By Richard Skanse
(LSM May/June 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 3)
Time holds no sway over Joe Ely. He could stand a little more of it, he admits, but not in the manner of a 64-year-old man desperate to buy more time, to stall the inevitable or push back deadlines. It’s more a matter of impatience, an acute frustration that time itself flat can’t keep up with his runaway muse.
“I need about eight more hours a day to get things done,” he sighs when asked about the status of Super Reverb, the novel based loosely on his coming of age as a restless young, boxcar-riding gypsy troubadour with no particular place to go but everywhere. “I’d love to get it out this year, because it’s pretty fairly done and it’s about time to let it go. But I just get carried away on other projects.”
First and foremost on that list is the June 7 release of Satisfied at Last, his 19th album (not counting anthologies and ensemble projects with the Flatlanders and Los Super Seven) and fifth release on his own Rack ’Em Records label, which he launched in 2007. He’s also got two other albums in the works, both technically finished way back in the early ’80s but never released; he recorded them on his own time and dime when he was still signed to major-label MCA Records. And in typical Ely fashion, he wrote — and knowing him, probably recorded — more than enough songs during the process of making Satisfied at Last to make up at least another couple of brand new records, should he be so inclined. More likely, though, he’ll just start fresh with a whole new batch. If Ely had to pay an hourly studio rate to feed his creative addiction, instead of merely ambling out his front door and over to his cozy home studio a few hundred yards away, he’d be in serious trouble.
But Ely’s legend wasn’t born out of his demon work ethic in the studio. It was forged onstage, hammered out over thousands of shows and countless miles of sweaty roadwork from Lubbock to London and back again the long way around. Over the storied span of his four-decade career, he’s been at the forefront of three of the most formidable musical groups to ever blow out of Texas. Two of those bore his name: the original Joe Ely Band of the ’70s, fueled by the twin-engine roar of Jesse “Guitar” Taylor and pedal-steel magician Lloyd Maines; and every incarnation of the Joe Ely Band since, though most notably the high-octane rock ’n’ roll version with the pile-driving rhythm section of Jimmy Pettit and Davis McLarty and hotshot guitar hero David Grissom. The third, of course, would be the Flatlanders — the fabled three-headed jackalope of Texas-songwriting raconteurs Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock that was more a legendary inside-joke than a band for 30 years, before finally getting around to serious touring and recording in the past decade.
Although he’s mined many a gem from the songbooks of his fellow Flatlanders to bejewel his repertoire, Ely’s own catalog more than holds its own against that of any other singer-songwriter in Texas — if not American — music. “Because of the Wind,” “All Just to Get to You,” “Me and Billy the Kid,” “Honky Tonk Masquerade,” “Letter to Laredo,” “I Had My Hopes Up High,” “Dig All Night” … not for nothing have the ranks of his biggest fans over the years included not only “The Boss” (Bruce Springsteen), but also “The Only Band the Matters” (The Clash). His songs, like his live performances, twist and turn wildly all over the genre map, careening from country to rock to folk to blues to epic border balladry with daredevil abandon. Try to boil it all down to two words, and you could do a lot worse than Love and Danger — the tell-all title of one of his most popular mid-period releases. Boil it all down to one word, and there’s none better than Ely’s own signature exclamation, oft heard both onstage and on record, of “Whooo!”
As a live performer, Ely is never less than relentlessly riveting — whether he’s holding the reins of a raging band pushing “Cool Rockin’ Loretta” to the brink of spontaneous combustion, or holding an entire audience in the palm of his hand playing solo acoustic. And going all the way back to his teens, he’s lived his life with the same go-for-broke intensity. This, after all, is the guy who rode a motorcycle down the halls of his high school on the first day of his freshman year, hopped on a boxcar with a friend to see the leaves change in New England, had a gun pulled on him by the owner of a Houston nightclub, and toured Europe as a musician in the musical Stomp — and all this before he landed back in Lubbock and hooked up with Hancock and Gilmore to record the Flatlanders’ 1972 debut. Then, between that project and the launch of the first Joe Ely Band three years later, he even ran off again to join the Ringling Bros. Circus for a spell (minding the llamas), until he got trampled by a runaway horse. Whooo!
The following interview was conducted at Ely’s homestead in southwest Austin, which he and his wife, Sharon, bought in the early ’80s. Sharon attributes most of the house’s delightfully bohemian-rustic eccentricities to its original designer, Texas rancher Marshall Kuykendall, but the Elys have added plenty of their own colorful touches — like the row of dice, dominoes, rusted harmonicas and even a tiny Rolling Stones lips ’n’ tongue trinket tiled all along the front of the outside wall. “Sometimes the wind plays the harmonicas,” notes Joe. Longtime family friend (and fellow Lubbock ex-pat) Terry Allen, the acclaimed sculptor, artist, playwright and songwriter, once put his own stamp on the place, too, literally burning the word “Irony” right into the woodwork in various places throughout the house with a cattle brand.
On the short walk over to the guest house that Ely’s converted into his home studio, he points out the old black Caddy parked under one of his trees. “That’s Stubb’s old Cadillac, which just came back to me,” he says. “Stubb gave me that car as payment for all the money I loaned him to help him get his barbecue sauce company going. I ended up loaning it to this guy that knew Stubb and wanted to drive it, and I kind of forgot about it for several years. But then he moved to New York City, and I told him he could park it out here. I don’t think he’s ever going to come back for it, so I’ve got to figure out if I’m going to restore it or do what. It needs a lot of work.
