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Wire from the Bunker: Hey Joe! Get Well Soon.

Joe Ely, NYC - Photo by Grant Goddard

Last time I sent one of these get-well wires it was to Joe Henry. I’m delighted to say that Mr. Henry recovered and has been back in action for several years. This one’s for Joe Ely who has been struggling with his health as of late and hit a particularly rough patch earlier this summer. I understand that Joe is very much on the mend but I did want to send out some words of love and encouragement to the great man who has meant so much to me for so long.

I first encountered Ely in 1987 in NYC. I’d heard of him before then and knew that he was highly regarded. I’d also seen a picture of him singing with the Clash which gave him instant credibility in my then rather narrowly focused faux punk rock eyes. It was hard to find out about stuff back in those days so when I picked up a ticket to see Dwight Yoakum at the vaunted Beacon Theatre, I made sure to get there in time to see Ely. Yoakum was riding some sort of new traditionalist wave that had started then and compared to, say, Randy Travis, he struck me as the real deal.

Joe Ely and the Clash, Monterey, CA, 1979 - Photo by George Rose.

Well, let me tell you, friends, I have no recollection of Yoakum’s performance. I was so bowled over by Ely that I might as well have left after he played. The truly amazing thing was that Ely played solo! Do you have any idea how difficult it is to open solo for a full band in a big theatre? Ely put on a master class. The place was dead silent as he rolled out one killer song after another. And that was really what made an impression: the SONGS. Make no mistake: Ely’s a powerful singer with a supple voice that has an ironic tinge to it … sorta makes you feel like he’s letting you in on something. And Joe’s legendary charisma is up there with Springsteen’s and Strummer’s: you can’t take your eyes off him once he hits the stage. It has to do with Ely’s stance, I think: his thousand-yard stare coupled with his perfectly coiffed hair and the way he pulls his head back and upward at the end of a line. The ultimate in cowboy gypsy cool.

But, again, it was the SONGS that pulled me in. Two in particular: Porter Wagoner’s Satisfied Mind, yes, an old chestnut, but when Joe sang “how many times have you heard someone say // if I had his money, I’d do things my way” he put to paid to any notion that one’s spirit can be saved by wealth – there was a resignation in the way he sang it but, more importantly, a certain defiance. “Both/and” if you know what I mean. But the performance that affected me as profoundly as anything I’d heard up to that point or since was his rendition of Boxcars. As the final E minor chord rang out, Joe simply said: “Butch Hancock”, acknowledging his lifelong friend, musical associate and writer of some of Joe’s finest material. “I’m going down to the railroad tracks to watch them lonesome boxcars roll” Ely intoned with such authority – “lived experience” is what people call it now – that I felt catapulted out of the Beacon into an imaginary West filled with possibility. New York in the 80s was pretty claustrophobic!

I’ve spent the last three and a half decades trailing Ely but also the world he opened up for me: the wonder that is Butch Hancock’s songbook in particular but also the otherworldly voice of Jimmie Dale Gilmore (who along with Butch and Joe formed the Flatlanders in 1972 and arguably began what is now called “Americana” music”), Terry Allen, Jo Carol Pierce, David Halley and, as Butch might say, “own and own” (i.e. “on and on” as pronounced by a Texan). So many things go into any one thing but, man, the so-called “Lubbock mafia” is as responsible for John Train’s formation and approach as anything else I can think of.

Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, Berlin, 1979

It was an absolute honor for Slo-Mo and I to get to open up for Joe twice: once in Sellersville and another time in Wilmington. And I will forever be in debt to my pal and Phawker Editor-in-Chief, the late Jonathan Valania, for not only asking me to review an Ely record but actually allowing me to interview him. Valania told me to stay away from the fanboy stuff and “no insider baseball.” Hah! I’m not sure how well I did conducting the only official interview of my life but I did get to ask Joe if Austin was still weird to which he replied: “yes, but you gotta keep the windows rolled up.” Classic! Here’s the full interview:

Anyway, I thought for this get-well Wire I’d focus on Joe’s own songs. When you’re putting your stuff up against Hancock’s, you’re walking a pretty dangerous tight rope, but, in addition to being one of the greatest performers of all time, Joe’s a mighty fine songwriter himself. So here’re five of yours, Joe, sent back to you with the very best wishes.

