My younger brother spent time in several West Texas colleges on short-lived athletic scholarships — short-lived because he majored in skipping class and honky-tonkin'. When we hooked up in Holland in 1976, he pulled out a white-jacketed LP and, with the drop of a needle, put a warp on my head that exists to this day. That first Joe Ely album took me to some musical place I'd never been, but after a year of European pop and ABBA, was I ever happy to be there. Country had gone soft, radio rock had gone stupid or sugary, and the whole Cosmic Cowboy thing that sustained me in my college years seemed a bit stale and petrified. Ely's brilliance lay in his adaptation of all three into one. Thirty years later, Ely is still the man he was then — his latest record, Cactus Live, showcases his unquenchable taste for sweat-covered performance as he and longtime duo mate, accordionist Joel Guzman, roar through both the hits and the wonderful obscurities of a prodigious career. Opening is another West Texas talent on the rise, Ryan Bingham, who has found support from various Lubbock Mafia members (Ely, Terry Allen), and parlayed his gravel-in-the-gut songwriting and whiskey-and-cigarettes voice into a record deal with high-profile roots label Lost Highway.
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