The Flatlanders: A Beginner's Guide to Joe Ely

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This is the first of a two-part series of explorations of the long, bewildering discographies of Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock, who will be preforming together as The Flatlanders this Saturday at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

The Flatlanders are the only must-see band whose records are not as good as those of its individual members. Less a working band than old friends who knock some songs out together once in a while, the iconoclastic west Texas singer-songwriters have only recorded together officially, as a working unit, at the very beginning of their respective careers and again, now, in their elegiac kinda/sorta legend period.

That first record, now known as More a Legend Than a Band, is a ghostly collection hallmarked by Jimmie Dale Gilmore's high-lonesome, singing saw of a voice, which isn't to be confused with the actual singing saw layered into many of the tracks. Recorded in 1972, the tracks haven't dated because they seem to come from no particular time: They're hazy, natural, and strange, sounding something like if one of those shimmery panhandle highway mirages somehow booked itself some studio time.

The record is great juvenilia, a deeply rewarding curio, and the only thing the Flatlanders recorded as a band until the 2000s. Truly, nothing else sounds like it. I also find it somewhat wearying, more than a couple of songs at a time, and never as consistently thrilling as the best of the three Flatlanders' solo work -- which can be tough to cull from their sizable catalog.

Here, then, is something of a guide for the perplexed.

While their three recent group records are all strong, amiable reunions in the song-swapping spirit of their live shows, perhaps the best place to begin exploring the Flatlanders' music is the records that were supposed to make the most conventional of the three a star: Joe Ely's solo records, the best of which boast songs (and sometimes appearances) from Hancock and Gilmore.

Early Work: Too light for rock, and too full of boogie for country, Joe Ely's first two solo albums, both released on MCA, are long been touted as Ely's finest, most consistent work. That's entirely understandable. Joe Ely and Honky Tonk Masquerade are both packed with top-flight Butch Hancock originals like "Boxcars," "West Texas Waltz," and "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me," which would be a classic for its title alone. (Hancockian touch: It rhymes bungalow with jungle, oh!)

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​The band is ace, too, knocking out crisp country rock 'n' roll numbers where the Texas flavors -- Flatland swing, Tejano accordion, roadhouse slide guitar -- have steeped together long enough to form one rich and delicious taste. Like a day-after chilli, this music seems to grow more rich the longer its around.

But don't expect to be immediately bowled over. Ely's first records seem humble, almost slight compared to his other most popular period, his full-blown flamenco-rock '90s string band epics like Letter to Laredo (recommended front to back), Twistin' in the Wind (recommended if Letter to Laredo ain't enough), and Live at Antones (recommended because it's a Joe Ely live record, and he's yet to put out a dud.)

Early on, Ely's rock 'n' roll emphasized the roll: More than any other Texas rocker, Ely channeled Lubbock's own Buddy Holly in lightness, bounce, and good humor, which might explain why he never caught on as big as the label hoped. In the late '70s, everyone thought "Texas music" meant ZZ-Top.

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Best Place to Start: That comes through clearest on Live Shots, the first of his half-dozen concert recordings and to my mind the best introduction to young Joe you can get outside of having been there then. Taped in London when he was opening for the Clash, which had just unleashed London Calling, Live Shots (especially in its expanded CD re-issue) is joyous, rambunctious, and free -- it's like something tossed up into the air that hasn't yet been pulled down by gravity. It also boasts many of the best Hancock and Ely songs from Ely's first three records, two Holly covers (both ringers), and a duet with Carlene Carter on Hank Williams' "Honky Tonkin'."

That means Carlene Carter once came this close to playing with the Clash.

The Next Step: Perhaps inspired by the love the punks showed him, Ely turned toward harder, louder rock -- sans roll -- throughout the 1980s. More pressingly, the songwriting became more hit or miss, with less Hancock and more Ely. His leather pants period, from 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta to 1992's Love & Danger, has its highlights (especially the somewhat epic Live at Liberty Lunch, which is essential for "Me & Billy the Kid," "Letter to Los Angeles," and a duet with Hancock on "If You Were a Bluebird"), but no album in it is as back-to-front strong as 1995's Letter to Laredo, where all his influences cohere into something as thrilling as (yet quite different from) his early stuff.

The humility has been replaced for widescreen borderland mythmaking: If you've ever wanted to hear a Texas Springsteen sing six-minute epics about cockfighting, here's your chance.

Late Classic: Since then, Ely's been dutiful, releasing quality, consistent Texas music. My favorite is Live Cactus!, a duet live record with Joel Guzman, whose accordion -- paired with Ely's acoustic guitar -- finds the intimate heart of those widescreen Letter to Laredo (and Twistin' in the Wind) epics.

Not Essential, But Touched With Greatness: That said, two of my favorite songs from 2011 come from Ely's latest, Satisfied at Last. Like many of his studio records, it's inconsistent, but its high points -- when Ely and a song lock into each other, and all he's seen and felt bursts through -- are up there with anything he's ever done.

The one that hits me hardest is "Not That Much Has Changed," written by Ely, which is pure country -- a meditation on time and space whose title changes meaning at each verse's end. (Just like a Nashville pro in a workshop, Ely makes the final verse something of a punchline, but because he's Ely, the joke is grim and true: that soldiers from his small town are dying, and, still, "not that much has changed.")

Ely's got a wide-ranging discography, one that's been picked over for best-ofs and the like, but here's perhaps his finest testament: The record he put out 39 years after his first is a fine place to start.

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