Joe Ely looks back on his 50-year career before his Austin City Limits Hall of Fame induction
It’s been quite a month for Joe Ely. The Flatlanders, the Lubbock trio he first performed and recorded with in 1972, headlined the Back to Basics Music Festival in Luckenbach at the end of September. It was their first performance in three and a half years, and many thought it would be their last gig. Flatland Lullaby, a musical Christmas gift in 1985 to his then 3-year-old daughter, Maria Elena, was released on CD for the first time in early October. And on October 27, he will be inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Famewith singer Sheryl Crow.
Is this all part of a long goodbye? I was wondering. So I called him to ask him.
No, it’s more like the big wake up call, said Ely, 75, who still keeps musician hours, going up “about 10, 10:30.”
“I took a break, healed from an operation I had a few years ago, regained my strength,” he said. “Luckenbach was the first of a new race, if we do something else. I’ll just leave it open.
As for juggling three things at once, that’s been his life, he said in a neutral tone. ” It was not planned. They just collided. So we just grabbed him by the horns.
It’s a life worthy of Hall of Famer status in a number of institutions. The discography is impressive, 21 albums and counting. And when it comes to live performances, Joe Ely is second to none, as I discovered when I first saw him in 1977 at a club in Lubbock called Fat Dawg’s.
MCA Records had just released their first album, Joe Ely. By this time, Austin’s music scene had exploded to the point that anything out of town was garnering nationwide interest, thanks to the likes of Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willis Alan Ramsey. But the country-rock hybrid played around Austin had grown weary and stereotypical.
Ely’s album was rock and country too, but it came out of town famous for producing ’50s rock ‘n’ roll icon Buddy Holly and it sounded like it. His ensemble featured guitar, pedal steel and accordion – instruments then unknown for their compatibility – and packed a sonic punch behind Ely’s vocals that were part rock and part boot- scootin’ and so fresh and quirky, you couldn’t put a label on it. The interplay between guitarist Jesse Taylor and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines was as powerful and unique to my ears as the dueling guitar solos of Duane Allman and Dickie Betts in the original Allman Brothers.
On that same visit to Hub City, Joe took me to Buddy Holly’s grave in the town of Lubbock Cemetery to pay homage to him, and we wandered the wide streets late into the night, ostensibly looking for a black dwarf blues singer named Little Pete. We finally found Little Pete around 2 a.m., playing pool in the TVs, an after-hours joint located at the end of a cotton field east of town.
“Television was the king of East Lubbock,” Ely said when I reminisced about the vivid memory. “He knew all the cool cats and ran a respectable bar that only opened at 1 or 2 in the morning. He got along with the law because they knew the bad guys would be on TV; they would all be in the same place. Television kept the herd on the dangerous side of Lubbock.
Before this trip to Lubbock, I didn’t know much about Ely’s previous musical adventure, the folk trio The Flatlanders with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They had recorded an album and toured Nashville as country troubadours, without success. They fell apart in 1973. Hancock moved to Austin to open Lubbock Or Leave It, a downtown store that featured his photographs. Gilmore followed his spiritual advisor to Colorado. Ely has joined the Ringling Brothers Circus for a short stint taking care of llamas and the world’s smallest horse (really), then moved to Lubbock where he started a band and built a local following, creating original music that prompted MCA Records to offer a deal.
I thought I had made a discovery. My instincts were validated a year after seeing Ely in Lubbock by The Clash, Britain’s punk rockers. This group caught Ely and company at the Venue Club in London, and a mutual admiration society was immediately established.
“[After that first gig, we] go to the clubs in the East End, stay up all night and have a good time,” Ely spoke to Margaret Moser about the Austin Chronicle in 2000. “It was like West Texas hellraisers meeting London hellraisers. We were from different worlds, but it was like, ‘Okay! Let’s go out some more!’ We played three nights in a row at the Venue and we spent time together.
“They told me they were coming to America and I asked where they wanted to play. ‘Laredo, El Paso’ – they named all these shooter ballad towns from Marty Robbins songs. “Well, I don’t know about that,” I said, “but we could play Lubbock together.” And they were like, ‘Lubbock! Alright!’ We played in Houston, San Antonio, Laredo, Lubbock and Juarez It was a great meeting between Europe and Texas.
