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.