By Richard Skanse
With the notable exception of the late, great Doug Sahm, perhaps no Texas artist fits the tag “once size fits all” better than Joe Ely. Any true aficionado of Texas music knows that it is not a genre unto itself — it’s a melting pot of rock, country, blues, folk and, to loosely quote Mr. Sahm, a lotta soul. So in that pot you’ve got your Willies and your Waylons, your Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughans, you Pats and Corys, your T-Bones and Buddys and your ZZ Tops, all doing their own thing but getting along together fabulously. And then there’s Doug Sahm and Joe Ely, whose respective “own things” amount to a little bit of everything. They’re not so much in the melting pot with everyone else as they are on the outside, stirring it all up. With no disrespect to Willie Nelson, the Redheaded Stranger may have led the cosmic cowboy “outlaw” movement and united the rednecks and the hippies together under one roof, but the odd blues, standards or rumored reggae album aside, Willie’s a country boy. Willie can jam and Willie can (and will) sing and play with anyone, but Willie doesn’t rock. Not like Sahm did in the Sir Douglas Quintet, and certainly not like Ely can when he puts his mind to it, be it in some London punk club with the Clash, on an arena stage alongside Bruce Springsteen, or on a hot summer night in Gruene Hall. Want honky-tonk, Tex-Mex, or a little roadhouse blues? Ely can do all of that, too.
But it was as a rambling, rail-hopping folk singer in the tradition of Woody Guthrie that Ely first got his start, back when he grabbed his acoustic guitar and hopped his first freight train as a teenager, destination: anywhere the hell out of Lubbock. And it was folk music — albeit a distinctly West Texas strain of the genre — that loosely defined his early Flatlanders gigs with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock in the early ’70s when he inevitably found himself back in Lubbock. Folk was also the strongest flavor on the trio’s acclaimed 2002 comeback/reunion album, Now Again. But oddly enough, in his 30 years as a recording artist, Ely had never committed to a straight-up solo folk album … until now. Streets of Sin, Ely’s first new studio album in five years, is far and away the most stripped-down album of his solo career, full of songs about farmers and floods and common folks just trying to get by. How folk is it? So folk that Ely’s been playing the new songs not with a band but all by his lonesome (as part of a recent songwriters tour with John Hiatt, Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett), or, when he’s feeling particularly extravagant, accompanied only by accordion player Joel Guzman and/or guitarist Rob Gjersoe. But because he’s Joe Ely, his little folk record comes front-loaded with a pair of terrific rockers itching to be let loose (“All That You Need” and a raging cover of Hancock’s “Fightin’ for My Life”), and even those stripped-down acoustic performances pack a hell of a punch. Then again, if you’d expect anything less, you just don’t know ol’ Joe.
Streets of Sin ends with a spoken word track called “I Gotta Find Ol’ Joe,” in which the Lord of the Highway tries to make sense of the many different roads he’s traveled by taking a trip back to where his journey began, back to Lubbock. But we found Joe on the outskirts of Austin holed up in his home studio, where he recorded Streets of Sin not once but three different times, and where the Flatlanders have been putting the finishing touches on their as-yet untitled follow-up to Now Again, tentatively due out early next year (if not sooner). Time was when Ely hated going into a recording studio; “I’d walk into a room like this,” he shudders, “and I felt like I was about to have surgery to have something from my body removed.” But that Ol’ Joe is long, long gone. “Now, it’s really a part of every day life, party of my daily existence.” That’s an understatement. “He loves his studio,” laughs Ely’s wife, Sharon. “Every once in a while, we used to go to the beach, and he’d try to lay around and do nothing, but it was like asking way too much of him. Joe’s a workaholic.”
Between the two recent Flatlanders albums and Streets of Sin, you’ve been spending a lot of time in your studio lately. Is it hard to switch from Flatlanders to solo mode?
No, I’ve kept them real separate. They’re totally different … although, I guess because of doing that Flatlanders thing last year, this time when I started working on my record, I explored a whole different side of my musical life that I’d kind of left behind, and a lot of it kind of went back to the thing I really loved when I first met Butch and Jimmie, which was old country blues stuff. So I guess working on one thing does kind of trigger other things. That’s the whole deal about music: everything changes, and anybody that tries to keep it the same, they get stuck in the mud. I know a lot of guys that want to have the exact sound that they’ve always had and kind of work around that, but I like things with change in them.
You definitely threw a curveball this time. After the Flatlanders record, and the two flamenco-flavored albums you did in the ’90s [Letter to Laredo and Twistin’ in the Wind], I was thinking you were overdue for a good rockin’ again. But you obviously had other ideas.
