The first time I saw Joe Ely perform was in the 70s at a small club in Minneapolis.
The Cabooze was quite a joint. Over the years it’s featured a variety of touring acts such as Johnny Winter, Hot Tuna, John Lee Hooker, Gregg Allman, Papa John Creech, the Replacements and more.
The room was overflowing with college-age kids, much like me, many from the nearby University of Minnesota.
A few nights before, James Brown had smoked a similarly packed house with the kind of supercharged funk-fest you’d expect from The Godfather of Soul in his prime.
But Ely was a different act altogether. In his early 30s at the time, the young Texas musician was already a seasoned veteran.
He possessed a unique ability to stir up a crowd with a Buddy Holly-styled roadhouse barnburner followed by a wistful ballad that could silence the same room and leave his audience hanging on every word.
The evening proved a musical education, I suspect, for most of those in attendance that would likely be remembered fondly for years.
Fortunately, some things are slow to change.
Just as he did in the early days, Ely still cuts an uncommon figure in his cowboy uniform: denim jeans and western-cut shirt, accented by a faded red bandana and worn boots.
He’s a little on the inconspicuous side. If you’re not paying attention you may miss him, sitting unassumingly at the end of a dark bar while a Hank Williams tune crackles on the jukebox.
“There’s an earthy roguish, very manly quality to Joe Ely’s voice,” says musician Sara Hickman, who grew up in Houston and is an avowed fan. “He’s a modern rock and roll cowboy with a dash of GQ.”
Grammy-winner Shawn Colvin (“Sunny Came Home”) agrees: “The thing you’ve got to say about Joe is that he’s pretty sexy,” she says with a laugh. “He’s a very charismatic person; you can’t look away and you can’t not listen.”
The lines around Ely’s eyes read a bit like a roadmap of the southwestern states he’s traveled for decades. His songs take you to the places he writes about so eloquently. And even though you’ve never been to “Mockingbird Hill,” “Cloister Mountain” or “Silver City,” after listening you’d probably swear you had.
“Letter to Laredo” and “She Never Spoke Spanish to Me” are every bit as poetic as Leonard Cohen chestnuts “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire,” but with Ely’s definitive edge.
He epitomizes what might be considered old school country, with a thick slice of “high and lonesome” on the side.
And his best songs ring as sure today as they did when he wrote them years ago.
Ely’s image is that of a troubadour.
In fact, it seems he’s hardly ever been off the road since he started performing.
Old friend Bruce Springsteen has been connected to Ely for many years. Rarified rock and roll air for certain, but something the road-tested, 69-year-old Texas Country icon routinely shrugs off.
Small wonder for a guy who’s opened for the Rolling Stones, and consistently shared stages and studios with established stars including The Boss, John Hiatt and Tom Petty, as well as younger artists such as Uncle Tupelo and Reckless Kelly.
When Springsteen played Houston in May 2014, he eagerly welcomed his ol’ Texas buddy onstage to harmonize a pair of flame-thrower encores in “Great Balls of Fire” and “Lucille.”
And why not: Ely’s been extraordinarily adroit at keeping a boot in a number of musical camps.
His 1978 album, Honky Tonk Masquerade, made it into the hands of the late Joe Strummer of famed English punk band, The Clash.
The pair became friends, and played on the same concert bills.
When the band cut their landmark Combat Rock album, Ely was invited along to lend background vocals (in Tex-Mex Spanish) to one of the group’s most memorable tunes, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
Years later Strummer planned to record with Ely’s band. However, he died suddenly of cardiac arrest in 2002 at age 50 before anything materialized.
Ely’s said it’s one of his life’s greatest regrets.
Lubbock’s a Texas original; a breeding ground for country music, which locals discuss in damn near spiritual tones.
Beyond the city’s most famous son, Buddy Holly, it’s been a proving ground for Waylon Jennings, Mac Davis, Delbert McClinton, Angela Strehli and more.
Echoes of the past can be heard baked into Ely’s music along with influences of folk contemporaries such as Bob Dylan, the late Townes Van Zandt and old friend Guy Clark, who passed away in May.
Born in Amarillo, Ely’s family moved to Lubbock when young Joe was a boy.
