The week of his 60th birthday, Joe Ely released Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch, his 12th album of new studio material in 30 years, to launch his own Rack 'Em Records label. A subtitle printed in three places on the packaging read "Pearls from the Vault, Volume XX," and that may have meant to suggest that the album was a collection of archival recordings, a suggestion that the multiple backup musicians appearing on different tracks (five guitarists, for instance, including Ely) might support, although there was no further information to illuminate the matter. In any case, the disc was Ely's first since 2003, and it consisted of previously unreleased tracks that had the feel of a diversified, coherent album. In fact, Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch was a fairly typical Ely album full of guitar-driven, country-inflected blues-rock with a Southwestern sensibility, ranging from the neo-rockabilly of "Sue Me Sue" to the Cajun arrangement of "Little Blossom" and the electric blues of "July Blues." As usual, the locales were spread along the Gulf Coast and points west -- New Orleans, Evangeline, Shreveport, Dallas, Clovis -- and the characters in the story-songs included roughnecks, gamblers, and outlaws. In his most ambitious lyric, Ely created a sequel to his earlier "Me and Billy the Kid" with another fantasy set to the same tune, "Miss Bonnie and Mr. Clyde." He also touched on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in "Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes." But the lyrics were less important than the feel and the performance, especially because Ely wrote nearly all the songs this time. The one exception, a de rigueur contribution from Butch Hancock, "Firewater" (the title song from his 1981 album), was so full of wordplay it showed up the rest of the disc. It may also be the only track on the album worthy of being included on a future Ely best-of, however. This is not one of his best albums, just a good one.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann