By Richard Skanse
We’re barely two months into it, and already 2007 is shaping up to be the best year ever to be a Joe Ely fan. Provided, that is, that you can keep up with him.
On Feb. 9, Ely will celebrate his 60th birthday with the release of his most rockin’ album in more than a decade, the more-fun-even-than-its-title Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch. It’s his first release on his brand new independent label, Rack ‘Em Records (a fitting handle, coming from a guy who once assured us “you’ll lose your ass” if we were ever drunk or foolish enough to challenge him to a game of pool). That same day will also see the release of his first book, Bonfire of Roadmaps. Published by University of Texas Press, Bonfire is a collection of Ely’s private journals culled from a lifetime on the road — nine mini-epic, free-form “rambling poem blogs” documenting not only highlights and lowlights from the journey of one of the last true American gypsy troubadours, but also offering what fellow Lubbock-bred maverick Terry Allen has approvingly called “a glimpse into the heart of music.” Fittingly, all of the songs on Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch were originally written (and in some cases, recorded) during the same span of time as the journal chapters featured in the book — roughly from the end of the Vietnam War up to hurricane Katrina.
But wait! There’s more! On March 6, Ely will issue his second Rack ‘Em release, an acoustic CD called Silver City (Pearls from the Vault VOL. 1) comprised entirely of songs he wrote way, way back before the Flatlanders were even a notion, much less a legend or a band. Two of the songs — including the title track — have appeared on earlier Ely albums as full band tracks, and “Indian Cowboy” popped up with a Butch Hancock vocal on the last Flatlanders album (and on a Guy Clark record long before that). But unless you were around to catch Ely playing his first shows in Lubbock as a teenager, or maybe caught him a few years later during his brief stint trying to crack the New York City folk scene, chances are they’ll be new to even the most diehard Ely fanatic.
Speaking of Ely fanatics, they’ll likely want to mark April 10 on their calendars, too: that’s when Ely will release a pair of spoken-word/ambient soundtrack records spotlighting two of the standout chapters in Bonfire of Roadmaps: “Iron Rhinos” and “Xpedition Mpossible.” And then, on Aug. 1, Ely unveils what may well be his most intriguing treasure of all from his vault: Loretta, teased on Ely’s Web site as “the earliest appearance of the Queen of Fine.” Folks, if that little hint doesn’t mean anything to you, frankly we’re a little surprised you’ve already this far. But if you know your Ely lore like any true connoisseur of Texas music should, we’re betting you’re already chomping at the bit to get your hands on that little hot one. Say it with us: “My, my, myyyyyyyyyy!”
To get the scoop on Loretta, Rattlesnake, Bonfire and everything else up his sleeve, Lone Star Music caught up with Ely on the road, touring as one of the “Four Horsemen” with pals Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt.
Hello, Joe. How goes?
Well, I’m sitting here, rolling down the highway in frozen Wisconsin.
Well, don’t hurry back, because Austin’s actually frozen at the moment, too!
Yeah, that’s I hear.
What’s the next stop?
Right now we’re headed to Wausau. We played Minneapolis last night.
I talked to Guy Clark a couple months ago and was asking him about this same tour. He said y’all usually just meet up in the different cities when you do these shows. Is that still the case, or are you carpooling this time around?
Actually, me and Guy are riding with Lyle for most of this tour. Usually we kind of, you know, come in from different directions, so we don’t travel together, because we’re all coming together from a different spot and just getting together for two or three days. But this time, just to make it easy, we’re all traveling together. Except Hiatt travels separate because he has his family and everything.
How many years have you done this Four Horsemen tour?
Me and Lyle were talking about that. I believe the first year that we did it was 1989. We did it for about two or three years running – 89, 90, 91. Just a few shows, maybe seven or eight shows a year. And then throughout the ’90s we didn’t do much. Every once in a while we’d do a couple of shows. But the chemistry worked so good, we tried to expand it, and then this … about three or four years ago, we finally did about 10 shows in a row. And then this year is the most we’ve ever done. I think it’s like 35 shows in two months, so that’s a pretty good little run.
Has it always been the same four guys?
There was a couple of times when John Prine substituted for Lyle. And Rodney Crowell came in one time. But it’s mainly been just four of us since we first started it. I had known Guy for years, and I’d met John and Lyle before, but we’d never played together. But there’s something that just really kind of gelled. And we’ve been doing it ever since.