Musta Notta Gotta Lotta: This number demonstrates Ely’s status as the only rightful heir of the Killer, Jerry Lee. To be sure, that’s based on his ability to write a rocker of this quality and perform it like a house on fire versus a predilection for marrying an underage relative! In any event, this video should give you an idea of the amazing energy that the original Joe Ely Band could generate on any given night, be it in a Texas Honkytonk or, as in this case, at the Old Grey Whistle Test across the pond. I guess this wasn’t truly the original Ely Band as it doesn’t include the peerless Ponty Bone on accordion or the marvelous Lloyd Maines on steel. But, still, check out Jesse “Guitar” Taylor. If anyone should have that middle name, it’s him.

My Eyes Got Lucky: To paraphrase Nick Bottom, the Weaver, you gotta see with your ears on this one i.e. don’t worry about the poodle cuts, mullets, and PRS guitars. (Notably, Joe looks cool no matter the era.) Ely’s ability to tap into fellow Lubbock legend Buddy Holly’s melodic sense is on full display here. This song may seem simple but you try writing it! With apologies to the late Johnny Conqueso, I must admit that in its own way I found The Joe Ely Band Mark II to be as powerful as the original iteration. Of course, Mark II was when I got onboard and one’s first foray is usually the one that sticks.

Me and Billy the Kid: There have been a number of songs written about Billy the Kid – including a pretty good one by old Bob himself – but Ely’s is the best by far. Probably because it isn’t really about the historical Mr. Bonney tho it certainly taps into the legend. Joe has a great way of being funny without being corny and Billy is a good example of that. Favorite rhyme: “la cucaracha” with “pets her new chihuahua.” Hah! Ely cut Billy with his road band and included it on Lord of the Highway which is probably his best release from the 80s. But Ely’s live “solo” versions of this song far surpassed the studio recording. Check out how Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt – no songwriting slouches themselves – watch in awe as Ely rolls out his tale.

Slow You Down: This one’s from Ely’s 1992 release, Love and Danger, a transitional record of sorts where Joe returned to MCA, who released his first five records, after a brief stint on Hightone in the 80s. It’s not as highly rated as Joe’s next two MCA releases – particularly Letter to Laredo – where Ely achieved a really cool border-type sound largely informed by his collaboration with flamenco guitarist, Teye. But, other than his very first two records, Danger is my personal favorite which is weird considering that it doesn’t contain a single Hancock composition. Ely’s own songs – including the beautiful Slow You Down – carried the day on this album. On the above more recent live version, Joe is joined by Joel Guzman who has got to be the best Tex/Mex/conjunto style accordionist out there. Joe’s always pulled the best musicians as well he should.

Because of the Wind: I’m not sure about these two hombres performing it but Because of the Wind may just be Ely’s greatest song. It has that very rare quality of seeming like it always existed. Butch told me that when Joe first played this song, they started re-writing it to say “do you know why the tree [singular] bends on the West Texas border?” given the paucity of vegetation up on the high plains. But, kidding aside, Because of the Wind is easily my own favorite Ely song and when Slo-Mo and I first put John Train together it was in our repertoire and appears on our very first recording, All of your Stories. Butch released it on a tape he put out in 1987 called Cause of the Cactus (good luck chasing that one down!) where it is beautifully sung by his then performing partner Marce LaCouture. In the end, tho, Ely’s version from Honkytonk Masquerade, his second MCA lp and universally considered one of the best records of the 70s, is definitive.

So there you have it. Much love to you, Joe, and get well soon.

Upcoming Wires: Gordon Lightfoot (RIP), Lee Clayton (RIP), Jimmy Buffett (RIP), and Tom Russell (but don’t panic. Tom’s ok!).


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