It’s a lot more folksy, yeah … just stories. At first it was even more folksy, just me and an acoustic guitar, which is something I’d never done before. But I finished it and it just didn’t feel right, like it needed something more. I actually recorded this record three different times, and all three were completely different. The first one, which I started in ’98 and worked on for about a year, actually was a full-blown rock record. But the end of ’99, I looked at it and it just didn’t feel like what I wanted to do. In fact, I threw it away, because it pissed me off!
I’ve got a whole closet full of records that don’t feel right, a whole wall of tapes right there that I recorded over the years. Every record I’ve ever done, I’ve done three times. I just change and the songs don’t feel right. Like, if I was doing the Letter to Laredo thing right now, it wouldn’t feel right. The times are different. And so every record, I’ve had to find that particular spot. Except when I look back through my early records, a lot of them were not made because of the spot that I was in then; they were simply made because I had to keep a band on the road. You know, “Let’s go in, let everybody play and get it over with.” I just didn’t feel connected to it as much.
When, exactly, did you go from dreading the process of recording to loving it?
It really changed in ’83, when I started having more of a hand in the production. Back in the Flatlanders days, we didn’t really like going to studios because we grew up playing music live. Playing it live was where it was at, and going into the studio was like this intimidating world. It wasn’t natural. I guess a lot of it was just ignorance, and because machines scared me. I came from a place where there weren’t any machines, except for machines that picked cotton and stuff like that. A little motorcycle was the only machine I could relate to. In fact I didn’t really get comfortable with producing until maybe Letter to Laredo.
So apart from that rock record you threw away, do you think any of those other alternate albums in your closet will ever see the light of day?
That’s what I’m currently thinking about. Some of it’s real interesting — some acoustic stuff, some of it’s band stuff — and I’m just wondering what to do with it all. I’m kind of looking at the idea of maybe doing an anthology, where it’s not so much alternate takes but whole different recording sessions.
Between mulling over that and producing new stuff, it seems like you always have a lot irons in the fire. Do you keep different timelines for yourself, where it’s like, “I say I’m going to do this, but this time I really mean it …”
I do that all the time. But I’m real careful not to start projects and not finish them. That’s my main thing — if something’s worth starting, it’s worth finishing. Usually. Because it’s easy when you’re doing music to get off on some tangent and then work on a song or two and get hung up in the idea of it instead of the actual working on it. There’s a whole lot of people that have great ideas and start these big projects, but it’s very seldom that people actually finish, say, 15 songs that have something to do with each other. So when I start an album project, the first thing I consider is, “well, is this just some crazy fucking idea, or am I going to finish this thing?” And then a lot of times I’ll go through and get it done, and then look back on it and think, “You know, that’s not as good as I thought it was going to be.” [Laughs] And drop it and start something else.
So you always intend to finish everything you’ve started.
Well, I have to admit that there are things that I’ve started that are such lunacy that I’ve wondered two songs into it, “What the hell was I thinking?”
What’s the most lunatic ambition you’ve had for an album?
I started a record one time back in the early ’80s that was going to be called The Big Dance. I’d been out on the road for maybe a year and a half without ever coming home, playing every night. I just thought of this thing where I was going to do a big dance where you invited everybody that you had ever known, and all of your family, and everybody from all of time — a big dance for all history. And then I got to working on it, and thinking, “This is totally stupid … I must have dreamed this up on mushrooms.” I think I struggled with it for a couple of weeks and then just went out and rode a motorcycle across the country.
Coming back to this album, would you call Streets of Sin your most personal record to date? It kind of seems like the story of your life, albeit fictionalized. You’ve got songs about Lubbock, songs about being on the road, even a song about a carnival bum [Ely once spent a few months in the circus, taking care of “The World’s Smallest Horse”]. All these characters are coming from the same kind of place you did.
Yeah. All the stories are kind of taken from real life. They might have been slightly changed, but they were pieces of my life. But so was Letter to Laredo. Things are part of your life even if they’re dreams from childhood, or stories that you read in a book and you later actually went to this place and you saw parts of it coming true. Everything is kind of a part of your life. But I’ve never wanted to just do a reality kind of thing about my life, because I just don’t really believe songs that are that personal. I think that they’re almost always too embellished. I’d rather hear a good story that included parts of somebody’s life, or write a song that includes just parts of my own story than to ever try to tell anything as the truth, because I just don’t believe that can really be done in a song.
So where does a song like “I Gotta Find Ol’ Joe” fit into that theory? Surely that one’s pretty personal.
I remember writing that thinking it would never be a song. I kind of wrote it going down the road headed back to West Texas. I think I was heading back there for a funeral — some old friend had died. Every time I start a new record or some big, life-changing event comes along, I seem to make a pilgrimage back to West Texas. It’s almost like somewhere out there in the dust I find parts of myself that I forgot existed. And a lot of times, it’s finding something out of the dirt out there that gives me a whole new place to begin. Kind of like a circle. It kind of goes around and around, and sometimes I forget where it started, so I have to go back there. Both that song and “Carnival Bum” kind of came out of journals that I keep.
