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Postmarked Texas

Joe Ely sends a sad, beautiful Letter to Laredo

Joe Ely has left Texas many times, spending some of those years busking in New York City subway stations and the Paris Metro. He traveled throughout Europe and the United States as a young man -- even ran away with the circus for a little while to tend the llamas and a pony billed as "the world's smallest horse." But always he returned, unable to shake the Lubbock dirt from his boots.

Once he came back in the mid-'70s, the Amarillo-born, Lubbock-raised Ely found he could never leave. He shrugged off advice from those in the music business who told him that if he stayed, his career would die a slow death. He should have gone to Nashville, could have gone to Los Angeles and tried to make it in Manhattan, leaving after three months.

"I was listenin' the other day to a record I did in '89, Live at Liberty Lunch, and there's the passage in there where there's songs like 'Row of Dominoes' and 'Where is My Love?' and it has that whole feelin' of bein' out in the middle of nowhere. It's distant and it's kinda desperate and lonesome, but you don't feel threatened by it. You feel like it's your home, and Texas has always been my home," Ely says from his Hill Country residence. "I've had a lot of opportunities to leave. In fact, if I had a brain in my head I would have moved to L.A. or Nashville years ago and used the whole machinery of those towns to further my whole social life and bank account. But I chose to live in Texas and to work here and to kinda base my songs around this area that I love so much: West Texas and, well, the whole state. There's something about it that's inspirational."

An amalgam of barroom rock and roll, border-town conjunto, juke-joint blues and honky-tonk country, Ely's sound is like the best and purest Texas music, crisscrossing so often there's no easily identifiable beginning or end. It's a sound that evokes a sense of place, a sense of time -- a sound as big as the "arrogantly blue sky" (as Grover Lewis once wrote) blanketing the Lone Star State.

"I've been criticized about that a lot -- about having no distinctions between kinds of music in my songs," Ely says. "I just say, 'Hey wait, I heard Bob Wills play out of the back door of a honky-tonk when I was six years old. I heard Jerry Lee Lewis play in a dust storm in Amarillo.' I heard all this stuff when I was growin' up, whether it was rock or blues. One of the earliest gigs I had was openin' for Jimmy Reed when I was 14 years old in one of my pitiful bands in Lubbock, the Twi-Lites."

Ever since Ely and longtime comrades Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock hooked up in the early 1970s in Lubbock to form the legendary Flatlanders, his music has evoked the romantic's vision of Texas -- the bone-dry plains and the blinding wide-open spaces, the muddy shores of the Rio Grande, the red-rock majesty of Palo Duro Canyon, the choking dust of the flatlands and the Gulf waters that wash against South Texas.

Throughout his eponymous 1977 debut, 1978's Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta and his contributions to last year's Songs from Chippy (about a Depression-era West Texas whore), he has created a soundtrack to a place that exists largely in memory and myth -- littered with tales of renegade lovers and innocent outlaws. They're lost souls howling at a "Cornbread Moon" and blaming their troubles on the wind; they're hopeless romantics whose lives are spent traveling "Highways and Heartaches"; they're cowboys and desperadoes hoping the good life lies hidden behind the next ridge.

Now comes Letter to Laredo, in stores this week, which evokes a desperate, timeless sense of place -- like a novel set to music, a complete and accidental tale that unfolds over the course of 11 songs that play out like self-contained mini-epics.

Letter opens with the line "I have stumbled on the plain / staggered in the wind," and tells of a man's search for a woman that takes him "from St. Paul to Wichita Falls," across desert sands and the Rio Grande -- "all just to get to you," Ely sings, with Bruce Springsteen providing the half-heard harmony. And from there, it follows an itinerary through Texas and time, down to Mexico and across the ocean, to Spain and back again, until Ely is a thousand miles from home yet still next door. The mariachi, the fighter, the lover, the warrior, the storyteller, the rancher, the fugitive -- each character is driven by deep passions for women, for family, for an imagined better life.

The title track is the CD's centerpiece: Ely tells an unknown messenger to send his lover a letter proclaiming his innocence of a crime for which he has been convicted. "I jumped bail from Sweetwater County, now I'm on the run," Ely sings against a haunting torrent of notes strummed on a guitar. "On my head is a five number bounty for a crime I never done / Take this letter to Laredo to the one I love / Tell her to stay low beneath the stars above." Like so many other tracks on Letter, the song sticks with you long after its last notes fade -- like grit between your teeth. It's far different than the synth-and-drum-machine version on 1984's Hi-Res.

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