His dad died a couple of years later.
Family issues forced Ely and his brother to leave the area to live with relatives for a spell.
When they returned to town as teenagers, Ely dropped out of school to focus on music.
He decided to take his show on the road, traveling to California, then to New York and later to Europe, where he worked with a theatrical company.
“I first met Joey Ely (as he was called back then) in ‘69 at a little club in Lubbock,” says Bob Livingston, a founding member of the legendary Lost Gonzo Band, which backed Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Martin Murphey and Ray Wylie Hubbard in the 1970s.
He played in a sort of a “dreamy, detached way,” recalls Livingston. Ely would fidget, he says, look uncomfortable and rarely speak between songs.
“He just looked down a lot and mumbled. But he sang really soulfully and chose obscure songs (at least ones I’d never heard before),” he remembers fondly.
For Livingston, a key figure in the 70s outlaw music movement in Texas and a globetrotting ambassador of American music, the experience proved transforming.
“His unusual and blasé performance had a profound affect on me,” he says. “… I basically reinvented my musical direction in the model of Joey Ely.”
In 1972 Ely hooked up with friends Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.
They would soon introduce the world to The Flatlanders.
“Jimmie was like a well of country music,” says Ely. “He knew everything about it. And Butch was from the folk world. I was kind of the rock and roll guy…we hit it off and started playing a lot together. That opened up a whole new world I had never known existed.”
The trio’s first recording together included 14 basic tracks laid off to a reel-to-reel in an Odessa studio.
Aficionados have gone as far to call it the birth of American alt-country music.
Without The Flatlanders paving the genre’s road, it’s doubtful artists such as Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Old 97’s and others would have ever gotten too far into gear.
The band’s brilliant blend of folk, blues, country and Tex-Mex was simply unprecedented, as unique as it is enduring.
Together, they’ve made some of the most memorable music to come out of Texas since Willie Nelson left Nashville and returned home to help kick-start the Austin scene with musicians such as Livingston, Murphey, Walker and others.
In celebration of The Flatlanders’ 40 years together, in 2012 they finally released the recordings, known as The Odessa Tapes, on CD, DVD and, of course, vinyl.
Ely returned to the road, but this time with his own group: the Joe Ely Band.
One of the players was young Lloyd Maines, a talented steel guitarist who went on to produce for musicians including Ely and The Flatlanders as well as Texas Country mainstays Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green and The Dixie Chicks (his daughter, Natalie Maines, is the band’s lead singer).
Maines won a Grammy in 2003 as producer of the Chicks’ celebrated album, Home.
“Our first gig was in Lubbock at the Main Street Saloon,” remembers Maines, who estimates he’s played over 2,000 shows with Ely since 1973. “Joe called me and said he wanted to play Friday and Saturday to try and make enough money to move to Austin for a while.”
Maines says things went so well for Ely’s new quartet, they regrouped and played the next weekend. “That evolved into a band that would have an important impact for many years. Still does. And the rest is history.”
Around the same time, The Lost Gonzo Band had been recording for MCA Records.
When the label’s top country music executive asked if there were other Texas groups to consider, Livingston knew just what to do.
“I gave him a demo Ely had recorded in Lubbock,” he recalls. “They were so blown away, they flew to Lubbock and caught Ely’s show.” The MCA mangers signed him on the spot.
Eventually, Ely left Lubbock for good soon after city fathers decided his annual music festival, dubbed “Tornado Jam,” was no longer welcome.
It was 1982 and the event had grown to the point that caused council members to have concerns. Just as the Texas Hill Country was opening arms and warmly welcoming musicians, Ely and his wife Sharon moved. They had a daughter soon afterwards, and have been there ever since.
With Austin as home base, he’s toured and recorded for years.
Aside from his long-running solo career, Ely’s also been an active member of a musical collective know as Los Super Seven.
Since forming in the late 90’s, the band’s included players such as the late Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Augie Meyers, and San Antonio accordion legend, Flaco Jimenez.
Over the years the Grammy-winning ensemble has morphed with each project, but managed to retain its distinctive vibe, thanks in no small part to its unique participants. “Joe has always been one-of-a-kind,” says Maines. “He never tried to sound like anyone and no one sounds like him.”
