Still cool at age 75, Joe Ely continues to perform and make music. Photo by BarbaraFG, courtesy LC Media.
It has been quite a month for Joe Ely. The Flatlanders, the Lubbock trio he first played and recorded with in 1972, headlined the Back to the Basics Music Festival at Luckenbach in late September. It was their first performance in three and a half years, and many thought it would be their final gig. Flatland Lullaby, a musical Christmas gift back in 1985 to his then 3-year-old daughter, Maria Elena, was released on CD for the first time in early October. And on Oct. 27, he will be inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, along with singer Sheryl Crow.
Is all this part of a long goodbye? I wondered. So I rang him up to ask.
Nah, it’s more like the grand reawakening, explained the 75-year-old Ely, who still keeps musician’s hours, rising “about 10, 10:30.”
“I’ve been taking a breather, healing from an operation I had a couple years ago, getting my strength back,” he said. “Luckenbach was the first one of a new run, if we do anything else. I’m just going to leave it open.”
As for juggling three things at once, that’s been his life, he said matter-of-factly. “This wasn’t planned out. They just happened to collide. So we just grabbed it 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 performance, Joe Ely is without peer, as I discovered when I first saw him back in 1977 at a club in Lubbock called Fat Dawg’s.
MCA Records had just released his debut album, Joe Ely. At that time, the music scene in Austin had blown up to the point where anything coming out of the city was stirring up interest nationally, thanks to folks like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willis Alan Ramsey. But the country-rock hybrid being played around Austin had become tired and stereotypical.
Ely’s album was rock and country, too, but it came out of the city 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 not known for their compatibility—and packed a sonic wallop behind Ely’s singing that was simultaneously rockin’ and boot-scootin’ and so fresh and original, you couldn’t stick a label on it. The interplay between guitarist Jesse Taylor and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines was as powerful and unique to my ears as Duane Allman’s and Dickie Betts’ dueling guitar leads in the original Allman Brothers.
On that same visit to the Hub City, Joe took me to Buddy Holly’s grave at the city of Lubbock Cemetery to pay our respects, and we careened around the wide streets late into the night, ostensibly searching for a Black dwarf blues singer named Little Pete. We finally found Little Pete about 2 a.m., playing pool in TV’s, an after-hours joint located at the end of a cotton field east of town.
“TV was king of East Lubbock,” Ely said when I brought up the vivid memory. “He knew all the cool cats and ran a respectable bar that didn’t open ’til 1 or 2 in the morning. He got along well with the law because they knew the bad guys would be at TV’s; they’d all be in one spot. TV kept the herd on the dangerous side of Lubbock.”
Before that trip to Lubbock, I didn’t know much about Ely’s previous music adventure, The Flatlanders folk trio with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They had recorded an album and made a run at 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 photography. Gilmore followed his spiritual advisor to Colorado. Ely joined the Ringling Brothers circus for a short spell taking care of llamas and the World’s Smallest Horse (really), then settled in Lubbock where he put together a band and built up a local following, making original music that prompted MCA Records to offer a deal.
I thought I’d made a discovery. My instincts were validated a year after I saw Ely in Lubbock by The Clash, the punk rockers from Great Britain. That band caught Ely and company at the Venue Club in London, and a mutual admiration society was immediately established.
“[After that first gig, we] hit the clubs in the East End, staying up all night and having a good time,” Ely told Margaret Moser of the Austin Chronicle back in 2000. “It was like the West Texas hellraisers meet the London hellraisers. We were from different worlds, but it was like, ‘All right! Let’s hang out some more!’ We were playing three nights in a row at the Venue and hung out the whole time.
“They told me they were coming to America and I asked where they wanted to play. ‘Laredo, El Paso’—they were naming off all these gunfighter 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! All right!’ We played Houston, San Antonio, Laredo, Lubbock, and Juarez. It was a great Europe-meets-Texas meeting.”
Ely told me The Clash’s fantasy vision of the American West didn’t quite square with 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 to the Clash it was ‘Where is everybody?’ ’Why did Buddy Holly come from here?’ ‘Why did Elvis play the Fair Park Coliseum eight times?’