“I’ve had so many weird things like that come back to me like that,” he continues. “Like I just got back the little violin that I played when I was 8 years old. I’d sold it to a guy when I was 14 so I could buy a PA, and he gave it to his brother, and his brother gave it to his kids, and then somebody else gave it to somebody else and it finally came back to the guy I sold it too. And he called me up about three years ago and said, ‘I’ve got your violin under my bed, why don’t you come get it?’”
As we settle into the control room of his studio and I set up my recorder, Ely takes note of the iPad I’ve brought with all of my questions — knowing from past interviews that Ely, whose website proudly boasts, “On Line Since 1984,” is an avowed Apple enthusiast. I figured, correctly, that it’d be a good ice breaker.
“God, that is the greatest thing for the road,” he says with a nod. “I used to have to carry just acres of stuff with me, but with that …”
I ask if he’s seen the new GarageBand app for it yet, and he shakes his head. “No, but I just heard about it I think two days ago, and I thought, ‘That’s great!’ God, I remember, in the ’70s, nobody had a studio. Nobody recorded, because you just couldn’t do it, it was impossible, it cost so much. But now there are so many incredible tools available, like that one — it almost makes this whole board here look like a big, heavy door weight. And that program will do eight tracks? That is amazing. A recording studio for five dollars!”
The geek bond is secured, and we’re off …
I wanted to show you that GarageBand app to get your take on a debate that’s been stuck in my craw lately. At SXSW last week, a local critic led a panel called “I’m Not Old, Your Music Really Does Suck.” The gist of his premise was that there’s too many people releasing music these days, and most of it’s not any good because it’s just too damn easy for anybody to do it and there are no traditional gate keepers anymore …
[Laughs] Well, that’s true. But I think it all filters itself out, too. I think the Internet is the world’s biggest filter. Because people are the filter now, instead of the record companies. Record companies used to sell music by taking out ads in Rolling Stone. That’s the only way that they could get the word around. When I was working with MCA, one record guy told me one time, “You know, 90-percent of the population hates music, does not like it whatsoever. And that’s who we go after to sell music to.” [Laughs]
What about the idea of, “It’s too easy to make and release music these days”? That attitude drives me crazy.
It’s hard to make a record. Still. I just spent a year and a half on this one. I know how hard it is. It’s easy to start one, it’s easy to just throw something out there, but it’s really hard to finish it.
But once you do finish it, you can put it out whenever you want to. You don’t need an A&R man to sign off on it or a big record company to release it. There’s a freedom there that most artists just didn’t have in the past.
Yeah, the freedom of putting it out as you like.
Like that “trilogy” you did in 2007: Two new albums of songs you wrote years ago but never recorded or released (Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch and Silver City: Pearls from the Vault Vol. 1), and a book of your road journals, Bonfire of Roadmaps. They all tied together.
Yeah, that was all one big project. I would have never even conceived of that if there hadn’t been the Internet, and if I wasn’t able to have my own record company and record without having to have the infusion of money from somewhere. I was able to just think of it as, “Here’s a collection of stories, and here’s a group of songs that have a little bit to do with these stories,” and I thought of it as a trio of works that went together. I didn’t think of it as two records. I thought of it as a piece of time that the book stretched between.
Since all of the songs, if not the recordings, on both Happy Songs and Silver City were from your archives, it’s been seven years since your last album of all new songs, Streets of Sin. Apart from the Billy Joe Shaver cover (“Live Forever”) and “Roll Again,” which you recorded a different version of on Twistin’ in the Wind, are the songs on Satisfied at Last all new, or do some of them go way back, too?
No, they’re all new. Well I guess the longest any of them goes back is around 2005 or ’06. So they’re all recent. I’ve written probably more songs than I’ve ever written before in, say, the last eight or nine years.
What do you think is behind that?
I don’t know. I get on a roll, and I’ll just come out here and just start working on a song. So really, I had more songs to choose from with this record than any time before. But I was really careful about picking songs that I thought fit together as a collection. I could have gone so many different ways. In fact, I started out in kind of a whole different zone than I ended up in. I also did that on Letter to Laredo — I started that as a completely different record, and kind of changed in the middle of it, and found a different direction. For this one, I think it was the song “Satisfied at Last,” and oh, probably “Mockingbird Hill” and “You Can Bet I’m Gone,” that really set the tone and kind of changed the course of the album. Because I wanted it to have modern-day ballads telling stories about people and places, but instead of doing a folk record or something like that, I wanted it to have different rhythms and feels, like what I’d play with a band in a set, or one of those old ’60s albums, like the Doors stuff, where there might be something like “This is the End,” and then it would follow up with just a wild shuffle screaming off into the night.
It’s funny, but every record I do, I approach it differently. And then I always learn something in the middle of it. Because you’re always running into different obstacles — just in your head, really — and you’re always asking yourself whether this is right or not, whether it’s true or if it’s false. And in the end, you just have to go with what record you want to make at that period of time. So this record feels like, at this time in my life, being 64 years old … I’m not trying to prove anything or do anything except wanting to make the right record for this period in my life. And that’s why, even though it wasn’t a hard record to make, it still took a lot of time to understand what not to do, instead of what to do. It was hard to figure out what not to put on it.
As far as the direction and theme of this album goes, let’s talk about that title. Between your book from a few years back being called Bonfire of Roadmaps, and this album being called Satisfied at Last, one could kind of get the impression that, “Hey, this guy’s sending out a message here …”
[Laughs] Well, maybe messages I received, instead of sent out. But yeah, you could read the titles as …
Well, not just the titles, but even some of the lyrics. How literally should one take a song like “Satisfied at Last” in regards to your own state of mind, as an artist?
