Q&A: Texas Legend Joe Ely

Categories: Interviews
Singer/songwriter and Flatlanders member Joe Ely.
As some of you know, this blog takes its name from the Flatlanders song “Dallas.” Legendary Texas singer/songwriter Joe Ely has probably performed the song a million times by now (though it was actually penned by bandmate and fellow Lubbock maverick Jimmie Dale Gilmore). We had the pleasure of talking to Ely in advance of his show tonight at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall, where he’ll no doubt perform many of the songs featured on his new album, Live Cactus! -- a duo set recorded with longtime accordion player Joel Guzman at Austin’s legendary Cactus Café and the first of three Ely records set for release this year.

Let’s talk about Joel Guzman, the accordion player that joins you on your new album, Live Cactus! What do you think he brings to your material as a sideman?

I feel like I’m the luckiest person on earth just to be able to work with him. He really made me look at songs in a whole different light. And then when we started recording together, I realized that I had always loved that sound. When I was about 10 years old, my daddy had a used clothing store in downtown Lubbock. ... On the weekends there’d be 50,000 migrant workers from Mexico in downtown Lubbock, and, of course, they would bring their music with them. And so the sound of the accordion, and the sound of music from across the border, really put me in a whole different place. When I started with Joel it reminded me of that period of my life when everything was kind of magical…

Like many of your Lubbock peers you’re somewhat of a Renaissance man. Could you tell us about your other creative outlets, like your visual art and your book, Bonfire of Roadmaps?

All of those, for me, come from the same place. When I left home I had a guitar, and in my guitar case I had a sketchbook and in my back pocket I had a little notebook. I told myself I was gonna write everything down whether it made any sense to anybody or not. That whole Bonfire of Roadmaps book was never meant to be read. I just wrote it as notes to myself going up and down the road. And I didn’t have a camera, so I drew pictures of places and people and everything. And then when I’d get home I would sort out all those pictures and scribbles and they started turning into songs.

Some people look at songwriting as a way to get girls or a way to be popular in your town or something, but I’ve always looked as it as just a way of keeping a journal of your life. And each song is a little part of it. Now I can look back over my life and see all the different little pictures that the songs remind me of…

Since our music blog is called DC-9 At Night, I have to ask what the future holds for the Flatlanders.

We’ve got a handful of songs done and I think there are some keepers in there. We’re just so slow, you know. Our total ambition between the three of us falls into the negative category. We really don’t care about timely putting out an album every so often. Kind of like baking a cake, we just do it when it gets done.

At this point you’ve probably played every other juke joint and theater in Texas, including Bass Hall. What are some of your favorites?

Well back in Lubbock I used to love the old Cotton Club; in Amarillo I used to love the old Moon Palace--it used to be a skating rink where I went rollerskating as a kid. In Dallas there’s a lot of old places down in Deep Ellum; that old VFW lodge…

Sons of Hermann?

Yeah, Sons of Hermann is a great place; Tommy Allsup’s old place. You know there’s some places that just have kind of a vibe. I like places that have the vibe of history. Places that are brand new and shiny and everything are a dime a dozen. But I love those places like Gruene Hall down in South Texas, Ray’s Bar out in Marfa. There’s places scattered all over from German dance hall days in Fredericksburg--Hondo’s and some of those old bars in Luckenbach and Marble Falls. I like those places that give you a sense that’s something happened there before and it’s not just some corporation putting together a concept club.

Of course there’s places like Bass Hall, which is one of the greatest concert halls in the world. Places in Austin like the Paramount Theater. You know, places that are really meant to be listening rooms... those are bright and shiny but they’re also well designed. The music just sounds so good in ‘em. We went out and did a songwriter tour with me and Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt and Guy Clark the last few years and we’ve covered just about all the great sounding rooms in the United States -- from the Disney Hall out in L.A. to the Chicago Theater. I really appreciate those kind of places, too, but as far as just the day to day public places, I really like those old rooms.

I’ve heard you spent time on the road with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a young man. I have to ask about this.

Well, it was kind of accident, really. I was just watching them set up, and a guy just hands me a sledgehammer and hires me on the spot. I have to say it was an incredible experience, but a terrible job; the worst possible job you could have. What I did was ringstock, which is to take care of the animals and dress ’em and wash ’em. My first job was with the llamas and the world’s smallest horse. …

But what I loved about it was, when we didn’t have to work and dress our horses and everything, we got to watch ’em put together new acts in the afternoons, and so I’d get to see the trapeze guys from Bulgaria break in their son. You know, teach him their tricks. It was great experience to watch how the circus is passed on from generation to generation.

Unfortunately, after a couple of months of working with them I got kicked in the ribs by a jealous horse and broke a couple of ribs…Thankfully, Gunther Gebel-Williams saw it all happen and pulled me out of the way before I got crushed--the elephants were coming in right behind my horses. I was lucky not to have spent a tragic end being trampled by elephants. It was pretty damn close.

I look back at it as one of those things that I didn’t mean to do, but I’m glad that I did. Got a song out of it that Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt recorded, and I finally recorded it last year on my Silver City record, which is one of the records that goes along with the Bonfire of Roadmaps book. ... I just recorded two more songs last night that actually started out at that same period of time, when I was traveling with the circus, but never made it into a song until 30 years later. That’s the way I work… -- Noah W. Bailey


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