Dust and wind

Joe Ely sends a sad, beautiful Letter to Laredo

Joe Ely has left Texas many times, spent many years busking in New York City subway stations and the Paris Metro. He traveled throughout Europe and the United States as a young man, even ran away with the circus for a little while to tend the llamas and a pony billed as "The World's Smallest Horse." But always he returned here, unable to shake the Lubbock dirt from the boots he had worn through during his travels.

Once he returned in the mid-'70s, Ely found he could never leave. He shrugged off every bit of advice from those in the music business who told him that if he stayed, his career would die a slow death--like an armadillo boiling inside its shell as it tries to cross a West Texas highway in the middle of August. He should have gone to Nashville, could have gone to Los Angeles, tried to make it in Manhattan till he left after three months "just any way I could get out."

As he says now from his home in the Hill Country, "Texas has always been my home." It is a phrase Ely, Amarillo-born and Lubbock-raised, uses to describe himself and his music--an amalgam of barroom rock and roll, border-town conjunto, juke-joint blues, and honky-tonk country. It's a sound that, like the best and purest Texas music, crisses and crosses so often there's no easily identifiable beginning or end. And it's a sound that evokes a sense of place, a sense of time--a sound that's as big as the arrogantly blue sky (as Grover Lewis once wrote) blanketing the Lone Star State.

"I've been criticized about that a lot, about having no distinctions between kinds of music in my songs," Ely says. "I just say, hey, wait, I heard Bob Wills play out of the back door of a honky-tonk when I was six years old. I heard Jerry Lee Lewis play in a dust storm in Amarillo. I heard all this stuff when I was growin' up, whether it was rock or blues. One of the earliest gigs I had was openin' for Jimmy Reed when I was 14 years old in one of my pitiful bands in Lubbock, the Twi-Lites.

"I was listenin' the other day to a record I did in '89, Live at Liberty Lunch, and there's the passage in there where there's 'Row of Dominoes' and 'Where Is My Love?' and it has that whole feelin' of bein' out in the middle of nowhere. It's distant and it's kinda desperate and lonesome, but you don't feel threatened by it. You feel like it's your home, and Texas has always been my home. I've had a lot of opportunities to leave. In fact, if I had a brain in my head I would have moved to L.A. or Nashville years ago and used the whole machinery of those towns to further my whole social life and bank account.

"But I chose to live in Texas and to work here and to kinda base my songs around this area that I love so much--West Texas and, well, the whole state. There's something about it that's inspirational."

Ever since Ely and longtime comrades Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock hooked up in the early 1970s in Lubbock to form the legendary Flatlanders, his music has evoked the romantic's vision of Texas--the bone-dry plains and the blindingly blue wide-open spaces, the muddy shores of the Rio Grande River and the red-rock majesty of Palo Duro Canyon, the throat-choking dust of the flatlands and the gulf that washes against South Texas.

Throughout such albums as his eponymous 1977 debut, 1978's Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, and his contributions to last year's Songs from Chippy (about a Depression-era West Texas whore), he has created a soundtrack to a place that exists mostly only in memory and myth, tales of renegade lovers and innocent outlaws set to border-town melodies and honky-tonk rock and roll. They are lost souls howling at a "Cornbread Moon" and blaming their troubles on the wind; they're hopeless romantics whose lives are spent traveling "Highways and Heartaches"; they're cowboys and desperados who ride the range and the rails hoping the good life lies hidden behind the next ridge.

But there's perhaps no better example of Ely's craft as the author-songwriter than his new album Letter to Laredo, which, like his 1977 debut, evokes a desperate, timeless sense of place; it's like a novel set to music, a complete and accidental tale that unfolds over the course of 11 songs that play themselves out like self-contained mini-epics.

