Joe Ely

Joe Ely may have hard luck when it comes to selling albums, but his brand of Cajun county-blues is admired by many of his peers and younger musicians; a devoted cult following of fans has kept his career aloft since the '70s.

Ely, whose music has been championed by punk legends the Clash and folk/rock icon Bruce Springsteen, was born 52 years ago today in Amarillo, Texas. He began playing music at 13 in various Lubbock, Tx., rock bands.

At 16, Ely began a nomadic life, traveling to various U.S. cities and throughout Europe, making money as a fruit picker, circus hand, dishwasher and musician-for-hire. After returning to Lubbock, Tx., Ely played in bands with Jimmie Dale Gilmore; their most famous group, the Flatlanders, made a country LP in 1972 that wasn't widely distributed until almost two decades later.

In 1974, Ely gigged in Lubbock, Tx., honky-tonk clubs with a band that included guitarist Jesse Taylor and steel guitarist Lloyd Manes. Three years later, MCA Records signed Ely and the band and they recorded the many songs that Ely had been writing for years with Gilmore and former Flatlander Butch Hancock.

Critics jumped on the Ely bandwagon with his second LP, 1978's Honky Tonk Masquerade, featuring cuts like "Cornbread Moon" and "Jericho (Your Walls Must Come Tumbling Down)." The next year's Down on the Drag found Ely fostering his gentle-outlaw image with "Time for Travelin' " and "Crazy Lemon."

Soon country great Merle Haggard brought Ely with him on a British tour, but Ely became better known chiefly because the Clash chose him to open several of their shows. Ely's acclaimed Live Shots (1981) was cut at English Clash concerts.

In the '80s, MCA dropped Ely; he recorded on the indie Hightone for a while, but MCA eventually re-signed him. Live at Liberty Lunch (1990) made Billboard's country chart. Springsteen soon was showing up unannounced at Ely gigs; future shows by the Texan always begged the question of whether or not the Boss would appear. Many were drawn to Ely's music for the first time.

Love and Danger (1992) featured Ely's take on fellow Texan Robert Earl Keen's "The Road Goes on Forever," as well as a tune by former Blaster Dave Alvin. Ely's most recent album is last year's Twistin' in the Wind. The LP contained such titles as "Up on the Ridge" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Behind the Bamboo Shade."

Ely said last year about his trademark sound: "I almost feel guilty with the world the way it is -- people are forced to change all the time. Sometimes I wonder if I'm not very bright. All I really care about is making music."

Also in 1998, Ely was a featured artist in the Intel New York Music cyberfestival held in Manhattan. The participating artists' sets were broadcast around the globe via the World Wide Web.

In addition, Ely is a member of Los Super Seven, the Tex-Mex group that includes Freddy Fender, members of Los Lobos, and others. The band's self-titled 1998 LP is nominated for a Grammy Award this year.

Other birthdays: Barry Mann, 60; Carole King, 59; Major Harris, 52; Dennis "Dee Tee" Thomas (Kool & The Gang), 48.