While Joe Ely had been making good to great albums since his 1977 self-titled debut, 1995’s Letter to Laredo was one of the most striking and ambitious projects of his career, and was clearly an effort to raise the creative ante on his earlier work. While Ely’s trademark had always been a heady mixture of honky tonk country and roadhouse rock & roll, with Letter to Laredo he aimed to generate the same passion and emotional fire but with a (primarily) acoustic ensemble backing him up, while also striving for a more literate and mature tone than he’d brought to albums like Dig All Night and Musta Notta Gotta Lotta. If the results didn’t sound like a typical Joe Ely album, Letter to Laredo isn’t as atypical as the surfaces might suggest; the sophisticated storytelling Ely indulges in here is only a step or two removed from his best work up to this point (more a matter of tone and emphasis than a radically different lyrical perspective), and the strength of “All Just to Get to You,” “Run Preciosa,” and ” “I’m a Thousand Miles from Home” is in the details of his characters and their lives, not unlike “Honky Tonk Masquerade,” and “Because of the Wind” and “Saint Valentine” show he hadn’t lost his sense of humor or way with a shaggy dog story. Musically, Letter to Laredo is dominated by Teye’s acoustic flamenco guitar, which adds a wealth of color and drama to the songs, but drummer Davis McLarty and bassist Glenn Fukunaga put a steady fire behind the musicians, and David Grissom and Lloyd Maines add some superb six-string accents of their own; despite the lack of amps, this sounds as full and strong as anything Ely ever cut. And Ely’s vocals are splendidly nuanced, with some fine assistance from guests Bruce Springsteen, Raul Malo, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Joe Ely seemed to been aiming for a masterpiece with Letter to Laredo, and that isn’t quite what he got, but he did create a great album that gently altered his audience’s expectations of what he could accomplish in the studio, and it’s an impressive and moving disc.