Over the last 30 or so years, the best country music hasn’t really been what the establishment would even term as country music. Not as Hank Williams defined it, and not as Garth Brooks reconfigured it. Or maybe the best country music is an evolutionary aside, a superior race in the vast minority. If so, the members of the Flatlanders, who truly once were More a Legend than a Band (as the name of their debut LP foretold), are there among the roots of this über-country family tree. Those three dudes from Texas—Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely—have stretched the genre to include literate folk, rockabilly, and tejano, while preserving plenty of the hallmarks of the traditional sounds of pure, old country music.
In this era of ID3 tagging, when confronted with an artist as un-pigeonhole-able as Joe Ely, I favor the exceedingly general “singer-songwriter” descriptor to the more constrictive “country” label and the Nashville hit-making machinations that word implies. In Ely’s case, the former genre is abundantly accurate. Now in the fourth decade of his recording career, the man has written scores of great songs and sung the lot (along with a clutch of covers) in his sturdy tenor.
Joe Ely worked in moderate obscurity throughout a good chunk of his career. The Flatlanders’ 1971 debut was lost for years in record label bureaucracy, dampening the super-band’s impact. Then, beginning with his self-titled first album in 1977, Ely seemed doomed to work as the kind of artist who is respected by his peers and devoted fans, while his recordings remained under-consumed. His ‘80s work was less exceptional, and he was dropped by MCA. The label picked him back up in the ‘90s, though, and 1995’s excellent Letter to Laredo was a favorite amongst critics, Baby Boomers, and even a few of us Gen-Xers needing a mid-afternoon break from grunge. That decade was the apex of his output, with the strong Twistin’ in the Wind following in 1998 and, as a member of another all-star collaboration, Los Super Seven’s very fun eponymous disc coming out in 1999.
Thanks to heavy involvement with a reunited Flatlanders, Ely’s lone solo album of the early aughts was 2003’s tepid Streets of Sin. On Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch, he rekindles the fire missing from his last album. Shorn of its predecessor’s ponderous feel, Ely’s latest courses with the energy of his classic, early works. As one might imagine would be the case, this youthful gusto crackles, in particular, on the album’s up-tempo numbers. Opener “Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes” is a lean, Southern-tinged rocker punctuated with horns and a propulsive tom-tom break. Any inklings of the Bayou are confirmed by the lines “All I wanna do is get back home / Instead of wastin’ time in this Super Dome”. The story-song “Miss Bonnie and Mister Clyde” works a Mellencamp-meets-Springsteen musical framework, but Ely’s re-take on this American legend is a slyly humorous anthem of an interloping third wheel, the singer winking through a parodic line like “I’m gonna have your hide [pause], Clyde”.
Ely excels at the slower tempo numbers, too. “Firewater” is a mighty fine blues boogie about hard drinking. “Sue Me Sue” is a Sun Records-esque rockabilly ditty. And “So You Wanna Be Rich?” is a lazy and likeable song that moves at a saunter but is enlivened greatly by tight horn charts and some Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired dirty guitar licks.
Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch is too sarcastic and swampy for its title to hold true. Smirks and cottonmouths are what I hear, and that’s just dandy. Who needs kumbaya campfire numbers, anyway? On his latest album, veteran singer-songwriter Joe Ely is fueled by the sounds of the South and a renewed vigor. Finely crafted, confident, and energized, Rattlesnake Gulch is another great album in the Ely canon, and his best since Letters to Laredo.