Well, you know, as you get into the song, just the rhythm of it … it’s got a little bit of a harsh edge to it. You kind of get the feeling, or I do, that the “satisfied at last” part is really just a blink. You know, you’re satisfied at last this minute, right this second, but you don’t know what’s around the corner. It’s that feeling of sticking your head out the car door, and there’s a nice cool wind blowing in your face. That’s the satisfied at last feeling. It’s not …
It’s not “I’m done.”
No. Not “I’m done.” I’m just … I made it this far. I had teachers tell me I wouldn’t make it to 21 when I was going to high school, so I beat the odds, you know? I’ve traveled millions of miles, zigging and zagging in every kind of vehicle known to man, trying to get from one place to another to create some more music. And there’s been a lot of times where, you know, I’ve had some dilemmas. There was one tour that we did around Europe, in ’86 or ’87, where everywhere we went, things were just snapping at our heels. Like, we got off a ferry, and the next day that ferry sunk. We checked into the King’s Hotel, and the next day the hotel burned down. The whole tour was like that! Everywhere we went, we just heard these stories of, you know, “The bridge fell down yesterday! The train crashed!” Every vehicle that we were on. Our English roadies tried to run a roadblock at the border in Italy, and we could have been incarcerated for years. But they somehow talked their way out of it.
But then sometimes, everything is just a breeze. Everything is just so easy: “Ah, yeah … we made that light, we found our hotel, we missed the blizzard, the tornadoes came three days later …” So in the end you kind of add up all the life experiences that you’ve had, from threats to just running into weird coincidences constantly, and then you think, “Wow, I made it through all that. So I can take a breath of air, and then go from there.” It’s just a little pause, and then you’re back in it.
You mentioned “Satisfied at Last” having an edgy rhythm to it …
There’s a little tension, there, yeah.
That’s always been an element of that to your music, though. You’ve never sounded complacent musically. Like on the new album, the opening song, “The Highway is My Home,” has a real funky, Stax-kind of groove to it that’s not really like anything you’ve had on a record before. It opens the record with kind of a surprise left hook.
It’s a whole different feel, yeah. I’m always looking for other rhythms that feel like they’re part of me, but not necessarily things that I’ve done before. I don’t know where that one came from. It’s a little like a few things maybe on Letter to Laredo, because I kind of experimented with some new rhythms at that time that I had never played before. But I’ve always liked trying … if I have one song with a crazy funk half-time thing, I like to follow it up with something totally different. A lot of songwriters kind of stick with the same rhythm to build their songs, and then maybe other people change them, but I like that journey of finding a different rhythm, because it just reminds me of different journeys that I’ve been on that have all been different rhythms themselves. Sometimes it’s a gallop, and sometimes it’s a trot.
Letter to Laredo  kicked off sort of a “flamenco trilogy” for you, even though only parts of Twistin’ in the Wind continued in that vein and Live @ Antones drew just as heavily from other chapters of your career. But Letter to Laredo was all-in and a pretty dramatic new direction for you. What was the genesis of that phase for you?
That whole era started when I went to Spain for the first time, in about ’92 or ’93, something like that. And one of my favorite poets was always Federico Garcia Lorca, who was a Spanish poet that traveled with the gypsies in the early part of the last century. He traveled with gypsies and actually made songs with them. Lyrically, his stuff was kind of abstract and surreal, almost like a Salvador Dali painting. And I just loved the rhythm of his words, and always wondered what the songs that he would do with the gypsies would sound like, because nobody ever recorded them. I used to talk to Joe Strummer about this, too, because he also really liked Garcia Lorca and spent a lot of time in Spain. So when I got there, I was down in Córdoba and there were all these streets that I recognized from his poems and stories. And I just started writing down my own stories that came to me, sometimes even using the character names from his writings. Like Garcia Lorca wrote a real abstract story about this little girl named Preciosa, and I just took the girl and put her in the modern day and made up a whole different story, gave her boyfriend a hotrod Fiat or something, but kept her name.
So that kind of started the idea, and then when I got back to Texas, I met a flamenco guitar player, Teye. He’s actually from Holland, but he had been living in Spain for several years, studying with the gypsies. I told him about these songs that I had written, and he said, “Well, let’s hear them.” And after I played them for him, he just interpreted them in a whole different way — I had never heard anybody play like that. He just really introduced me to a whole different rhythm, which I thought was great, because I’m always looking for something that will make me turn a corner and explore something else. And that sort of set me loose. In fact, I completely dropped the record I had been working on at the time and went off in a completely different direction.
That album is so highly regarded now, but what was the initial response to it? Was there any out-right negative reaction from people?
Oh yeah! MCA … they didn’t know what the hell to do with it in Nashville, with either Letter to Laredo or Twistin’ in the Wind. Because it didn’t fit country radio, it didn’t fit folk music, or anything. But I think just about every record I’ve ever done with a record label, they didn’t know what to do with it. Going back to the stuff that me and Lloyd and Jesse did for MCA in ’76, it had no connection whatsoever to either country or rock. Because it kind of came out of Lubbock with a whole different set of images that was not the kind of sort of story songs that were popular of the day. But you know, I’ve never really done anything to please a record company, or to please a public, you know?
Right. It was the public’s reaction, your fanbase, that I was more curious about. The first time I ever saw you play was a few months after Laredo came out, so that album was actually my introduction to you. But I imagine it had to have really thrown fans of the Joe Ely rock band from the ’80s, and even 1992’s Love and Danger, for a loop.