It opens with the line "I have stumbled on the plain/Staggered in the wind," and tells of a man's search for a woman that takes him "from St. Paul to Wichita Falls" and across desert sands and the Rio Grande--"all just to get to you," Ely sings, with Bruce Springsteen providing the half-heard harmony. And from there, Laredo is a travelogue through Texas and time, down to Mexico and across the ocean, to Spain and back again until Ely is a thousand miles from home but still next door.

He's the mariachi, the fighter, the lover, the warrior, the storyteller, the rancher, the fugitive--each character driven by deep passions for women, for family, for an imagined better life on the other side of the border or the ocean. The title track is the album's centerpiece: Ely tells someone (the listener) to send to his lover a letter proclaiming his innocence of a crime for which he has been convicted.

"I jumped bail from Sweetwater County, now I'm on the run," Ely sings against a haunting torrent of notes strummed on a guitar. "On my head is a five number bounty for a crime I never done/Take this letter to Laredo to the one I love/Tell her to stay low beneath the stars above." Like so many other tracks on Letter to Laredo, the song sticks with you long after its last notes fade; it is like grit between your teeth, far different than the synth-and-drum machine version on 1984's Hi-Res.

"Everything almost kinda takes place in the desert or the middle of nowhere, and the record kinda feels that way," Ely says. "Maybe I read too many Cormac McCarthy books the last couple of years or something, and it's rubbin' off or something. Songs like 'Letter to Laredo' and 'Saint Valentine' all kind of have this small-town feeling out in the middle of the desert, so it's almost like a concept record except it's not.

"I didn't write each story to interrelate with the others, but when I was placin' the songs on the album, I almost tried to place them to where you'd think there was a story."

But Ely does not peddle cheap stereotypes or clichŽs. Like his longtime hero, Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, or El Paso author McCarthy, Ely tells familiar stories in such a way that they become new legends, larger-than-life moments. When he threatens to take back the land Pancho Villa stole from his father in "Gallo Del Cielo" (written by Tom Russell), Ely is not just the narrator of an old tale, but the very active character in a very real story that unfolds over seven beautiful minutes. And when he tells of leaving for Europe after "She Finally Spoke Spanish to Me" (her only word: adios), it adds a sad denouement to a story he began in 1977 when he said "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me."

"This record feels like a complete circle from the time you put on the first song till you get around to the last song," Ely says. "You feel like you've been down a certain highway in a certain part of the country, and you kind of feel like you have been to a certain place--a musical place. I tried to actually make it to where you could feel the temperature and the dirt. 'Course, that didn't really come till halfway through the album.

"It started out just kinda writin' songs and then I'd go back through old notebooks and current things and I'd say, 'Oh, well, here's something that I wrote in El Paso in '84,' and I'd find a little passage I could use. It kinda worked with the other things I'd been workin' with. Funny how things like that work."

Surprisingly, Letter to Laredo was not the album Ely originally planned to release. Eighteen months ago he began work on a disc that would feature only him and his acoustic guitar a la Johnny Cash's 1994 American Recordings. But his plans changed when a friend called to tell him a European flamenco guitar player named Teye was in town and wanted to know if Ely might want to use him on any new material.

At first, Ely balked at the request, but just as quickly reconsidered; he had at least two songs he had written during a recent trip to Spain that he thought might benefit from the flamenco's sound, and Ely invited Teye to his home studio.

"And when he played," Ely recalls, "it just added this weird thing that I guess I'd always secretly loved but I never thought that I could ever use on a record--especially when I got a slide player like Lloyd Maines, who's my all-time favorite steel guitar player and slide player when he plays dobro. And so when I got those two guys together, man, it was like some kind of long-lost sound that I was not sure if I'd ever heard before. If I had heard it, I didn't know where from, and I didn't know what to do with it.

"Teye left the next day and I kinda rassled with this other record, but I always came back to those two songs--'Run Preciosa' and one that's not on this album, a song that never completely came together for this record. I called him up in Europe a couple of months later and he said he was comin' back to Austin, and we started workin' again on a new set of songs. And I found myself writin' new songs and pushin' the other album aside and writin' from scratch a whole new record."

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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