Ely told me that The Clash’s fantasy take on the American West didn’t quite match reality. “The first thing they said when they got to Lubbock was ‘Where are all the cars? Where are all the people? It was a normal day in Lubbock, maybe four cars on the street. But for the Clash, it was ‘Where’s everybody?’ “Why did Buddy Holly come from here?” “Why did Elvis play eight times at the Fair Park Coliseum? »
“We saw each other a lot. Imaginations were on fire and the groups were extreme. Breaking the rules was the rule.
A year after bonding with The Clash, Ely fell in love performing with Linda Ronstadt, Queen of LA Rock. The Joe Ely Band opened up a series of tour dates for Ronstadt, and she returned the favor by playing the Tornado Jam in Lubbock in 1982.
Ely and the band parted ways after five years of national and international hardcore touring. One by one, the band members moved to Austin. Guitarist Jesse Taylor and accordionist Ponty Bone started leading their own bands, and Lloyd Maines pedal steel player established himself as the most prolific producer in Texas music history after honing his skills in Lubbock.
It was during this time that Ely began to embrace technology, meeting and befriending Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer. He experimented with recording using an Apple II computer and the original recordings of B484, which Wozniak did the liner notes for, may be the first album ever recorded on an Apple. He followed this album with Hi Res, also recorded on an Apple II.
A few years later, Ely hired guitarist David Grissom and welcomed fellow West Texan Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys to join his new backing band whenever he could. From this came lord of the road.
In 1993 Ely struck up a friendship with Bruce Springsteen, who saw him perform in Dublin, Ireland, and became a fan, recording “All Just To Get To You” with Ely and performing together 17 times. Ely was never shy about taking risks. For a while Ely added Dutch flamenco guitarist Teye who played on the 1995 album Letter to Laredo.
By the turn of the century he had moved into solo and acoustic work, doing several songwriting tours with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt and Guy Clark sitting in a semicircle doing a guitar draw. He won a Grammy as part of the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven. The Flatlanders came together when Robert Redford asked them to contribute a song to the film’s soundtrack The Horse Whisperer in 1998. Butch, Jimmie and Joe proved much more popular this time around, recording a full album, now againin 2002. The trio released treasure of lovetheir first new recording in 12 years last year.
No matter what Joe Ely was doing, he always made time to put together a band for epic gigs at Gruene Hall, where he last performed on February 19, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. settles down.
As a writer, there have been plays (Chippy), books (Reverb: an odyssey, bonfire of roadmaps), and induction into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2017. There’s also art (including sketches by beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; prints and box sets are available at Ely’s website), and Lifetime Achievement Awards and Recognition.
So between the pandemic hiatus and post-op rehab, it would be easy to conclude that Ely has run his course. Swinging isn’t easy when you’re 75. But he begs to disagree.
There’s the release of his “labor of love” to his daughter, Flatland Lullaby. “I was glad I didn’t let it slip away like so many other recordings I’ve done over the years,” he said. “I hadn’t finished them and they kinda fade away if you don’t turn them off. There are so many partial stories that lead to other stories, now it’s like a puzzle, putting it all together. That’s the feeling I got with it Lullaby album.”
And that Flatlanders gig in Luckenbach? “It was the one and only Flatlanders concert in three and a half years. We’re talking about doing the New Orleans Jazz Festival [in April 2023] and talk about doing Northern California in Rancho Nicasio [a storied club in rural Marin County, run by former fellow Lubbock native Angela Strehli]. I have played there several times. We just don’t have any dates listed.
But no more three-week races for the self-proclaimed “Lord of the Highway.” “We’re not talking about making it a touring band,” he said with a laugh. “We just want to have fun and not get caught up in what it takes to run a road group with 10 people on pay.”
In other words, the road does not last forever, as Robert Earl Keen once wrote, and Joe Ely no longer lives on the road. “No, I don’t,” he said, laughing again. “Thank goodness. I’ve done my time.
He admitted to having apprehensions about going back on stage with the Flatlanders. “It was scary to think about,” he said. “But once we got on stage and started playing together, it was like someone opened the door and we were home.”
The next gig, his ACL induction, should look more like comfortable shoes. Maines leads the band, which includes David Grissom on guitar and Ely’s longtime rhythm section, drummer Davis McLarty and bassist Jimmy Pettit. Butch and Jimmie Dale will be there, as well as Marcia Ball and Rodney Crowell.
As for the formal induction, Ely claimed he would pilot it. “I don’t know exactly what to do,” he said cheerfully. “I don’t know what to wear. I don’t know which drawer to look in to find the missing parts of my life. By showtime, I bet he’ll have it figured out.