Yeah. But I don’t think … I mean, I love the fact that people come to see me, and have for years, and I love the fact that I can still go out and play on the road. But I’ve always thought that catering to an audience didn’t do you any good, and it didn’t do the audience any good. Because you can’t really cater to what somebody wants to hear, because you don’t know what they want to hear. So it’s kind of unfair to think that you know what your audience wants to hear. I’ve always thought that it did a disservice to the songwriter as well as the listener. Instead, you should give something that you just feel is right at the proper time, and if the people like it, great! And if they don’t, then maybe the next batch of songs they will like. And it’s same with the record companies — though now I have no intention of recording with record companies any more, because it’s such a freedom to do songs outside of that structured system. But I guess I’ve just been lucky that the records seem to find their own audience. They kind of wind around, and maybe have to go down some twists and turns and up some alleys and round some bayous and stuff, but eventually they find their audience. Sometimes in different countries. I know that Letter to Laredo was well received in Italy, even though it was not Italian, and it was all stories about the Southwest and the desert, set with a flamenco guitar.
Well, Italy did give the world the spaghetti western.
Speaking of the Southwest, you told me once that you always go back to Lubbock when you start a project.
I always seem to think of it as, that’s the spot that I begin from. Just because that’s where I started from. Even though I don’t think I could ever live out there again, I always go up there just to see where my beginnings are, and a lot of times that gives me a clue of where to begin a record.
Do you always go back there physically, or just in your head?
Well sometimes I go mentally, but I actually like to go physically, because there’s something about the dimensions out there … It’s so stark and so incredibly massive in scale, as compared to here in Austin, where when you look out, there’s just a wall of trees everywhere. But when you go out there and look, it’s the horizon, and there’s just something more … there’s so much more space to fill up out there. That horizon just gives me a sense of freedom that I can get away with anything. That I can get away from freeways and traffic jams, and you know, hills and valleys; you go out there and it’s just the horizon.
Like clearing off the table.
It’s clearing off the table! Yeah. It’s like, swoosh, everything is out of here. And that’s just kind of my secret place that gives me permission to do whatever I damn want to do.
When you go back, is there any one specific place that you have to seek out and visit first, to touch base?
No. But I do like to just get on those old dirt roads that just go for miles in one direction.
Is “Not That Much Has Changed” on the new album about Lubbock?
Probably. But it could be about any town.
It starts out as a snapshot of a town but gets much broader.
Yeah, it goes into the war and stuff. I think of it as a guy coming back and, you know, it’s like you come back into some of those old little towns, and the drugstore is still boarded up, and has been for 10 years. But there might be a new name on the water tower. There’s just a few little clues. And then the real kicker is that, it doesn’t appear that much has changed, but really everything has changed. Because you have changed, and you’re the one that’s seeing this. So I try to just paint that picture of a guy coming back to his little town, and it looks just the same, but the love of his life is gone … there’s an empty house, weeds growing in the lawn, and then he’s thinking about the war and all the people coming back, and their whole entire lives are totally different than they were. I just tried to show the perspective of what change really was, what it was about. Change is really about you have changed.
There’s a line in “You Can Bet I’m Gone” about how, when you die, you want your ashes fired off in shotgun shells on a windy day, so that “I’ll be all scattered all over the state/and you know what state I’m talking about/The place I love, I can’t live without.” I think it’s interesting in that, from the time you were old enough to hop on a freight train, you couldn’t wait to get out of Texas and see the world. But something always brought you back, even before you started a family. Is that just an ingrained Texas pride thing?
No. It’s not a pride. You know, I don’t have … I feel comfortable just about anywhere I’m at. I spent several months overseas, and I almost thought about moving to England or Europe. And I lived in New York City for six, seven months at a time before, and really liked the energy there — it was a great town to write in. And I spent some time in California, northern and southern. In the ’70s, the record company was suggesting that I move out to L.A. to be close to them and to the media and all the tools that they had to sell records. And I’d go out there and spend a few months at a time, but then I’d get this feeling … I’d look at what I wrote when I was out there, and it just didn’t seem to have any substance. I guess I couldn’t look into something and take a story out of it like I could when I came back to Texas. So I think it was kind of a self-defense thing, always coming back to Texas, because that’s where all my stories seem to come from. Maybe you just have to begin where you feel like you began your life of observation. If I had been born in New York City, and then came to Texas, I wonder if I would have to go back to New York City in order to start from the beginning.
Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore both sprang out of Lubbock, too. Do you think that’s why their songs — Butch’s in particular — have always fit you so well? I was told early on that two of the songs on this new record were Butch songs, but before I saw the credits, I honestly couldn’t tell which ones were his. “Leo and Leona” and “Circumstance” both certainly sound like him, but they could have just as easily been yours. It’s like you’re drawing from the same playbook.
Yeah. I guess it’s because we both grew up in the same place, but I can see the pictures that Butch paints, and I feel like they came out of my life. Like when I first heard him do “Boxcars” — I grew up behind the old railroad tracks in Amarillo, so that song just burned into me. Same thing with “Standing at the Big Hotel,” “Down on the Drag,” all these songs that he’s written. Back in the days when the three of us first got together, both Butch and Jimmie were such inspirations for me to start writing songs. I mean, I’d written a few before then, but hearing Jimmie write “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” and “Treat Me Like a Saturday Night” and “Dallas” … those are just like magic songs for me. And I felt like Butch’s songs were all somewhere inside of me, and he just opened the door and let everything out. That’s what really made me sit down and say, “I can do that, too.” Being a musician, you always have to have an inspiration.
I know Townes Van Zandt was another big influence on all of you, and of course Buddy Holly …
But you also spent a spell playing in Houston, before the Flatlanders even came together, and while you were there you liked to follow Lightnin’ Hopkins around. What kind of impression did he make on you?
