Joe Ely is an American music legend when it comes to the honky-tonk / Tex-Mex flavor of Americana music. Born in Amarillo, TX in 1947, and raised in Lubbock, Joe was exposed to, and fell in love with, Texas Country music at a very early age. In 1971, along with fellow musicians Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock, they formed the band, the Flatlanders. “Jimmie [Gilmore] was like a well of country music. He knew everything about it. And Butch was from the folk world. I was kinda the rock & roll guy, so we almost had a triad. We hit it off and started playing a lot together. That experience opened up a whole new world I had never known existed,” Joe shared recently.
30 Plus and Counting
Joe released his first solo album in 1977 on MCA, and has issued a steady stream of albums, (over 30 and counting, most on the MCA label), along with a live album, roughly every 10 years.
In 1978, his band played in London, where he met punk rock group, The Clash. Impressed with each other’s music, the two bands later toured together, and established a musical friendship that lasted for years.
In the late 1990s, Joe was asked to write songs for the soundtrack of Robert Redford’s movie, The Horse Whisperer. This led to re-forming of his band, The Flatlanders, which produced a new album. They release another in 2002 and a third in 2004. In October 2022, Joe was inducted to the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame.
I caught up with Joe recently, right as MCA was re-releasing his first three solo albums on vinyl. I asked him to reminisce about the early days of his career and how it all started.
Jerry Did It
“When I was seven or eight years old, I saw Jerry Lee Lewis playing on a flatbed trailer in Amarillo, Texas,” he recalled. “I was hooked from that moment. The wind was blowing about 40 miles an hour and the microphone kept getting blown over. Jerry just kept beating the hell out of that piano. And I thought, ‘you know, that’s what I want to do.’ So he kind of set me on a course, and I’ve been playing and putting songs together ever since then.”
That’s been 60 years ago. Did you have any idea where life would take you, I asked?
“I guess if I didn’t know, I would have found out the hard way,” he laughed. “I just had a love of music, and at that time I didn’t realize the ups and downs of the music business. I just wanted to play. All through school I played every chance I got. I put a little band together when I was about 15. We played at all the late night, after hours, joints in West Texas. And I’ve been whittling away at it ever since.”
Joe says he’s tried to keep life and music interesting throughout his career. “It’s been really fun and interesting, I’d say, because of all the people I’ve met, and projects that I’ve worked on …”
“ … Meeting people from other worlds, other musicians and songwriters, that is what has been very interesting to me, because, you see, you know people’s situations, and how they match their lifestyle and habits, spills over into influence in their songs, and how songs are woven into the fabric of just living. For me, just meeting people and traveling down the road, and how music guides people’s lives in a lot of ways. The stories that I’ve gathered over the years has been a real interesting part of the traveling; and I’ve been traveling most of my life.”
When The Writing Came
I asked Joe about songwriting; did it become part of his life from the beginning? “No, it didn’t come right away,” he said. “I guess I was about 17. Actually, getting thrown in jail might have had something to do with it,” he quipped. “That was a big influence on my life, because, for one thing, it showed me not to go there again.”
“It’s been very interesting to see where it all came from,” he said. “Just when you called, I was working on a set of about 35 mostly complete songs that have never been released. I’ve been going through all my old archives and finding stuff that I completely forgot about. Basically, complete songs that I didn’t remember doing.”
Joe’s had a studio handy since he was in his early 20s. “Just a real simple one, in my house, he recalled. “But it was a good way to put songs down in a kind of a sketch form, and then later come back to them. And in this case, the songs that I found the other day were recorded well over 30 years ago.”
Joe’s latest recording is called, Flatland Lullaby. They are a set of songs I recorded for my daughter when she was about five years old,” Joe said. “I would always sing her songs when she was going to sleep, and in other situations. I feel really lucky to have had a tape machine all this time,” he said.
“I first started putting things down when my Daddy worked for a moving van company. Someone gave him a record carving machine (something that actually cut vinyl). I started working on things then. So I’m glad that I’ve had access to these different ways of putting stuff down on tape and being unable to catalog my music for all these years.”
Writing Books Too
Joe has even authored a few books in his career. “Yeah, I have two books,” he said; “A novel and a book of poems that the University of Texas press has released. What inspired the novel? “I’ve kept a journal all my life and just jotted down little pieces and things that happened; not thinking it would ever be published or printed or anything, but I’m really glad that it did. Because there’s a whole heap of stuff that I didn’t remember until I started putting down the pieces for the editors. I think you should write a little bit every day just to keep your chops.”
Fans of Joe Ely will want to be on the look out for the re-release of his first three solo LPs 40 years after their first release, remastered from the original tapes, and available across all digital platforms, as well as limited vinyl reissue.
Joe Ely, Honky Tonk Masquerade, and Down On the Drag, are all available now.