“We saw a lot in each other. Imaginations were on fire and bands were extreme. Breaking the rules was the rule.”
A year after bonding with The Clash, Ely became stage sweethearts with Linda Ronstadt, the Queen of L.A. Rock. The Joe Ely Band opened a string of tour dates for Ronstadt, and she returned the favor playing the Tornado Jam in Lubbock in 1982.
Ely and the band split after five years of hardcore touring domestically and internationally. One by one, band members relocated to Austin. Guitarist Jesse Taylor and accordionist Ponty Bone started fronting their own bands, and pedal steel player Lloyd Maines established himself as the most prolific producer in Texas music history after developing his skills in Lubbock.
It was around this time that Ely began embracing technology, meeting and becoming friends with Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer. He experimented with recording using an Apple II computer and the original recordings for B484, which Wozniak did the liner notes for, may be the first album ever recorded on an Apple. He followed that album up with Hi-Res, also recorded on an Apple II.
A few years later, Ely hired guitar-slinger David Grissom and welcomed fellow West Texan Bobby Keys, the saxophone player for the Rolling Stones, to join his new backing band whenever he could. Out of this came Lord of the Highway.
In 1993, Ely struck up a friendship with Bruce Springsteen, who saw him play in Dublin, Ireland, and became a fan, recording “All Just To Get To You” with Ely and performing together 17 times. Ely never shied away from taking risks. For a stretch, Ely added Dutch flamenco guitarist Teye who played on the 1995 album Letter to Laredo.
By the turn of the century, he had steered into solo and acoustic work, doing several songwriter tours with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Guy Clark sitting in a semi-circle doing a guitar pull. He won a Grammy as part of the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven. The Flatlanders reunited when Robert Redford asked them to contribute a song to the soundtrack of the film The Horse Whisperer in 1998. Butch, Jimmie, and Joe proved far more popular this time around, recording a full album, Now Again, in 2002. The trio released Treasure of Love, their 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 live shows at Gruene Hall, where he last performed on Feb. 19, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
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 of beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; prints and box sets are available on Ely’s website), and lifetime achievement awards and recognitions out the wazoo.
So between the pandemic pause and post-op rehab, it would be easy to conclude Ely has run his race. Rocking out isn’t effortless when you’re 75. But he begs to differ.
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 that I’ve done over the years,” he said. “I hadn’t finished them and they just kinda go away if you don’t put them out. There are so many partial stories that lead to other stories, now it’s like a puzzle, piecing it all together. That’s the feeling I had with this Lullaby album.”
And that Flatlanders gig at Luckenbach? “That was the one and only Flatlanders gig in three and a half years. We’re talking about doing the New Orleans Jazz Festival [in April 2023] and talking about doing northern California at Rancho Nicasio [a storied club in rural Marin County, run by former fellow Lubbock native Angela Strehli]. I’ve played there many times. We just don’t have dates inked in.”
But no more three-week runs for the self-declared “Lord of the Highway.” “We not talking about making this a touring band,” he said, laughing. “We just want to have fun, and not get caught up in what it takes to keep a road band going with 10 people on the payroll.”
In other words, the road doesn’t go on forever, like Robert Earl Keen wrote, and Joe Ely doesn’t live on the road anymore. “No, I don’t,” he said, again laughing. “Thank goodness. I’ve done my time.”
He admitted feeling apprehensive about getting back onstage again with the Flatlanders. “It was scary thinking about it,” he said. “But once we got onstage and started playing together, it was like somebody had opened the door and we were back home.”
The next gig, his ACL induction, should feel more like comfortable shoes. Maines is leading 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 on hand, along with Marcia Ball and Rodney Crowell.
As for the formal induction, Ely claimed he’ll be winging it. “I don’t know exactly what to do,” he said blithely. “I don’t know what to wear. I don’t know what drawer to look in to find the missing parts of my life.” By showtime, I’m betting he’ll have figured it out.