At 64, Joe Ely is the elder statesman of Texas music.
For over three decades, Ely has continuously released some of the most influential country-rock and folk albums around, inspiring and influencing bands as disparate as The Clash and Uncle Tupelo.
Beginning his career in Lubbock while playing with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock in the Flatlanders, Ely now resides in Austin where he continues to record with a variety of top sidemen.
We recently caught up with Ely over the phone from a tour stop in North Carolina in anticipation of his performance tomorrow night at the Granada Theater. Among other things, Ely talked to us about the making of his most recent effort, Satisfied at Last, as well as the twists and turns of his fascinating career.
Your most recent effort is called Satisfied at Last. Is that a commentary on your own life?
That's what everyone has been asking me. I am, for right this minute. Being satisfied is not anything that's guaranteed or full-time. The title just kind of came to me because I realized that I had been on the road for about half the century. I remember picking up Muddy Waters from the airport in Lubbock. I asked him about being on the road so much. He told me that every day is 22 hours of misery and two hours of ecstasy. I figure that, when the band cranks up, everything is fine.
Were most of the songs on the new album written recently?
There were a few things that came from other times, but most of these songs were written just for this record. Maybe a beginning of a song or an opening line was from some other time. That's probably why it took me so long to put this record together -- it took about a year and a half. That's longer than it usually takes me. Plus, I wrote another 15 songs that just didn't sound like they fit on this record. Also, I didn't have anyone breathing down my neck -- no one telling me to hurry up or slow down. I was able to take a breath and record at my own pace. In the past, we would make a record as quick as we could just so we could get back on the road. Sometimes, making a record is kind of an inconvenience. Nowadays, it's the greatest luxury I have, being able to take my time.
The album almost seems like a soundtrack to your 2007 memoir, Bonfire of Roadmaps.
That is how the record evolved. The last record I did was with my Flatlander buddies, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. That record kind of looked at the world falling apart. This time, I wanted to write something more personal, thinking about things in a big circle. The record starts out with a guy going out of town on the highway, and the rest of the record is about trying to come home.
Why did you all decide to reform The Flatlanders in 2002?
It was kind of an accident. We've always remained the closest of friends. We just never thought about getting together and making another record. We thought of that first record we did in 1972 as kind of a fluke that worked. That record had such a great feel, but we all went on to make our own records after that. I was working with MCA in Nashville, and they needed a song for the movie The Horse Whisperer. Someone suggested that I get together with Butch and Jimmie and work on something together. I thought that was a great idea because the three of us had never written a song together. When we wrote together, it was a whole different experience. It had a whole different feel and flavor and was totally unlike the songs we wrote separately. We wrote a whole album of songs that way, even though we didn't have a record deal. That led to two more albums since then.
When you play the city of Dallas, do you have to play the song "Dallas," which also happens to be the inspiration for this blog's name?
It's funny because I think we play that song in every city in the United States and it always gets a good response. The Old 97's do a good version of that song. The song has a life of its own. I recorded it as a rock 'n' roll shuffle back in 1981 and I've put it on several live albums. No matter where I am playing, every single night, someone will yell out for that song. It has to be the most requested song on every tour.
You've worked with, among others, Bruce Springsteen, The Clash and Uncle Tupelo. Did you always want to work with artists outside of country and folk?
I've never had a picture of my audience that I would write towards. I always thought it was being respectful to my audience, not writing towards the lowest common denominator. That has freed me up to get together with lots of other people. I think it's fascinating to bring in instruments from other genres and write what the song is asking you to do. Working with other people allows me to use other elements in my own songs.
Didn't you sing back up on The Clash's "Should I Stay of Should I Go"?
Yes, I did all the Spanish parts. [Joe] Strummer actually called me up to translate that song into Spanish. I did such a terrible job of translating. I was embarrassed about it, but it added a humorous side to the song.
You've opened for The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty in large arenas. Were the audiences always receptive to what you do?
If the band is tight, and if you walk out and play the songs like you think they should be played, the audience gets that feeling. The guy who makes guitars for Keith Richards gave him a copy of my album, Musta Notta Gotta Lotta. Keith really liked that album and asked for us to be on that tour.