Who tells the best stories? Or rather, who’s the best bullshitter?
(Laughs) Actually, it’s the roadcrew who’s the best bullshitter. Everybody just … last night, we were onstage in Minneapolis, and I heard a whole new set of stories that I had never heard about. Like about when Lyle was first making the scene down in Houston, when Guy was playing down there in the early ’80s. And I got to thinking about whole stories of the first time I came up to Minnesota with my band in the middle ’70s, playing this place called the Cabooze. It’s like an old biker bar. There’s just always a whole new set of stories. Sometimes a certain city will set off new stories, or sometimes a song that somebody does will kick off a story. It’s always a little different.
Throughout your new book, Bonfire of Roadmaps, you really don’t paint a very rosy picture of life on the road. It’s clear that you always had the wandering spirit of a gypsy in you, but its also clear from the journals featured in the book that sometimes traveling all over the world year-in and year-out can get to be a real pain in the ass. Is sharing a bus with Lyle and Guy a little easier at least than hopping freight trains or driving across Europe in a cramped bus?
(Laughs) Oh yeah. We’re only going a couple hundred miles between cities. What’s hard is when you’re traveling with a band, in a van, and you’ve got all these different things that are happening at the same time. Most of the time, you’re trying to fit in a 22-hour day in about 18 hours. So then you end up never getting any sleep and partying every night. So compared to that, this is pretty damn easy.
Between the book and all the accompanying records, you’ve got a ton of stuff coming out this year. Let’s start with the book. How did that come about?
The thing about those road journals is, they were never really written to be read. It’s all just kind of a pool of what was going on around me. Sometimes, if we were on a long stretch of road, I’d sit and write all day. And then sometimes we’d be moving so fast, I couldn’t write anything for several days. But I kept the journals thinking, “Well, when I get home, maybe there will be something I can take from this, and a song will come out of it.” But I never intended for anybody else to see them. But Terry Allen did a book last year called Dug Out, and I really liked the way it looked back at where he’d been and how he came to be. And then Terry introduced me to his editor at UT Press and said, “Joe, you oughta show him your journals …”
Before you started going through them to select chapters for the book, how often would you look through your old journals?
Every time I’d start a new record, I’d go back and thumb through some stuff, and find stories like that “Jesse Justice” story [a song featured on Rattlesnake Gulch]. That one’s kind of a combination between the personality of Jesse Taylor [the original Joe Ely Band guitarist who died last year] and the stories of this pool hustler that I met named Smokestack Bartlett that I ran into at different times in my life.
I know the songs on Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch all come from different periods of your life. Tell me about some of them — starting with the first track, “Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes.”
That was started — just the melody and such — in the late ’80s. But the whole song came together when me and Butch and Jimmie were writing Flatlanders songs for an as-yet unfinished record. And as we were sitting there, hurricane Katrina came through, and I was thinking, “Man, here’s all these people just asking for water! Just asking for a little bit of food, a little bit of respect.”
What about “Up a Tree”?
“Up a Tree” was written in 1972, but not recorded probably until maybe middle, late ’90s, and then completely redone for this version. It has a long history. It’s a cool track. It was originally written when Nixon was in trouble — when the fires were around him and the dogs were chasing him up a tree. And then I thought, “Man, it’s the same thing with Bush! Bush is up a tree now, and the dogs are going to bite his ass.” I thought it fit real well — it came together a lot like “Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes” in that way, in that it kind of fits the era that we’re living in now.
I think one song in particular on Happy Songs that people are really going to get a kick out of is “Miss Bonnie & Mister Clyde.” Which sounds an awful lot like another song of yours where you steal a famous outlaw’s girl: “Me and Billy the Kid.” It’s almost like …
The sequel? (Laughs) Yeah. It’s pretty much that. I always loved Woody Guthrie’s outlaw ballads. He did “Pretty Boy Floyd,” and “The Ballad of Jesse James,” and one more, I can’t think of it. I thought, if Woody can write a trio of outlaw songs, then I’m just going to write them from a different angle.
Which leads us to “Driving Across Russia,” from your other new record, Silver City. That one’s built upon the same basic tune, too. Except it’s a completely different kind of story.
Yeah. That’s another kind of talking blues one — it’s kind of a Cold War song about driving across Russia and getting tangled up with some farmer’s daughter.