Lightnin’ had such an incredible intensity. But at the same time, he had this kind of cocky, don’t fuck with me thing. And when he turned those two things into music, he would tell a song that you totally believed, but it also scared you to death. I mean, the song itself just scared the living shit out of you, because you knew that he had been there, and he had maybe just barely escaped from that scene or whatever. I was about 18 or 19, this was in 1966, and I was playing at the old Cellar Club in Houston, all night long, sometimes till 6 in the morning. But I’d have hour breaks, and I’d find Lightnin’, or on Sundays he’d come down to this little bar where he knew everybody, and he’d just sit up on a stool, just him and a guitar and a little amplifier, but no microphone, and just yell his songs out. And I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. He scared me, but I guess he knew that I was digging what he was doing, because he’d kind of show off. He had this twinkle in his eye, and he’d sometimes give you this little look like, “Hey, watch this.”
Mance Lipscomb was another one I really liked — I ran into him a few years later at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Mance had the same intensity as Lightnin’, but he had this sweet, kind of saintly thing about him. He was more of a country blues player, while Lightnin’ was the loud-talking, cocky, big-city character. But both of those guys did a lot to my young, feeble brain. I thought the musicians that I knew at the time were trying to be something, they were trying to emulate some person or something, but they just didn’t have it. They were trying so hard to be somebody that they weren’t, that it was obvious. But here was Lightnin’, and he didn’t give a shit, so you knew that he was the real deal.
Speaking of the real deal — and intimidating — how long had you been playing Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” before cutting it on this record?
Maybe five years? I started doing it when Guy Clark and Billy Joe were inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame, because Billy Joe called me up and asked me to sing that song at the induction in Nashville. So that’s when I learned it, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I love that song so much. I would have recorded it before, but it just never fit right on whatever record I was working on. It fit this time.
I think the last time I saw Jesse Taylor, he was playing with Billy Joe.
Yeah. That was a great pair. Billy Joe and Jesse! [Laughs] They were like two banditos running from the law, man. That was dangerous. Speaking of Lightnin’ — if you rolled Billy Joe and Jesse into one person, that would be Lightnin’ Hopkins. Because Billy Joe, you never know if he’s just going to slug you …
Or shoot you …
Or shoot you! But he also sings about incredible images in his songs. And then Jesse kind of had that opposite thing. Jesse was the sweetest guy in the world, but he played his guitar like he was about to mow you down.
From the beginning of your solo career, you’ve played with an embarrassing number of incredible guitar players — including David Grissom, Teye, Ian Moore, Rob Gjersoe, and of course Lloyd Maines on pedal steel. But out of all of them, Jesse Taylor still seems to loom the largest. As Grissom told me a few years back when I was doing another story on you, “Jesse was the standard.” Whenever you’ve started working with a new guitarist, is one of the first things you tell them, “Don’t worry about filling those shoes — just be yourself”?
Yeah. Well, everyone has a kind of thing, you know, listening to those old songs — like Jesse and Lloyd put such a heavy footprint on those early records. And then of course David put his footprint on those ones in the ’80s. But I always encourage everybody to not follow the structure of the record, and, “don’t think of it as that’s the solo that you have to emulate; think of it as what you would put there.” A lot of times I’d rearrange the songs so that people would put their own stamp on them. So you know, David has his own distinct style. And Robbie Gjersoe plays some stuff that nobody else would ever think of, because he comes from a whole different world than what we come from; you know, that Chicago jazz and blues thing. He’s fun to record with, even though it’s a little maddening sometimes, because he’ll play a solo that’s perfect, and he’ll keep going, “No, let me do it again,” and he’ll play something completely different, but that one will be perfect, too. I’ve never seen anybody quite like that, except maybe Mitch Watkins. And David Holt’s really good, too — I thought he played a great solo on “You Can Bet I’m Gone.” But he does kind of emulate Jesse a little bit, because he watched him play from the time he was 13. Jesse was his main influence. So sometimes I have to tell Holt, you know, “let up on the Jesse — just do what you do!” And then he’ll go, “Oh, OK!”
You first worked with Mitch Watkins on 1984’s Hi Res, which was your first album after the original band split up after Musta Notta Gotta Lotta in ’81. How hard of a transition was that period off the road for you? Was there ever a moment of panic, like, “Maybe this is it?”
Oh, no — it was a relief! I was on the road for seven years with Lloyd and Jesse and them. And then when Jesse quit New Years Eve of ’82 — he was just tired of it — I went, “Ahhh, what a relief!” I took almost a year and a half off. Had my daughter, moved out to this place, started working on my studio … and then I just started experimenting.
And that led to Hi Res. Or at least, the version of Hi Res you recorded using an Apple II computer here at home before MCA insisted on having it done all over again in a “real” studio. Back when you put out Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch and Silver City, you talked about wanting to finally release the original version of the album on your own label. Is that still gonna happen?
You know, I’m working on the tapes that me and Mitch did, so yes. It’s done. I just don’t know when I’m going to release it. I’m going to wait until this new record’s out, and then maybe release it at the end of the year. I’ll have to call it something different, though. Maybe Lo Res. But it’s a really interesting thing. We just used a drum machine, an Apple II computer, and a four-track tape machine. I don’t think anybody had ever used that Apple II that way before. I told Steve Wozniak [the co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs] about it once, and he said, “You did what with it?” I told him I used that Alpha Centauri, which was the first music sequencer, and he went, “I helped develop that!”
