Last year was a big one for Joe Ely. He was named the 2016 official Texas State Musician, and he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association Hall of Fame. In addition, one of his longtime bands, the Flatlanders—with fellow singer/songwriters Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock—was elected to the Austin Chronicle Hall of Fame. “I don’t know why all of this happened all at once,” says Ely, during a phone call from Austin. “I’ve been doing this all my life.”
Ely is Texas songwriting royalty—No Depression magazine dubbed him a “Lubbock luminary.”
His songs are rife with images of boxcars and hobos, two-lane blacktops and dusty West Texas towns, barroom brawls and border politics—vivid songs that transport the listener to a timeless place. His latest album, Panhandle Rambler (Rack ’Em Records), is no exception.
Acoustic Guitar caught up with Ely—who turned 70 in February—to talk about his recent accolades, his songcraft, and his love of guitars.
If someone told you all this would be happening, back when you were a hippie breaking new ground in country-rock with the Flatlanders, what would you have thought?
It wasn’t anything I did—or nothing I was conscious of anyway. I never gave it much thought back then and I would have thought they were out of their minds. At that time, I didn’t even think about anything like awards or accolades or anything like that because we were just trying to figure out how to write a song, you know? And I guess we didn’t have much ambition. I mean, between the three of us Flatlanders, we probably had a thimble full of ambition. The whole thing was about seeing what could be done—seeing different ways to write a song. We just kind of followed that throughout our lives.
I just feel incredibly lucky that I’ve somehow had contact with writers who ended up influencing me greatly throughout my life, guys like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and of course [fellow Flatlanders] Jimmie [Dale Gilmore] and Butch [Hancock]. And the list goes on and on. Something about writing songs—you almost have to be, at some time or another, face to face [with the subject]. You can learn a song from an iPod or the internet or an album or whatever, but something about that face-to-face contact tells you where the real emotion is.
When you write a song, does it always begin on acoustic guitar?
Most of the time they begin on acoustic guitar, because that’s my main writing tool.
Tell me about your first experience with a guitar.
Well, it’s funny, growing up in West Texas, I started out playing violin when I was about eight years old, because my parents knew a violin maker in Amarillo they went to church with—a guy named Jimmy Meeks, who became a very well-known violin maker. We used to go over to his house on Sundays and have Sunday dinner with his family, and he’d take me back to his violin shop, and the entire inside of it was violins being made, and he would play them and show me different things on the violin. And that just really fascinated me, so the violin became my first instrument. I played in a little school orchestra, but then when I got to Lubbock there was no orchestra in the school. So I traded my violin for a guitar.
In fact, my first guitar was a steel guitar. Only in West Texas would you find a guy going door-to-door giving steel-guitar demonstrations. But that’s what happened. This guy just knocked on our front door one day and asked to come in, and my mother invited him in. And he set up an Oahu six-string lap-steel guitar and a little amplifier with a palm tree on it. So he sat there and played that steel guitar and I thought I was in heaven. It just seemed to fit: There was a dust storm blowing outside and here was this unearthly sound coming out of this little amplifier with a palm tree on it, and that was when I really realized that I was going to play guitar for the rest of my life.
Let’s talk about your latest album, Panhandle Rambler. While there’s plenty of electric-guitar twang on it, this album overall is more acoustic-based than a lot of your records.
Well, I watched the process of the record and it changed about halfway through. I was working on it for about three years, and about a year and a half into it, it took a change. I had put together some songs and it kind of made an acoustic turn through the writing process. I guess it was because of the way the songs turned. I started looking at it and it became a portrait of the place I came from in West Texas—you know, desert, kind of dustbowl area out there. It just seemed to be more of an acoustic vibe. Thinking about that country out there, it just seemed to work better that way. The Woody Guthrie country—dusty, and in my case, going from Lubbock, Texas, and Amarillo, where I grew up and was raised, all the way down to Mexico. It’s full of modern-day stories as well as old stories about ramblers and gamblers and hobos. Also there’s a little bit of danger, too, because of how the cartels have changed that area. There’s a couple of songs, like “Wounded Creek” and “Coyotes Are Howling”—I didn’t exactly tell the whole story, because I want people to listen and fill in the gaps and make up their own story.
So, that turned the tide of the record.
You do a beautiful take of Guy Clark’s “Magdalene” that’s much gentler than his, and his is pretty gentle. But yours is more fingerpicked than strummed. Why did you choose that particular song and arrangement?
I’d never recorded one of Guy’s songs. I’d always admired them but never recorded one until now. And that song just seemed to have a place on this record. It’s almost like it had been guided there by some outside force. It was supposed to be there. And for years and probably a couple hundred shows, I’d played with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Guy on songwriter tours that we did together, and I always sat next to Guy. And you know, Guy is a mighty presence, and he would always play a song that I had to follow. And some of his songs were just so powerful they’d rip your heart out. And I’d go, “Oh no, I can’t follow this!” So when it came to putting this record together, “Magdalene” just seemed to want to be in the lineup, because it talks about Mexico and danger, and you get the idea there’s a little something more going on behind the scenes that he never says.
You’ve also reprised “Cold Black Hammer” from your 1994 Texas all-star musical Chippy. Why did you think that fit into this narrative?
Oh, yeah, that came about when we did the Chippy play—me and Terry Allen and Robert Earl Keen and a whole bunch of us. We got together and wrote a thing about Chippy, who was a West Texas prostitute who followed the oil-bust towns. I just thought of that when I was doing this record and thought, you know, the whole thing that has gone on all through the high plains with fracking, and how it’s kind of boom or bust with that, and I wanted to repaint that picture, rerecord the song. It was a changing-of-the-scene song in that play—and more theatrical—so I wanted to make a real song out of it because the whole weird thing of fracking has come in the last five years out into West Texas, and now weird statistics are popping up, like Oklahoma becoming the earthquake capital of the world because of fracking. And, you know, the whole thing with big money and the international oil trade and wars over oil and stuff like that—I just wanted to bring that song back and paint it in a new light.
And you put it with other songs—“Four Ol’ Brokes,” “Burden of Your Load,” “Here’s to the Weary”—that seem to tell stories about characters who once rambled around the country. Do you think you’re documenting an America that no longer exists?
No, I think what I was trying to do was paint stuff that does exist but that people don’t really acknowledge anymore, because it doesn’t fit into the narrative of what’s in people’s mind when they think of Texas, which, for most of the year, is college football. I wanted to paint what was really going on. I mean, football is more or less an illusion. There’s so much more going on beneath the surface. I’m really pleased with the way the album turned out.
Greg Cahill contributed to this article.
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.