That’s actually my favorite of the three. I love the line about your pet pig rocking out in the passenger seat of your Cadillac.
That’s just a completely stupid song. (Laughs) But it also probably sounds a little different now than when I wrote it, in 1969. That was when I was in Europe, traveling with a production of Stomp. We were in Berlin, and I had actually gotten a special visa to go into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie. We were in Berlin for about two and a half weeks, so I went over to East Berlin about three or four times. I just found it fascinating how different East and West Berlin were. I remember going over there and seeing these huge department stores with nothing in them, and restaurants with only one thing on the menu. I was hanging out in workers bars. And it all got me kind of fantasizing about traveling around inside of Russia, which is where that song came from. It was just kind of a tongue-in-cheek episode.
What’s the earliest song on Silver City ?
The earliest would probably be “Cloister Mountain,” and the carnival song, “Billy Boy.” That was probably like ’68. Or ’67 … ’66? “Santa Rosa/St. Augustine” was about ’69. “Silver City” was about ’72. The latest one on there would be “Indian Cowboy,” which would be ’73. But they’re all new recordings, because I never recorded that stuff before. I wrote it and I played it — like when me and my buddy hopped trains and hitched up to New York City, some of those songs came from that era. But I never recorded them, because when I came back from that whole part of my life and decided to put a band together back in Lubbock, I started writing other songs that kind of fit with the band and the honky-tonks we were playing. It was a whole new set of songs, and I never went back to the old ones and didn’t even think about them until about this time last year, when we were on the road with this songwriter thing, and Lyle started talking about the first song that Guy Clark wrote, “Step Inside This House.” That kind of inspired me to dig around and take a look at what was back there.
Let’s jump ahead about a decade and a half, into the ’80s. What can you tell me about this “Loretta” project on your calendar? Is that what I think it is?
Yeah, that’s another record — that’s the songs that I did for the Hi-Res album. It’s the original album, the one I recorded at my house with Mitch Watkins.
Hi-Res, of course, being the album where “Cool Rockin’ Loretta” made its only studio appearance, along with the original version of “Letter to Laredo.” And yet it’s the only album of yours from the MCA era which has never been released on CD.
Right. And I just have to release it — this version — because it’s a much more interesting album than the one MCA did the big production on. They turned it into a big production record, when really the whole thing was recorded on like, six tracks. It was six tracks and an Apple II computer. (Laughs) I just really want people to hear it. In fact, I told Steve Wozniak [co-creator, with Steve Jobs, of the Apple computer] about it when I was out at this bluegrass festival last year, and he said, “Man, I really want to hear that. Nobody that I know of ever made a record on an Apple II computer!”
You were never nuts about the way Hi-Res turned out. What about your other old albums? Do they hold up for you? Do you ever even listen to them?
Sometimes I do. But I always wish that I had spent more time working on the records. Because those early records, mainly I’d jump from the road, and it’d be, “Ah shit, we gotta make another record so we can get back on the road.” I just wish I had spent more time on the records than on the road. So there’s actually a couple of them that I’m going to re-record. I talked to Lloyd Maines about re-recording the Down on the Drag record. We never thought that record turned out as good as it could have.
What else have you got in the works? Any thing on tap with the Flatlanders?
Yeah. We’re going out and doing some shows over the summer.
Are you guys working on another record?
Well, maybe the shows will get us on the same page. We just really haven’t gotten together much since that last tour ended in 2004. We’ve talked about getting together, but we’re just so … between the three of us, you could put all of our ambition into an eye-dropper. We just don’t have that ambition to do another record, like some people do. I kind of have to do that, but us together as an entity? We have no ambition whatsoever.
Your wife Sharon told me once that you’re a workaholic. Would anybody have called you a workaholic back in the ’70s?
If they actually knew what I was doing, they would! But most of the time, I mean, people would see me writing in a notebook or shooting pool or scratching around on a sheet of paper, and they wouldn’t have considered it work. So, most of the work that I’ve done in my life, I haven’t gotten paid for it. I work all the time but it’s not on things that I get paid for. But every once in a while, one of those things trickles out, like this book, which represents …
You probably really don’t want to break that down by the hour.
No. (Laughs) If I broke it down by the hour, it’d be less than a penny an hour, I’m sure.