[At this point, Ely cues up a couple of the original, home-recorded Hi Res tracks on a digital tape deck and blasts them through his studio monitors. First up is “Dame Tu Mano,” which sounds incredibly crisp and clear — and surprisingly, far more organic than the full-band version on the MCA release. And then he breaks out the big gun: The very first recording of the mother of all Joe Ely rock anthems, “Cool Rockin’ Loretta.” When “Hey operator …” booms out over the speakers, louder than God, it’s a revelation. He lets it roll for about a minute and a half before stopping the tape with a smile.]
It’s weird. That’s just me and Mitch and a drum machine, and then we had Eddie Beethoven, who co-wrote the song, sing in harmony, and we had to do that thing where we had to bounce the tracks back and forth in order to get a four-part harmony. But it was a lot of fun.
It sounds amazing.
Yeah, and really, it sounds better than …
It sounds like you could have recorded it yesterday, whereas the version that was released …
Yeah, the other version has a real dated, ’80s feel. But this one has the old Roland 808 drum machine, which is popular now in hip-hop. Back then, it had just come out, and I completely hated the sound of it. But now, it sounds totally modern.
So what role exactly did the Apple II actually play in that?
The computer played … it was the first sequencer. You could play something, and it would remember what you played, kind of like a tape recorder, but you could also sync it and put it in a circle. So we just made several different loops. We made a verse loop, a chorus loop …
But there wouldn’t have been any internal storage on that thing …
We used floppy discs! I mean, you’d have to load a floppy for each part of the song. Like each 30 seconds. So we had the drum machine and the sequencer, and I can’t remember how we got them together. But then we just added guitar — it was mainly just me and Mitch, and then Roscoe Beck played bass on a couple of tracks. It’s funny. This is probably the first record made with an Apple II computer, I would imagine. Well … I think maybe that jazz keyboard player, what’s his name? Herbie Hancock! He also used the same Alpha Centauri thing, so he probably did the first jazz record using it at the time. But I was just real fascinated with having a machine that could do that, because I was fascinated with every way that you could make music. I had just gotten back from being in Europe with the Clash, and I think we’d done a show with the Eurythmics and with Elvis Costello, so I was just curious as to anything that would enable you to put a song together.
When you finally release this, I assume it will be part of your Pearls from the Vault series? Vol. 2?
Well, probably Vol. 3. The next one will probably be — right after we did this, we did a collection of probably 20 psychobilly songs. It’s kind of based on rockabilly rhythms, real hard driving, but it’s still using that old Roland drum machine. That was probably in ’84 when we did that. I just love to go back in the vaults and find that stuff, just to see what was in my head back then.
What amazes me, not just from listening to these recordings but also your first string of albums from the ’70s, is how your voice really hasn’t changed at all.
Yeah. It’s pretty much the same. Except, if you go back one year before that first album, I sound completely different. I almost sound like Jimmie — I’m real high, real thin. Something happened in about 1975 that, my voice changed radically. There’s an old tape that was made in about ’75 at the One Knight, which is now Stubb’s, a live tape, that you wouldn’t even … people would take bets, and you’d lose. It just doesn’t sound like me. I don’t know what it was, it just totally changed. And then, I don’t have any recordings of me with my rock ’n’ roll band back in high school — the Twilights — but I’d really like to hear those, because that would have been a different voice from even my folk traveling years. We actually did go into a studio and recorded about four songs one time, with a guy called “Terrible Ted” Tyler. [Laughs] But those tapes are probably sitting in the corner of a garage somewhere, all covered in mildew.
After you recorded the MCA-approved version of Hi Res in Los Angeles, how long was it before you put your next project — the rock band with Grissom, Davis McLarty, Jimmy Pettit and, for a spell, Bobby Keys on saxophone?
I decided to put a band together and start working on a new record on MCA. But the people I was working with, management and stuff, kind of said, “Why don’t you let the label come up with a producer this time, and you just work on some songs.” So I just started writing some stuff, and they found a producer and got some musicians together, some really great musicians. And they got me together with Los Lobos to record a couple of things, and some duets and stuff with Linda Ronstadt. But they ended up just kind of working the record to death. And that was the first record I ever stayed clear of, just kind of like, “OK y’all, be the producer and all of that, mix it, and I’ll just come up with the songs.” But after working on that for about a year, it just never came out.
So, that’s when I just completely switched directions, and put a whole new band together. But at that same time, the IRS came down on me — there was some guy that was working with my management company that had just screwed all the finances up, which caused the IRS to investigate about half the musicians in Austin for back taxes and stuff. It got to where I couldn’t go on the road in the United States, because they were taking all the money from wherever I’d do a show; they’d come in and raid the box office and take receipts. I had to start looking at touring more out of the country, in Australia and Europe. So, that was a real low point for me … but I’m really kind of thankful to them for making it to where I had to look at things from a whole different way. I’m grateful to the IRS [laughs], because it basically lit a fire under me. That’s when I finally got that band together with Davis and Jimmy and David Grissom, and I brought them out here and just started recording. And of course, with Grissom’s sound, it was a whole different field of playing, so it opened a whole new door and I started writing a brand new set of songs.
I had a lot of people say to me, “You should just sue MCA — you spent all this time working on a record, and it never came out.” And I thought, you know, I could do that, and I’d probably have a good case, but then I wouldn’t get anything else done. So I chose to drop it and start a brand new record and to find a label for it, instead of going into litigation on something that I really didn’t care about. So I just let all that MCA stuff go, and did those two Hightone records [1987’s Lord of the Highway and ’88’s Dig All Night]. But then, kind of ironically, I recorded Live at Liberty Lunch myself, but Hightone didn’t want a live record, so they let me go and then MCA Nashville picked it up! So I went from MCA in L.A. back to MCA Nashville, which is where I started in 1976, and ended up doing about four more records with them. After that I did a couple with Rounder, but then I finally decided, you know, it’s time I just put my records out myself. I do all the work anyway, so why give it to some other label?