Big commercial success has been evasive, but it’s never seemed to bother Ely.
That said he is on a bit of an impressive dash over the last few years.
In 2014 he published his first novel, Reverb: An Odyssey, a semi-autobiographical read, as he’s referred to it. The backdrops are rich, and include the places where he grew up playing music.
“I’ve never really talked about that part of my life, when I first started playing music, especially when I first started writing songs,” he says.
“I just tried to tell what was going on; the turmoil in the world and actually it is a lot like what’s going on now.”
In May 2015 at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Ely was named State Musician of Texas by the legislature.
It’s a distinctive honor held in the past by Lone Star luminaries including Houston native Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and others.
As the state’s designated musician in 2010, Sara Hickman has a special appreciation for the role.
“I think Joe’s songs represent Texas in the way only our state can produce musicians of his singular quality,” she says. “It’s an extremely big honor.”
“He’s unique, he’s quirky, he has the clarity and precise, get-to-the-point writing of a Lubbock songwriter. He sings about Texas, love and people in a way that’s never corny, but gritty and real,” says Hickman.
With typical tongue-in-cheek humor, Ely told his hometown paper, The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, “If I have any say…my first proclamation would be to get rid of all the speed bumps in Texas. And I’d like encourage someone to mow the grass on both sides of the highway from Lubbock to Amarillo.”
The consequence of the official designation wasn’t lost on Ely.
“I am, of course, honored and surprised,” he added. “I’ve lived in this state all of my life, and Texas has been the source of a lot of inspiration for my songs.”
Last September, Ely released Panhandle Rambler to a predictably enthusiastic reception by music critics and longtime fans.
Count Linda Ronstadt among them.
“I’ve been playing it the last few days,” she says. “Joe’s stories are like watching a movie in Cinemascope and Technicolor. He did a perfect job….”
This is album number 14 for Ely; it features a dozen songs ranging from introspective sketches of a windblown life on the road to a lovely paean for his wife.
“You Saved Me” was written, he says, while hopelessly stuck in a cramped motel room during an ice storm in small town Texas after playing a benefit.
“Here’s to the Weary” has special meaning to Ely, particularly as it relates to his early hometown musical heroes.
“That song talks about the old Route 66 that goes through the top of Texas … driving that highway from Chicago to L.A. across the big old desert, naming a lot of my influences growing up and putting them into a song.”
Another composition, “Coyote’s Are Howling,” is his commentary on the perils of modern day drug cartels and smugglers crossing the desert.
“When I was a kid we used to go to Mexico to have fun,” he reminisces.
“We’d go there, and my band would sit in all night long in the border towns. Now you can’t really do that because there’s this danger out there.”
Panhandle Rambler also features covers of colleagues’ tunes: Guy Clark’s classic “Magdalene” and another from Butch Hancock, “When the Nights Are Cold.”
Longtime collaborator Joel Guzman’s exquisite accordion accents appear through the album like ripples on water.
“I had a great time working on the record,” says Ely. “I wish they all were that much fun.”
Marie, his daughter, took the photo for the album’s cover. “I thought it would be a nice touch to give her a little spot,” says her dad.
On February 21, Ely was inducted into the prestigious Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association’s 10th annual Hall of Fame ceremony in Austin.
He performed along with Houston native Robert Earl Keen, Raul Malo of The Mavericks and Rodney Crowell, plus surprise appearances by Hancock and Gilmore at a star-studded evening in Austin.
The ceremony honored songwriters in the class of 2016 including: the late Roy Orbison (“Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Crying,” “Only the Lonely”); J.D. Souther (“Best of My Love,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “You’re Only Lonely”); and Will Jennings (“Higher Love,” “Street Life,” “I’ll Never Love This Way Again”).
Accolades aside, the Texas road warrior is back on the road. Already this year he’s played nearly ever major market in Texas (some twice), as well as crisscrossing the U.S. with shows in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Kansas City, Miami, Chicago and more.
Rock and roll may be a young man’s game, but don’t tell Joe Ely.
He continues to travel America’s highways and back roads, on his way to the next gig, across a vast landscape filled with yet-to-be-told stories.
You just have to know where to look for them.