Joe Ely continues to earn his reputation as a committed road warrior. Never mind the fact that he’s been purveying his craft for the better part of 40 years, but here he is now, literally pulling over to the side of the freeway in some small Texas town to take our call—and, he says, a barbecue sandwich—before driving on to a gig tonight in Taos. The sound of the cars swishing by in the background can be easily overheard. Then again, this is the same individual who named an early album Lord of the Highway, and if this particular scenario doesn’t confirm his right to wear that crown, it’s hard to imagine what else would.
Then again, Ely has reason to take to the road. There’s a new album to promote, his first in four years. Aptly titled Panhandle Rambler, it’s a song cycle about Texas, the place he’s always called home. Like most of his studio efforts of the past decade, it’s self-produced and also fairly long in coming.
“I really had a great time this album together, although it did take me quite a while,” Ely concedes. “Two years ago I completely swerved and did a whole different turn because the songs were turning into a whole different theme. I’m glad I stuck with it. I kind of took a trip back to the dusty old Texas plains where I came from. Stories that don’t have a beginning or an ending, but have a little bit of danger. I like to have a sense of place. So I found little inside stories in there and followed them as near as I could until I could wrestle them to the ground.” He laughs.
“I didn’t want to rush into it. I just wanted to follow it until I thought it was ready. It was more like painting a picture than recording a record.”
Despite his large catalog—more than two dozen live and studio albums at last count—Ely’s methods have become much more calculated in recent years. With his own record label, Rack ‘Em Records, and the ability to produce himself, he’s gained a significant amount of latitude when it comes to his recordings.
“I have a studio at home and I like to rattle all night and get things started and work on them until they’re done,” he explains. “I liked working with producers when I was first making records, but what I didn’t like was a record company saying we need a new record in six months. You’re kind of racing the clock. I’m not that quick. Early on I was putting out a record a year, but that wasn’t much fun. I discovered I don’t work well under pressure.” He laughs. “I like to lollygag around. I guess I’m kind of cantankerous. That’s one of reasons why I work with it so intently and why I’m not so easily satisfied with the songs. If it sounds like a mishmash repeat of the last album, I become really conscious of it very quickly.”
Nevertheless, Ely’s West Texas heritage left an early imprint on his music, and that influence has never strayed far from his sound. “Growing up in Lubbock, I had limited resources,” he recalls. “It was off the musical map, except for the dance halls that came out of there, and the bands that were formed to do the dances in the early days, bands like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys who used to come through a lot. That music came from a certain tradition, of cowboys sitting around the campfire on trail drives sharing stories and passing them on to others. And then, come Saturday night, there was always a hoedown. And that’s all I’ve tried to do, to turn that emptiness into music. About all you can do to fill out a big open sky is to sing a good song.”
Nevertheless, Ely amplified that initial inspiration and used it to expand his parameters, building a stockpile of songs that encompass country, folk, rock, south-of-the-border sounds and even punk, not only on his own but with his seminal supergroup of sorts, the Flatlanders, the outfit he formed with fellow songwriters Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. Their first album, recorded in 1972 before any of them had achieved individual success, disappeared almost as quickly as it was released (“They only sent about 50 singles out to the radio stations and there was a big powerful DJ in Fort Worth who didn’t like the song and he pretty much nixed it. It was a song about Dallas that said unfavorable things and that kind of pissed him off I think.”)
“Working with the Flatlanders has been a crazy experience,” Ely reflects. “We get together every three or four years and throw around ideas and see if anything sticks. We don’t think of it as a band. We think of it as a group of friends who gets together every once in a while. That’s probably why we have stayed friends as long as we have. So many bands do two records and then break up. It took us 30 years to do two records. The Flatlanders lived its career in reverse. It’s crazy.”
With no record contract to fall back on, Ely relocated to New York, spending a winter there writing songs until he eventually opted to return to Texas and join Ringling Brothers Circus as an animal wrangler. “I herded the llamas and walked in the parade with the world’s smallest horse,” he reminisces. “We hit every town in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Then I got kicked by a horse and decided to go back to Lubbock and start a band. I had enough of the glamorous life.”
Back home, Ely found himself drawing crowds rather quickly. A representative from MCA records showed up at one of their gigs and offered a record contract, and Ely eagerly accepted. “They said, ‘We want you to make records.’ And I said, ‘Well alright. Let’s do it.’ So we made that first album and then it was literally only seven or eight months before we were back in the studio recording another one. They started to come pretty quick, but by that time I had a whole suitcase of songs and we were finding an audience.
He also found kindred spirits in an unlikely British band called The Clash. Drawn by a fondness for the high lonesome sound Ely and his outfit purveyed early on, the group befriended him and his compatriots when they made their first overseas excursion to England in 1978. “That was a strange gathering,” Ely concedes. “An East London band connecting to a group from Lubbock, Texas is a pretty vast jump as a cultural exchange. They really like rockabilly and old gunfighter ballads. Before Joe [Strummer] died we planned to go into Mexico and record an album together using Mexican musicians. But then he died the next year. It’s sad we never got to do that. He left this world way too soon.”
As for Ely, at age 68, he has no intention of quitting the road anytime soon. Looking back on his over-40-year career, he sums it up succinctly: Hitting the road. Sharing insights. Making music. “That’s what I’ve been doing all along.”