Joe Ely's musical career a star-studded, genre-busting affair
Published: April 17, 2013
You might say the difficult-to-summarize and impossible-to classify musical life of alt-country/folk-rock singer-songwriter Joe Ely started at a used car lot in Amarillo. Lured to a Pontiac dealership by promises of free soda and hot dogs, Ely, six or seven years old at the time, became fascinated with a much more memorable attraction. A flatbed trailer parked on the lot served as a stage for a young, then-unknown piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis. About 60 years later, Ely says two details from this performance stick out in his mind — the intensity of Lewis’s stage presence and the 40 miles per hour West Texas wind, which blew over Lewis’s microphone “about every 10 seconds” requiring someone to repeatedly run onstage and set it back up. A few years later, Lewis would release “Great Balls of Fire” and become one of the world’s first, and biggest, rock ’n’ roll stars.
“There was a dust storm, you could hardly see across the street,” recalled Ely, driving from Austin to join the Flatlanders, the seminal roots band he helped form 31 years ago, on a national tour that will culminate in a gig at Carnegie Hall in New York City, “and here was this wild man … the piano and the wind … there was something magical about that.”
It’s a fitting beginning for Ely’s story, which includes a ridiculous number of cameos from musical royalty like Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Alice Cooper, Freddy Fender, and the Clash.
Just like the Clash, Ely released his self-titled debut in 1977, but Ely had no idea who the hell the Clash, or any other punk band, was until he met Joe Strummer and company while on tour in England.
Several months later, the Clash, who were enamored with Western culture and had a hit song covering Texan Sonny Curtis’ “I Fought the Law,” brought in Ely when they were planning their first US tour.
“They wanted to play Lubbock, Laredo, El Paso, all the places that were in Marty Robbins’ songs,” said Ely, who arranged the Texas portion of the tour and opened for the band. “I think they were disappointed that there weren’t horses everywhere.”
The Clash weren’t the only ones experiencing culture shock, of course, and Ely was far from the only Texan who hadn’t been introduced to punk.
“I think it scared people to death,” Ely said. “The Clash were a really aggressive band, but in the end the musicianship won them over. They had a rhythm section that was just fucking amazing.”
It’s a lesson Ely says he has been learning his whole career.
His work — both as a solo artist and alongside fellow Texas Panhandlers Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock as part of the Flatlanders — has had an inestimable influence on the alt-country, country rock, and Texas country genres. As part of the inaccurately named Texas music dream team Los Super Seven — which in its earliest incarnation Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, Joel Guzmán, plus the still-active Flaco Jiménez, Max Baca, Rick Treviño, and Rubén Ramos – Ely helped to create a style of music that blended blues, country, and early rock ’n’ roll with not only Tejano and mariachi music but with Brazilian Tropicália, Afro-Peruvian, and Afro-Cuban musical styles. He also gave us a mind-expanding glimpse at what Tejas music might have been if the United States hadn’t got that empire-building bug up its ass and all the white settlers still had to learn to speak Spanish.
While his influence knows no boundaries, the genre blend often puts Ely in front of audiences who aren’t sure what they’re hearing. “I have been in situations like that so many times, that I have come to realize that it’s not that your music and the crowd are not compatible — it’s just that you have to find a way to make them compatible,” he said. “You can put a jug band in St. Paul’s Cathedral if you are certain enough that you can make it work.”
Joe Ely at Alamo Heights Night 2013
$5-$10 (kids under 12 and active military free)
9:45pm Fri, Apr 19
University of the Incarnate Word Campus
4301 Broadway (park at AT&T building)