Joe Ely – Letter to Laredo
The first clue that Joe Ely is up to something different on Letter to Laredo is in the thank-you credits, where the Lubbock legend tips his hat to writers Garcia Lorca, Michael Ventura and Cormac McCarthy. The next clue is the disc’s second track, a cover of Tom Russell’s “Gallo del Cielo”, which clocks in at 7:03; the lyrics to that one song take up a full page in the CD booklet.
Generally known for his blazing live performances and succint rockin’ anthems such as “Settle For Love” and “Musta Notta Gotta Lotta,” Ely dives deep into a well of words here, a direction he hinted at by covering Robert Earl Keen’s epic story-song “The Road Goes On Forever” on 1992’s Love And Danger. Though “Gallo del Cielo” is the crowning touch on Letter to Laredo, and the obligatory Butch Hancock cover is also included (“She Finally Spoke Spanish to Me”), most of the wordsmithery is Ely’s own, with such songs as “Run Preciosa” and the title track telling tales from not only across the border but across the ocean.
Musically, the most striking development is the flamenco guitar contributions of a musician credited simply as Teye. His work infuses Ely’s usual bar-band sound with a sprightly acoustic buoyancy that makes for quite a refreshing change of pace. Enough of the old Lubbock faithful — Lloyd Maines on dobro and steel guitar, Ponty Bone on accordion, Jimmie Dale Gilmore on harmony vocals — are on hand to lend consistency to the proceedings, while Ely also scores cameo crooner coups on a couple tunes (Bruce Springsteen and the Mavericks’ Raul Malo).
It’s too early to tell whether Letter to Laredo will settle as one of Ely’s best efforts, but one thing’s for certain — it’s a brilliantly liberating artistic stretch that heeds Bob Dylan’s most valuable advice: “He who isn’t busy being born is busy dying.”