For many, Joe Ely is a man who needs no introduction, and I won’t take up much space offering one. From his brief but storied tenure with The Flatlanders, to his dozen or so solo efforts, Ely has been a driving force and an inspiration in Texas music for three decades. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for the Current in the moments before a show in Tulsa, while a train whistle blew poignantly in the background.
So Joe, over nearly 30 years of music, you’ve had ups and plenty of downs. In general, do you think that better music is born from hardship or from happiness? I’ve always written more when things were not so rosy. In fact, `when` I first started writing songs, I was on the top floor of the Lubbock County Jail. That’s where you have time to reflect on things. Usually, when the champagne is flowing and everybody’s having a great time and everybody’s happy, nobody wants to sit down and write. I generally kinda stay out of the public when I’m not playing, and pretty much just hole myself up in the studio and work for months at a time. All the notes I’ve taken before that, which I do all the time on the road, that’s when it turns into songs. I don’t think people write songs or paint paintings or do any of that stuff when everybody’s really happy.
Has that attitude changed at all over the years? No, I don’t think so, although, now I don’t rely on waiting for something to happen. I go in and work every day. I wake up every morning and start looking at things and listening to stuff. You can’t just sit around and wait for a song to come. You have to make it happen by sitting and working on it. I’ve had a few songs come in a blinding flash, but most of the time, it takes really hard work. Some songs I’ve been working on for seven or eight years, and they’re still not really finished.
Is that craftsman mentality toward songwriting something that came to you later on in your career, or have you always been workman-like in that regard? I’ve always put in the time. It came from when I first left my home in Lubbock and went out into the world. I always carried a notebook with me and jotted down all my little thoughts and ideas and stuff. Ninety percent of it, I’d throw away and never look at it again, after I’d sifted through it and found anything that was potentially worth working on. I’ve filled up a lot more trashcans than I have tape recorders.
Do you find that the majority of your keeper ideas come from your own life experiences, or observing the lives and experiences of others? It’s a combination. When you observe others, it’s actually a part of you that is watching that, and you’re putting your own story into somebody else’s situation. A lot of my songs, I talk about someone else, but it might have actually started with me. By observing somebody else when I’m writing, mainly observing them in my head, it gives me the freedom to make it more of a song as opposed to just an experience. So many songs I hear now are just somebody kinda whining about how bad they been treated and stuff. I’d rather hear a song that’s a story. It might not be a happy story, but I’d rather it be a complete circle.
As a songwriter, you’ve always been a storyteller. What do you think is bleeding that out of modern music? I don’t know. I suspect that some of it may be the people have run out of stories. They’ve taken in so much watching television and movies, listening to other songs, instead of just going out and taking in everyday life. I think when you’re bombarded by constant media, you lose your own personal desire to create your own story. I just think people lose touch with what their own story really is. They haven’t taken the time to sit still and really observe what’s going on around them, and that’s what telling a story really is, is observing.
Your stories always seem to do one of two things. You either take a very small story and make it larger than life, or else you take a universal theme and shrink it down to the story of just one man, or one town. Is that indicative of the way you view the world? A lot of times it is. If we were talking about a newspaper, I think my songs would be a story on page 14. Some little bitty two-inch column about a guy running off a bridge in Mississippi because of jealousy, or something like that, as opposed to a rocket ship taking off for the moon, or something, you know. I think most of my stories tend to start from smaller stories.
What is it about those seemingly trivial occurrences that grab your attention so much? Well, just because they are smaller people. People tend to gravitate toward large stories, and the things that make the national press or the talk shows or some celebrity gossip or something, as opposed to your next-door neighbor who has a story. It’s just a little bitty story, but each one of those stories is of the same gravity. We tend to put them in different categories, but anything that happens to anyone is of the same gravity. We tend to place more weight on stories that become movies, as opposed to one person’s individual struggle.
As a songwriter, how do you balance the real with the romantic? Well, sometimes I don’t balance it. Sometimes, it falls way over into the romantic category. I have to admit I’m a bit of a romantic, but at the same time, I try to find the story inside the story. I try to look at the internal things of a story and find the real essence of it. That’s hard to do, especially in a song, because you only have so much time to tell the whole story. You can’t make it really long, but then, it has to be really interesting. To get it down into its most concise form, you really have to find its essence. There was one song I did called “Ranches and Rivers,” on the Letter to Laredo album. I worked on this song, and I knew the verses were just right. I had the story, and I’d honed it down for a couple of years. I had this chorus that I just kept wrangling with. I’d come to it every few days to try to find that chorus for it, and I never could. One day, I was going through some other stuff, and I found the chorus in another song, completely intact, that worked perfectly for it.
I understand that you did a lot of vagabond wandering in your younger years. Yeah, I used to go out with just a guitar and a backpack and sleep on the side of the road. Jump freight trains and all that. That does not look so appealing, now! I went from coast to coast like that, several times. A lot of that was just the romance of the road, that I’d gotten from Woody Guthrie songs, Jack Kerouac books, John Steinbeck and Henry Miller. I had to go out and see that, but it did kind of lead into playing lots of different places. It lead into writing songs and meeting songwriters: running into Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock, and Jimmy Dale Gilmore and people who I still feel are influences. I feel like I’ve been really lucky to do that, to see the world and to travel with great songwriters. Getting to do shows with the people who inspired me growing up, that was a big thrill. Getting to do stuff with Chuck Berry or the Rolling Stones, or Bruce Springsteen; getting to tour Europe with Carl Perkins and Merle Haggard; I feel really lucky. In fact, it was Merle Haggard, when I was in that Lubbock jail, who had a top song called “I’m a Branded Man.” It was about a prison, and that was really one of the things that started me writing songs.
So are you still able to dip back into those experiences on the road, hopping trains and such? Yeah, I wrote a lot of it down. Every once in a while, I’ll go back and find something and think “whoah, this would be a great song.” Maybe it’s something I’d completely forgotten about. I did a little record, when my book Bonfire of Road Maps came out, that kind of accompanied the book. It was called Silver City, and it was a bunch of old songs that I had written way back in those days of catching trains and traveling with the circus or the carnival shows and all. I just sketched these songs out, just me and a guitar and an accordion or something. Every once in a while, I’ll find something back in my old notes that needs to be told.
Do you ever look back at those old notes, and come across something you’d completely forgotten, and think to yourself “wow, that really happened?” Oh gosh, constantly.
You mentioned that being on the road introduced you to a lot of musicians. Are there any collaborations that really stick out for you as being particularly special? Oh, about 10 years ago, I got together with Butch Hancock and Jimmy Gilmore. We used to hang out together and play some together, back in Lubbock in the ’60s and the ’70s, but we never wrote together. Then a few years ago, we actually wrote our first song together. After that, we’ve written three albums of songs together. I guess we just never thought of doing that, because we knew each other wrote songs, so when we actually collaborated and wrote songs, it made it kind of special.
Joe Ely Band
8pm Wed, Nov 24
1281 Gruene Road, New Braunfels