Lord of the Highway, Joe Ely's sixth studio album, is something of a return to form for him, in both qualitative and stylistic senses. Ely released five albums (four studio sets and the concert recording Live Shots) on major label MCA Records between 1977 and 1981, gradually modifying his style from country to rock. 1984's Hi-Res took the transition a step further, as Ely returned to record stores after a three-year break with an album on which synthesizers played a major part, but fans and critics had mixed reactions. Ely then parted ways with MCA, and Lord of the Highway, another three years on, finds him with the independent HighTone Records label. Mitch Watkins, who played those synthesizers on Hi-Res, is still around on keyboards, along with an otherwise all-new backup band (Davis McLarty on drums; Jimmy Pettit on bass; David Grissom on guitar; Bobby Keys on saxophone). But the roots rock sound of Lord of the Highway is much closer to 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta than to Hi-Res. Taking more time to write, Ely makes several excellent additions to his songbook, starting with the shaggy dog Western saga "Me and Billy the Kid" and including "Are You Listenin' Lucky?" The lengthy "Letter to L.A." is musically reminiscent of the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," a connection accentuated by the presence of Keys, a longtime Stones sideman. The concluding "Silver City" seems to be an allegorical cautionary tale about what happens to the dreams of an idealistic young man when he encounters the outside world. As on earlier Ely albums, Butch Hancock provides a couple of strong compositions, the title song, and "Row of Dominoes." In 1981, Ely seemed to be on the verge of stardom. He doesn't anymore, but Lord of the Highway suggests he will still be out on the road playing his powerful music for some time to come. At a transitional time in the record business, Lord of the Highway was released as a ten-track album on LP and cassette, but in order to stimulate sales of the CD format, that version came out simultaneously with an eleventh bonus track, "Screaming Blue Jillions," a rock & roll song set to the Bo Diddley beat and the sort of enjoyable minor number that used to be reserved for the B-sides of singles.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann