Joe Ely’s talent and tenacity earned him a place among such Texas singer-songwriter peers as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Ely’s bandmates in the Flatlanders, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.
A songwriter of poetic power and a performer with commanding presence, Austin resident Ely turns to West Texas for inspiration. An Amarillo native who turned 70 this year, he spent especially formative years in Lubbock.
In the late 1950s, a Jerry Lee Lewis show Ely witnessed lit his desire to be a performer. He found more inspiration after his family moved to Lubbock. The 1959 plane-crash death of Lubbock native Buddy Holly inspired electric-guitar sales and the formation of garage bands all over the rock ’n’ roll star’s hometown. By 1964, Ely was gigging with his own band, the Twilights.
Ely didn’t write songs until the late ’60s. A chance encounter with Van Zandt, plus his pre-Flatlanders friendship with Gilmore and Hancock, inspired him to write. Songs have been flowing ever since.
Along with his decades of touring, Ely has released 19 solo albums and four albums with the Flatlanders. He’s performed with the supergroups Buzzin’ Cousins (John Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, John Prine and James McMurtry) and Los Super Seven (including Freddy Fender, Flaco Jiménez, Doug Sahm, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas). He also planned a songwriting sabbatical in Mexico with his friend, Joe Strummer, but the former Clash singer’s death at 50 in 2002 stopped that promising collaboration.
Recent years have seen honors come Ely’s way. In 2016, he was named Texas State Musician and inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association’s Hall of Fame (with Roy Orbison, JD Souther and Will Jennings). Last April, he became the first musician inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters. The organization’s president cited Ely’s two books, a memoir, Bonfire of Roadmaps, and a novel, Reverb: An Odyssey.
Ely spoke to OffBeat in advance of his September 15 performance at Chickie Wah Wah.
You’re a native of Amarillo, but you moved to Lubbock when you were 12. Do you think of Lubbock as your hometown?
Lubbock is where I awakened. When Buddy Holly died in 1959, garage bands popped up everywhere. Buddy Holly dying made everybody in Lubbock realize that he was from there. Before that we thought all singers came from the recording centers. L.A., New York and Nashville.
You live in Austin, a city known for music. Why do you go to West Texas for inspiration?
I lived in L.A. and New York City and London and San Francisco. A city does not inspire me to write. But that big emptiness out there in West Texas, I feel like I have to fill it all up. The desert inspires me. I get out there in the emptiness and I find everything.
As important as Lubbock was to your musical development, how much did a performance by Jerry Lee Lewis in Amarillo impress before you moved to Lubbock?
My parents took me to a car lot in Amarillo. They were advertising free hot dogs for the kiddies. And Jerry Lee Lewis was up there with a piano and a microphone in a badass dust storm. You couldn’t hardly see across the street. Everybody had bandanas over their noses and mouths. But Jerry Lee was up there wailing. This madman pounding the piano in a raging dust storm. I thought ‘Well, damn. I can do that.’
You formed the Twilights in Lubbock as a teenager. Was there much opportunity to play in Lubbock then?
Lubbock didn’t have a lot of reason to have a band. It was a dry town. But we played the speakeasies, places where a guy would sit in his car in back of the club with his trunk open selling half-pints of gin. Those were the only places that would pay us. And we worked for tips. If the cotton crop was good, we made good money. If the crop was not good, nobody made anything.
What motivated you to form the Twilights? What repertoire did the band play?
I was washing dishes at a chicken place. I got real sick of that. I thought, ‘If I put a band together, we might make a little money.’ The Twilights played all those old torch ballads. ‘Fever’ and ‘St. James Infirmary’ and ‘Ebb Tide.’ We had a real good girl singer. I sang ‘Donna’ and ‘La Bamba.’ We played at those speakeasies for used car salesmen and widows. I made enough money to give up my dishwashing job.
You made your first trip to New Orleans with the Twilights?
A well-known singer from New Orleans saw us in Lubbock. I forget his name. He brought the Twilights to New Orleans to play at a club on Lake Pontchartrain. I got thrown in the New Orleans jail. Me and my friend were arrested for riding our motor scooters up on a barge.
Any other misadventures?
When we were going to New Orleans, we drove down U.S. 90 across the swamp. We were in the bass player’s big old V8 Pontiac. We’d pass this guy and then he’d pass us. One time when we were going around him he stuck a gun out the window. We punched it. We were going down that old road a hundred miles an hour. And then we pulled off and hid behind a gas station. I’ll never forget that.
You have many stories to tell.
If you live on the road, the stories find you.
In the past few years, you’ve received many honors. Are you comfortable with that kind of acclaim?
For my home state to give me the Texas Songwriter Hall of Fame Award, that really touched me. I never expected that. I just wrote songs. Not to win awards, but because they needed to be written.
Speaking of Texas awards, you’re from a state that has produced many great songwriters.
In the ’50s and ’60s, nobody wrote songs. I didn’t meet into any songwriters until I ran into my Flatlanders buddies, Jimmie and Butch. That was the first I realized that anybody can write a song. Jimmie and Butch wrote about simple things. Life in West Texas. A dancehall on a Saturday night.
Probably about that same time, I picked up Townes Van Zandt hitchhiking. He was carrying a guitar, so I was curious. And he was in a terrible spot for getting a ride, way on the outskirts of Lubbock. When I let him off, he pulled an album out of his backpack. He didn’t have any clothes in there, just albums. That was kind of a calling. I thought, ‘Well, I better get busy and write some songs.’
You turned 70 in February. How do you feel about where you are as an artist?
I never even thought about stopping. Because when I was growing up, so many of my favorite singers were old guys. In Lubbock, the guys who drew the biggest audiences in the honky-tonks were guys who had been around a long time. They knew a lot of songs and had a lot of experience handling the night clubs.
I just keep playing, for my own satisfaction and just to stay alive. You have to keep your fingers moving, your brain working. Music is the best thing I can think of to do that.
Has writing songs become easier through the years?
There are fewer and fewer obstacles, because you have more experience and more things to write about. And I flat don’t give a damn if somebody doesn’t like a song. That sets me free. When I was first writing songs, I worried about what people thought. Later I realized that’s the silliest thing in the world. If they don’t like the song I’m singing, they can go drive around the cotton fields.
You, Jimmie and Butch, a.k.a. the Flatlanders, reunited to write a song for the 1998 movie, The Horse Whisperer. And then did you spontaneously decide to keep the Flatlanders going?
The Horse Whisperer song led to us writing other songs. Before long we had a whole album. We did more albums every two or three years after that. We’re talking about doing another one.
Do you especially enjoy the songwriter concerts you play on the road?
I feel fortunate when I travel around with my old buddies. I did a whole bunch of shows with Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. And I did a tour with Allen Toussaint and Michelle Shocked.
It’s great to play different songs every night. You learn how many ways there are to phrase a song, how many rhythms there are. There’s so much of everything, when you’re collecting it from other songwriters. That inspires me to write new songs.
You said goodbye to Guy Clark, one of your songwriter pals, last year.
That’s the sad part about living a long time. You have to say too many goodbyes to people who inspired you and intrigued you. But the music carries on. That’s the real magic. I’ve been doing Guy Clark songs every night since he died. I get this feeling in the middle of the song of extreme gratefulness that he left this song back here on the Earth, with us mortals who’ll cross that same river someday.
Joe Ely will perform September 15 at Chickie Wah Wah. George McConnell and Tomi Lunsford will open the show at 8 p.m.