Speaking of you doing all the work, I noticed that the credits for the new album list a “Little Johnny Fader” as playing various instruments and doing a lot of the engineering. Is that a studio alias of yours, like Bob Dylan’s “Jack Frost”?
Sometimes, yeah. But that’s whoever happens to be put to work at any given time on any project, usually someone who’s not actually a credited musician, like my daughter or Sharon. I’ll even have my helper who comes out here to cut trees and stuff sometimes come into the studio and push faders and stuff while I’m recording, and then he becomes Little Johnny Fader. That kind of became a joke when me and Charles Ray were doing Live @ Antones. And even before that, with James Tuttle, doing Live at Liberty Lunch. Doing a live album, somebody’s always got to run interference and find out where the buzz is, and somebody else is pushing the faders. For both those albums I actually tore my home studio apart and put it in a truck that we parked outside the venue, so we had to just recruit people who were at the shows to plug in cables and turn knobs, run lights and everything.
Those two live albums, along with 1980’s Live Shots and 2008’s Live Cactus!, the live duo set you recorded at the Cactus Cafe with Joel Guzman on accordion, really stand out as some of the best records you’ve ever made. You’ve always had a knack for doing live records right.
I actually started when we were first getting the band together in Lubbock in the mid-70s. We had this old two-track tape recorder, and we used to take it out to the Cotton Club and tape shows, just to see if we could. And most of them sounded like complete dog shit. But then we started learning how it was more in how you placed the mics than in what kind of machine you used. You could move the mic a foot back, and it would make all the difference in the world.
When you listen back to that Live Shots album …
I haven’t heard that record in years!
But when you do — or even without having to hear it — can you remember the nitty gritty details of that gig, like the vibe backstage and onstage and the smell of the venue, all that kind of stuff?
Oh yeah. We recorded it in London over three nights in a row. It was when we were touring with the Clash over there, in ’79 or ’80, and I remember everything about that gig. In fact, I got thrown out of the building that night after the show by the bouncers, who didn’t believe that I was who I was. We were up on the rooftop, on the fire escape, raising hell, smoking pot and stuff, and the bouncers came and said, “Alright, all you guys, get outta here!” I think we were with a couple of the Clash guys, actually — oh, it was Cosmo Vinyl, who was their road manager. But they threw us out!
I don’t think there’s a Joe Ely fan on earth that doesn’t love that record. But did it feel like an exceptionally good performance to you at the time? Did it capture that band at its best?
It felt like a good night. It captured that band at that moment in time. Now, every once in a while, I’ll hear it on the radio, and I’ll think it sounds too fast, or, you know, all of that, but it captured the energy of what we were doing at the time. It had gone from a country band playing in West Texas, to all of a sudden we were in the bowels of London, playing in rock ’n’ roll dives and stuff.
When you say it sounds too fast, do you mean the speed of the tape?
No, just tempo wise; the band was on the upside, the high side of every song. But it was an energy that was captured, and I think all of those albums did that — that one, Liberty Lunch, Antones, and then the Live Cactus! one that I did with Joel — they all captured the feel of those bands at the time, or of what me and Joel were doing for a few years together. After you’ve played together for a long time, you start developing this thing where you read each other’s minds, and that’s when I like to try and capture the essence of it on a live tape. Because eventually it goes away, because bands don’t ever stay together forever — unless you’re the Rolling Stones, and it becomes a corporation and then a mega corporation, and everybody makes lots of money. But most bands don’t have that luxury, so I think it’s important to capture a band when they’re at that point where they’re riding high.
That powerhouse band from the ’80s that’s on Liberty Lunch has played quite a few “reunion” gigs with you lately, including your SXSW showcase this year at Antone’s. That show was full-tilt. Is it any harder for you to maintain that kind intensity onstage now than it was two decades ago, or is it just a matter of flying on pure adrenaline?
No. In fact, I feel like the band is actually more in control now, and not just running on adrenaline. Everyone’s running on experience. When you pull a band back together that’s played so much together — and we played for six or seven years together, just like the early Ely band, because the bands seem to go in cycles of about seven years — it’s always interesting to revisit that place. It’s like summoning it back up with a little séance or something. But then when you finally get back in that space and start playing together, then it’s like, “Damn, we can do anything! Go ahead and take three more solos!” It opens up all kinds of opportunities that weren’t quite there when you first got together, because now you’ve just got that thing that’s really developed over the years.
You say you’re not just flying on adrenaline any more, but it’s clear nobody’s phoning anything in. I mean, no matter how many times you’ve played all of those songs with those guys, there’s got to be as much of a rush to playing some of them as there is to hear them in the audience. Can you even describe what it feels like when Grissom and the band kick into “Cool Rockin’ Loretta”?
It’s like starting a Harley. You rev it up a couple of times, and you’re off, and there ain’t no looking back. It just sweeps you along, especially when that band gets into gear. There’s nothing that I can do. It just sweeps along on its own energy, and everybody’s got to just hang on and let it ride, because you know, that’s a true rock ’n’ roll band. It’s not just a little club band. Grissom plays the same volume whether he’s in a room like this or in a football stadium. It’s not a versatile, all-occasions band — it’s a real don’t-get-in-the-way band.
What’s the biggest musical high you’ve ever had onstage?
