A Few Minutes With… Joe Ely
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Joe Ely raises some dust…
West Texas troubadour Joe Ely was only about six years old, but he remembers the first time he saw Jerry Lee Lewis tear it up on a flatbed truck in the middle of a dust storm. “I was in Amarillo. All I remember is my parents took me out to this car lot,” says the roadhouse rocker who plays at the Hangar in Troy on Thursday night (November 14), presented by the Ale House.
“They were selling cars. I think it was a Pontiac dealership, and I just remember it was kind of a flatbed trailer on a little high-up stage, and the guy would get out there and sell cars, and then they were giving away free hot dogs and Cokes, but I remember it being this terrible dust storm, and you couldn’t hardly see across the street.
“The wind was blowing about 40 miles an hour, and then they said, ‘Now we got this kid to play a little piano for you,’ and I remember him pounding away on this piano in a dust storm, and the wind was blowin’ so hard it actually would blow the microphone over. Somebody would run out there and prop it back up, and then later, I guess it was three or four years later he had a big hit, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin,’ and my parents told me that was who we saw at the Pontiac dealership.”
That performance fundamentally changed the way Ely looked at life.
“I was fascinated. You know, the only other place I’d ever seen a piano before was in a church, and here was this guy just beating the holy hell out of it, and I guess it was the whole scene – the desert storm, the microphone blowing over, somebody pounding this rock and roll out on the piano… And it was the whole combination of all those things made such a lasting memory in my head.”
Years later, the image of that hell raisin’ Jerry Lee in a dust storm would play a role in Ely’s first band to make a noise in the musical forest. His partners were – and still are, at times – Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock in the Flatlanders. Jimmie Dale approached songwriting from a country perspective. Butch was a folky. Joe was a rock and roller, but he wasn’t on a par with these guys as a writer yet back in 1972 when they first recorded.
“They both made me see there was more to a word than meets the eye. A word can have so many different meanings. Dust can be either physical dust, or it can be a shroud, or it can be something that you have to fight your way through, and so it can apply to everyday things that happen in relationships or whatever.
“So it really opened up this whole new window to me that had not been opened before. I knew how to play chords on the guitar and how to sing songs, but the whole thing of how to put a song together was a mystery until I met Jimmie, and Jimmie introduced me to Butch.”
Almost four decades and 24 albums later, Ely has a catalog of great songs and knows how to stir up some dust of his own on stage. “When I need an element of a story, I grab things visually, but they’re more snapshots. They seldom move. Part of that reason is that I’ve always carried a sketchbook in my guitar case and draw pictures of things I might want to remember later. Some of those things, years would pass, and I’d go looking through some of those old drawings, and I would find the things that turned into songs even after many years had passed – just from a sketch that I had done.
“It’s kinda like a dream. When you wake up in the morning you had a crazy dream, if you write down three words of what was in that dream, you can remember that dream later on in the day, but if you don’t write down anything, it’s gone. Just the sketch of what it is triggers a whole flood of memories.”
Currently, Ely has a collaborative art exhibit, “Lostbound Memory,’ on exhibit at the Den in Austin, featuring his drawings and his daughter Maria Elena Ely’s photos. And, yes, she’s named after Buddy Holly’s wife. “We did not name her when she was born. We thought we’d wait and see what happened, and maybe a name would come to her. And sure enough, two days after she was born, Maria Elena came to see us and to see her, and we named her right then on the spot ’cause I had known Maria Elena.
“I had done several Buddy Holly tribute things – a TV show, several concerts, the Buddy Holly Festival in Clovis, New Mexico, and Lubbock had a couple, too – but, yeah, it was nice to get to know her. She shared really insightful things about Buddy and his spirit, although she hadn’t known him really but for a few months when he died. So yeah, that was kind of a natural occurrence that happened in kind of a supernatural way.”
Ely’s latest CD is Satisfied at Last, an album that addresses mortality from a Zen perspective that’s as much Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca as it is rocker Jerry Lee Lewis. “I don’t like to tell the whole story. I like to leave holes because I think that’s where a song intrigues you when you listen to it, when you give the listener leeway. Not only that, but you give them a puzzle to figure out. That’s one of the things I love about Butch Hancock songs is he lets you – he gives you enough information and paints the picture, but you fill in a large part of who the characters are, and what’s even the meaning of the song.”
All of the songs on the CD are by Ely or Butch Hancock, except “Live Forever” by Billy Joe Shaver, another West Texas hell-raiser who is no stranger to the Ale House. I asked Ely if he had any Billy Joe Shaver stories. He didn’t hesitate for a minute.
“There was a guy at the Armadillo World Headquarters, a famous old music hall in Austin, that was sitting on a billboard trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records, and the Flatlanders went up and brought him some Oreo Cookies and some water and stuff and climbed up on the billboard, and while we were up there, Billy Joe came climbing up and introduced himself.
“Here we are on a billboard introducing ourselves to Bill Joe Shaver, and he kind of looks up and ‘Oh, West Texas boys. I better not hang out with y’all.’ Then, he looks over at the guy that’s been sitting on the billboard for six weeks and he says, ‘What about you, dumb ass?’ That was our introduction to Billy Joe Shaver. Then he came out to the Cotton Club a few months later.”
Ely always seems to find himself hanging out with people that become his influences, like the time he picked up Townes Van Zandt hitchhiking. “I just saw this guy coming in from Clovis Highway with a backpack and carrying a guitar, and I thought, ‘Man, that is weird. There is nobody comes through with a guitar hitchhiking.’ I’d never seen that before in my life.
“Of course, Lubbock was not a very big town, and I picked him up just out of curiosity. He told me his story of recording out in San Francisco, and he reached in his backpack when I took him out to a good spot kinda out on the far edge of town. He pulled out a record, and I noticed all he had in his backpack was a bunch of vinyl record albums, and he’d just hitchhiked across the Mojave Desert with a backpack full of vinyl, you know?
“But he gave me a record, and I knew Jimmie’s dad had a record player, and we took it over there, and we listened to it all night. I had just met Butch through Jimmie, and he said, ‘Butch has gotta hear this,’ and we played it to Butch, and I’ll bet we played that record 10 times a day for the next two months. In fact, it was one of the only records we had. Other than that, it was a revelation for us.
“Townes Van Zandt in a dust storm in West Texas and Billy Joe Shaver on a billboard in Austin,” laughs Ely. “You never know when you’re gonna run into somebody who will be your influence.”
AND DON’T FORGET… We’re giving away a pair of FREE tickets to see Joe Ely’s show. Deadline to enter is 12noon on Thursday. Just GO HERE to enter the contest…