas" (first heard on the rare Flatlanders album of 1972) is given a more rocking treatment, while Hancock's "Wishin' for You," another of his excellent compositions, borrows its arrangement from the Gulf Coast style of Jimmy Buffett. The collection rocks throughout, making it a much better fit with the work of the Blasters and the Stray Cats than anything coming out of Nashville in 1981. One cautionary note must be the inclusion of several covers ("Good Rockin' Tonight," etc.) and some less-impressive-than-usual originals from Ely, even though he had two years to come up with new material this time. ~ William Ruhlmann