Oh, God, there’s been so many. Some of the highs were laced with terror. Like playing with Springsteen in Madison Square Garden. We did this benefit there, and a few minutes before he went on, he said, “Here, sing this — you open the show with this verse of ‘Lonesome Valley,’” an old Red Foley song. And I’d heard that song when I was kid, but never went out and sang it before. So, things like that — walking out in front of Springsteen’s audience at Madison Square Garden, and opening the show with “Lonesome Valley,” was like … “Oooh, shit!” [Laughs]
But … I know how to do things like that. You just keep a total focus, and just go do it. So a lot of times, things that are the most thrilling aren’t really that thrilling until you walk off the stage, because when you’re onstage, all you’re really thinking about is just getting through a song or through an arrangement.
And then, you know, sometimes it’s the unexpected things that are the most fun, when you think something’s going to be one way, and it all goes down totally different. I remember one time we were in Trondheim, Norway, at a university. It was the dead of February, almost in the Arctic Circle. We were completely out of place, didn’t know where we were. We’re backstage at this student center, this big round building, probably two or three thousand people could fit in there. And the promoter tells us to go out onstage and start playing. And we look out, and there’s not one person in the room. We go, “Uh, are you sure you want us to play?” He goes, “Well if you don’t, I don’t pay you!” So we thought, “Well, this will be a good rehearsal.” So we go out, and I tell Grissom to start “Lord of the Highway” or something, and as soon as Grissom hit that first note, they opened up the gates, and 2,000 Vikings came screaming towards the stage. These big Vikings, dragging their women with them! And we just played our ass off, and it turned out to be a really fun night.
I imagine there had to have been a lot of fun nights back when the original band was playing and touring with the Clash. I’ve interviewed you probably a dozen times before, but we’ve never touched on that part of your career except in passing. But I really want to this time, because the idea of the Joe Ely Band forging a real bond like that with one of the seminal rock and punk bands of all time really says a lot about your music and the incredible ride it’s taken you on. So to wrap up, can you talk about some of your favorite memories from that experience?
Oh, just, you know, we were just a bunch of Lubbock guys. We’d been to London before, but we’d never had time to explore the nooks and crannies. And so when Joe [Strummer] and Mick [Jones] and them took us around London, they showed us all these amazing places that we’d never discover otherwise. Most every pub in London shut down at 11 o’clock, but they knew the places that had an after-hours license, so we’d go down to Dingwalls in Camden Town, and all the bands from London would come there at night. We met the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello’s bunch, Nick Lowe and all of them. It was an introduction to a whole different world. And some of the shows we played with them were just totally different from anything we’d ever stepped into before. They weren’t like honky-tonks; they were big, huge, monster city venues, where there’d be thousands of people trying to get into a 500-seat space. I remember meeting up with them at Bond’s in New York, and then the show got shut down the first night, but it created such a stir that it led to a two-week run in the same place …
And then when they came to Texas, and stayed in Lubbock, that was a hoot! They couldn’t believe how empty it was. They’d walk around like, “Where’s all the cars?” Lubbock has huge, wide streets, three lanes in each direction, and just a car every five minutes or something like that. They couldn’t get over that. And we went out to Buddy Holly’s grave, had a keg of beer, some laughing gas, and sat out there all night long playing Buddy Holly songs.
[Laughs] I also remember taking them to Juarez after we played in El Paso, and they were like, “Oh wow, Mexico!” It was like, for us, going to Burma or something. As far away as you could possibly imagine — Mexico! They would just look around, trying to take it all in. And I had been going to Mexico since I was a kid, because we used to go down there and sit in with bands since I was a teenager.
How aware were you of the Clash before you met them?
I had never heard of them. They really weren’t on the map yet in the United States, except for maybe in the big cities like New York. But for sure not in Lubbock. They just came to one of our shows. We were getting a lot of radio play on the Honky Tonk Masquerade album, and they just came to the show, because Strummer liked Western kind of stuff — you know, Marty Robbins, and he liked the lyrics on “Boxcars” and “Honky Tonk Masquerade” and stuff like that. They came up at sound check and introduced themselves. It was just real fascinating to get together, two totally different cultures, but we had the same things in common: we loved playing in a band, we loved music, we loved where it all came from. They were real into rockabilly at the time, and actually told me stuff about songs that came from Lubbock and Amarillo, from my own backyard, that I had never even heard of.
When was the last time you saw or spoke to Joe Strummer before he died in 2002?
Well, I talked to him on the phone. He had done an interview with a magazine, and he told the guy how me and him had always wanted to go down to Mexico and put a band together with Mexican musicians and record it. And so I saw that story, and I thought, “I oughta call Joe.” I told him, “You know man, sometime we really oughta do that.” And we figured out schedules and realized we were both going to be in San Francisco at the same time, so we figured we’d get together and talk about it there and make some plans. But when we were both there, it turned out I had to jump on a bus and drive to Salt Lake City and he had to jump on a bus and drive to Tucson, so it wasn’t going to work. So we just got on the phone and went, “We’ll talk about it another time.” And then that’s the last time I talked to him. That was in the summer, and he died around Christmas the same year. We never got to do that project. But I guess someday maybe I still will do it, and he’ll be a part of it in spirit.
It’s clear that you and Strummer got on well together. Did the other guys in your band, like Lloyd and Jesse, get along just as well with him and the rest of the Clash?
Oh, they got on great with them. Especially Jesse. Jesse became just a martyr to them. They couldn’t believe Jesse — that he could be such a big old burly guy with such a sweet temper. And, of course, Jesse liked to drink and play and hang out all night, so we had a great time.
I heard recently that Strummer once gave a passed-out Jesse a Mohawk. Is that true? And if so, do you remember Jesse’s reaction? How’d he look in it?
I don’t remember Jesse with a Mohawk. But I do remember a peroxided white streak down the middle of his head. Maybe Strummer instigated that one!