Speaking of Lubbock, this is off topic a little bit, but I’ve got to ask you — have you heard about this radio station owner out there, Paul Beane [KRBL], who’s extended his Dixie Chicks boycott to include any album produced by Lloyd Maines?
Are you kidding me?
Nope. And the funny thing is, his station’s Web site prominently features your old albums and Butch’s albums and Terry Allen’s albums, even the Maines Brothers. Are they spinning some kind of alternate versions without Lloyd playing all over them or something?
That is amazing. Tell that guy to go … that’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Are you familiar with that station?
I’m not. And you know, I could really give a shit, and that’s about it. I couldn’t care less about Clear Channel stations, either. I’m totally infuriated about radio and the media being involved in politics. It’s like religion merging with politics — those things have to be kept separate, because it steps on all of our freedoms, and it gets to where people are afraid to speak, just like old Russia. I don’t ever want to see that in this country, where people are afraid to talk. When that happens, we’re going to be doomed.
You don’t think we’re there already?
No, we’re not there already. There’s a lot of fear out there, but people are still speaking out. It’s just that the media has no right to decide for themselves who to play and who not to. Leave that up to the people. If the people decide not to buy something, great; I decide not to buy stuff all the time based on somebody’s politics. But when powerful media companies are influenced by powerful government wings, then that becomes censorship. And I will fight to the death to stop censorship from becoming a tolerated thing in this country.
On a much brighter note, it sure didn’t take you guys long to knock out another Flatlanders album — considering the 30-year-gap between the first two. Did that come about out of a “let’s strike while the iron is hot” kinda deal, or was it something more organic than that?
Well, by the time this one comes out it will have been a year and a half since the last one, so it’s not like a really quick album. We just thought, “Well, that last one was fun, let’s get back together and do another one.” We didn’t write this one from the ground up, but there are a lot of new songs on it. I’ve got four songs that I’ve never put on any of my albums, and Butch has a couple on there, and then we’re taking each other’s songs and songs of friends that we’ve always wanted to do, and we just got the band together and laid down a whole bunch of tracks.
Did you finally get around to recording Terry Allen’s “Gimme a Ride to Heaven,” which you played at so many of the recent Flatlanders shows?
We did. I’ve actually recorded it three other times, and it’s just never found a place on a record. Thing is, I love that song, but it feels to me more like a live song than a studio song. So we’ll see whether it makes it on this one or not … but we did record it.
What else have you been up to? Didn’t you just finish a novel?
Yeah. In the next few months I’m going to try to figure out where to put that.
What’s it about?
It’s slightly autobiographical, but it’s fiction in the sense that I’m free to take anything anywhere. It takes place around the time when I was first leaving home. It’s a period of time that I’ve never talked about in songs or interviews, a period of time that was probably the roughest time of my life — right after my daddy died and I was trying to keep my family alive. We lost the old used clothing store my family had downtown, and I had to go out and play old honky-tonks; I was still in high school, but I had to play these old speakeasies on the outskirts of town just to bring in some money for food because we didn’t have any. I was also trying to keep a job washing dishes at the Chicken Box, and the Vietnam War was going on and they were drafting everybody my age. Finally everything kind of caved in on me and I just couldn’t handle it anymore and hit the road. So I took stories from that period of time and tried to paint a picture of West Texas in the late ’60s.
That’s pretty grim. So much for the simple story of the restless young gypsy soul who ran away to join the circus and see the world.
The happy wanderer, yeah. No, it was a very hard time. It was like everybody I knew was getting drafted, my family was falling apart, my friends were going crazy, the world was going crazy and I was losing people left and right. It was just this period where everything was in a whirlpool. Soon after that, the Flatlanders happened, and then I joined the circus and then I got a recording contract. But this is one period of my life that I’ve never told about, so I felt like I had to write about it to try and make sense out of it.
So what’s the book called?
Super Reverb. It’s titled after this little amp I had at the time. All through the book the amp gets hocked and left behind somewhere or stolen, but it always comes back. It’s kind of the common thread. And I still have it, somehow. When I went out to California, that amp was my pillow on the beach. And my suitcase too — I had a few clothes stuffed in the back of it.
Your wife says you’re not very good at relaxing at the beach these days. So what exactly do you do on your down time, when you’re not writing or in the studio or on the road? You don’t strike me as a golfer.
I don’t have any down time! Every thing I do is related to music. Well, I do ride mountain bikes. But most of my time is spent working on projects. I literally work on stuff all the time. That’s my whole thrill in life. It might sound boring, but it’s what I’ve always liked to do.
Well, what if I were to shoot a game of pool with you — would I lose my shirt?
You’d lose more than your shirt — you’d lose your ass! That kind of helped me support my guitar habit when I was a kid. And I still shoot a pretty mean game. But don’t tell anybody.