Dust and wind

Joe Ely sends a sad, beautiful Letter to Laredo

Letter to Laredo is the crowning achievement of a career began decades ago, when Ely was a small boy first putting pen to paper in his adopted hometown of Lubbock. So much has been written of the mystical appeal of that city--of the mysterious lights that appear every so often, of the dirt that sometimes covers the entire city in a shroud of blood-red powder--and so much has been said of the city's impact on popular music. Men like Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Waylon Jennings have come from there, redefining pop and country music.

The second generation of Lubbock musicians--Ely, Gilmore, Hancock, Terry Allen, and so many others--are a different breed of songwriter: They are connected to the tradition of their predecessors, but take their inspiration from Spanish authors and Eastern philosophers. They are the new breed of Texas-music Outlaw--the hard-drinking scholars raised on Bob Wills and Buddy Holly, poets who told their stories in between the notes.

Even now, there exists a strong connection between Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock: On Letter to Laredo, Butch contributed "She Finally Spoke Spanish to Me," and Jimmie Dale sings harmony on "I Saw it in You."

"I guess for me the first time I really felt like I understood why I was a songwriter was when all the Flatlanders were livin' in a house in Lubbock," Ely says. "Each of us had a bedroom and a big ol' living room and would wake up in the mornin' and pull out our guitars and sing and play all day. This is when I wrote songs like 'Because of the Wind' and 'Johnny's Blues' and 'Hope's Up High' and some of those early songs that I still sing today. That was a time when I realized it was OK to [be a songwriter]. I had good friends and we kinda shared in this same vision and same love for certain kinds of music and well-written songs.

"We kinda set a course and made a lot of bad decisions and wrong turns, but we're still tryin' to keep it alive...I guess there's something about being in a room--like in a studio or on a stage--with a band.

"This ol' world can be real confusing, and you can take a look around you and nothing's in harmony with anything else. But when a bunch of guys are playing the same song and everybody's listenin' as much as they're playin', something happens that is indescribable.

"It's like the whole universe seems to be OK, like the 6 o'clock news didn't take a few things into consideration that day. You stand back from it, take a deep breath, and everything's on course. I think I would have gone crazy if it hadn't been for makin' music. I lived pretty hard when I was growing up. Music was a refuge and an outlet.

"I put a lot of things down on paper for 10 or 12 years before I ever really started recording, and I remember a feeling like I was gonna explode if I didn't actually do this. I had always played music with my family, but once I started recording and saw I could put stuff down on tape and saw it come together, it felt good. It gave me something to hold on to.

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