For 35 years, Joe Ely has built his legacy one roadhouse gig at a time, like a force of nature. He’s put out at least 13 studio recordings (in addition to his work with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the Flatlanders), and a pair of legendary live performances, 1980’s Live Shots (recorded while in London on tour with the Clash), and 20 years later, Live At Antone’s, showcasing Ely’s vibrant blend of country, rock, and blues.
This year he’s released a pair of albums on his Rack’Em label, Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch and Silver City. The two discs are in some sense the soundtrack to his new book, Bonfire of Roadmaps, which compiles his musings from a life spent on the road, beginning when he was 17. (Put a guitar in a man’s hands, and he’s not homeless, he’s a musician.)
“I just like the feel of moving, ever since I was a kid,” Ely says, freshly arrived in his San Francisco hotel. “My old granddad worked on the trains and I was always moving from place to place. There’s just something in me that just likes to roll.”
He’s in the Bay Area with the Flatlanders, who perform as part of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park the next day. Ely met Gilmore and Hancock in 1970 and they quickly started playing together. Each brought his own flavor to the group, providing an important education/future foundation in bluegrass and country for Ely, a boy who grew up on rock ’n’ roll.
“When I first started playing music, it was right when Buddy Holly died and in Lubbock everybody was forming bands in their garage with a Stratocaster,” says Ely. “It was really Butch and Jimmie that introduced me to that whole different world.”
After the Flatlanders broke up in 1973, Ely put together a band and released a pair of albums, his ’77 self-titled debut and 1978’s seminal Honky Tonk Masquerade, which forever cemented his reputation. On these records, Ely and his band display a sure-footedness that runs from tear-stained honky-tonk and aching ballads to country swing and rock ’n’ roll, an eclecticism that would define Ely’s career.
Ely’s other major characteristic would be a steadfast, independent spirit he shares with a generation of Texas songwriters (and friends) such as Willie Nelson, Terry Allen, Billy Joe Shaver, his fellow Flatlanders, and the late Townes Van Zandt.
“We never really got into the whole music business thing, like a lot of people who fashioned a career and made all the right moves, did all the right press stuff and peed on the Alamo just at the right time,” Ely says. “We were just in it for the music, and I’m glad too because a lot of the people that I know that were kind of in it for the glory and all, are no longer playing music.”
Something of an archivist, Ely has kept notebooks of his observations and encounters throughout his life (though certain chapters have been irretrievably lost in all the movement, such as the notebooks once left in a New York City cab.) The University of Texas asked him to put these journals together for what became Bonfire. In assembling it, he rediscovered music connected to those times.
“I started thinking, ‘Oh wow this little passage here, I remember I started a song that had something to do with this.’ Then I’d go back and find the song, and I’d record it while I was putting the book together,” Ely says. He’s describing Silver City, songs which are among the first he ever wrote, before uniting with the Flatlanders.
“Some of those early chapters of the book when `Ely and a friend` jumped freight trains up to New York City in the wintertime, and then joining the circus and the carnival, all those things I had really kind of forgotten about,” he recalls. “There were songs `written at the time` buried in the bottom of the drawer, and when I was putting the book together I dug those out, and thought, ‘Well here’s a whole ‘nother record `Rattlesnake Gulch`.’ So it became another part of a pretty busy year for me. ”
He struggled at times to recall the original vocal melodies, and some had to be rewritten a little, resulting essentially in collaboration between Ely and his younger self. The results are a pair of remarkably consistent - if very different - albums that fit nicely within Ely’s oeuvre.
“It’s a challenge because it stirs up old stuff that you might not want to stir up. But at the same time it’s rewarding and it’s kind of a chapter that’s been left out,” he says. Meanwhile, he’s working on another batch of old songs from the time between the Flatlanders and when he assembled his first band.
For other aspiring songwriters, he offers this advice: “There were many times I was so down and out, I could have easily lost hope in what I was doing, but really every single situation, every waking moment you’re alive there’s something going on, if you’re aware of it, it’s a story or a song. You have to catch it.”
And in Ely’s case, archive it, go back and find it, and eventually record and release it. •
Joe Ely Band w. The Dedringers
9 pm Sat, Oct 20
1281 Gruene Rd., New Braunfels