STREETS OF SIN (Rounder-Shock).


“The carnival is closed for the winter/ the gates are full of nails/ all my belongings in a camper truck/ in front of some hellhole motel.” - Carnival Bum - Joe Ely

When Joe Ely fled his West Texas home to join the circus at 16 he sowed the seeds of Carnival Bum written five decades later.

Ely, now 56, rode an open boxcar to New York and toiled in circuses before heading to Europe with a theatre group.

But it was another group, The Flatlanders - formed with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in 1970 - that earned belated fame with the first of three albums.

Now, on Ely's 15th solo disc Streets Of Sin, he reprises tales from a rich career including Europe tours with The Clash and here with Jimmy Barnes in the early 80's.

Although Ely, born in Amarillo and playing Lubbock bars at 14, shared billing here the paucity of airplay for his riveting country rock hybrid confined his impact to Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland and the Shipwreck Coast of Victoria.

" Carnival Bum was written about the days when I used to travel with Ringling Brothers Circus and the South Plains Carnival ,” Ely revealed recently.

“It was a terrible job. I took care of llamas and the world's smallest horse and shovelled elephant shit. It was funny because the turnover in ring stock, which is taking care of the animals, is so quick that within three weeks I had the highest seniority. I got kicked in the ribs by a horse and broke a couple of ribs, and it was too painful to work, so I decided to quit, and they begged me to stay on because I had the most seniority."

Ely kicks off his disc with Fightin' For My Life - one of two songs by Hancock whose evocative tunes adorn Ely discs and spawned Milk Shakes And Malts - Joe's tribute to Butch.

Ely delivers Hancock lyrics in a more accessible mode - “I used to read the Bible and Paradise Lost/ now it looks like everybody's being double crossed.”

Butch's desperado tale segues into Ely sibling song I'm On The Run Again and biblical drought breaker Flood On Our Hands .

That's Ely's strength - he gives his narrative parables credibility, especially those with a family focus.


“Mama got a job in the cotton gin/ grading cotton by the bale/ she cried when a trailer full of cotton came in/ from the farm we had to sell.” - All That You Need - Joe Ely.

But not even Texas floods can save the farm in All That You Need where Joe harvests his Panhandle roots.

“Mama got a job in the cotton gin/ grading cotton by the bale/ she cried when a trailer full of cotton came in/ from the farm we had to sell.”

It's not clear if Run Little Pony it an apt tune for the anti-gambling lobby - it wins but is followed by the redemption fuelled title track where the dream transport is a DC 9.

It clashes with the train metaphor in the hook heavy 95 South in which Portland Maine is rhymed with again and Carolina Pines with honeysuckle vines.

The self-deprecatory humour of Twisty River Bridge works a lot better than finale I Got To Find Ol' Joe .

“I woke up in St James Divine , all wrapped up in plaster and twine/ the nurse said I made the front page of the River City Sunday Times.”

The optimism of That's Why I Love You Like I Do is countered by morose mortality of Hancock's Wind's Gonna Blow You Away.

So what about Ely for novitiates who can't access paltry airplay time frames here?

Well, his tales of wanderlust have an appeal embellished by his harmonica, Joel Guzman on accordion and organ and extra guitar by David Grissom and Rob Gjersoe who adds dobro.

So where did that vivid imagery start?

“The Santa Fe-Rock Island railroad track was just outside my back door and I had been reading Jack Kerouac,” Ely told me in an interview at his home outside Austin in 1983.

“My grandad and dad were railroad men and I had lots or romantic visions of jumping freight trains.”

And unlike many peers Ely acted his dreams and preserved them in songs that have stood the test of time.

Ely shelved two other albums cut in the hiatus after 1998 disc Twistin' In The Wind but cut Live At Antone's and wrote a novel Bonfire of Roadmaps .

Just like the lyric from Carnival Bum - "they're taking apart the Ferris wheel like a game of solitaire."

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