Released last month on his own Rack ’Em Records label, Joe Ely’s “Panhandle Rambler” is the latest album in a long and winding career for the Lubbock-raised troubadour who has called Austin home for more than 40 years. Loosely tied to a geographical theme of the Texas Panhandle, the record finds Ely still breaking new ground, even as he’s being honored with lifetime-achievement designations.
In February, he’ll be inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association Hall of Fame. He’ll also spend 2016 as the reigning Texas State Musician, a one-year designation he formally accepted in a ceremony at the state Legislature this past spring. “I told them if I get to make any decisions in the legislature, I’d like to have all the speed bumps removed in the state of Texas,” Ely joked.
For now, there’s plenty of touring to do behind the new album, including a stop back home this weekend for two shows at Strange Brew. We met up with Ely last week for lunch on South Lamar to talk about past, present and future adventures.
As we walked past the Broken Spoke, Ely smiled and recalled a hazy memory from the 1970s, when he and Jerry Jeff Walker had gone to see Ernest Tubb and found themselves onstage singing along on one of the country legend’s classics. Ely recalled Tubb’s polite nod to them at the end of the song: “Why thank you, little fellers.”
American-Statesman: One of the most interesting things about this new album is that the musicians who play on it are drawn from the long arc of your entire career.
Joe Ely: Yeah, all the different phases. I took songs that had been started or were influenced by growing up in the Panhandle — and I extended the Panhandle to be all the way to El Paso and maybe further west. But it was kind of a follow-up for (1995’s) “Letter to Laredo.”
I realized that’s always the place where I start a new record, in my head or physically, one way or the other. That was just kind of a starting point. The record changed several times in the course of three years that I worked on it. But it finally came to a point where it found its own space. A few of those songs started following a theme; I didn’t want it to be a story, but I wanted it to have a common theme. And the theme was mainly the Panhandle of Texas — Route 66, and the flatlands, and the train tracks.
Along with the original material, there are a couple of songs by other writers, including a really beautiful version of Guy Clark’s “Magdalene.”
That is a magic song. How it sunk into my psyche in indelible ink was just sitting beside Guy when we did probably 100 or 150 shows together, me and Guy and Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, over about a 20-year period. I’d always sit by Guy, and when he started playing that song about five or six years ago, it just completely floored me.
The first thing that got me was the melody. It uses four chords and they’re common changes, but he put them in a whole different place. I’d never seen a song structure like that, even though it was the simplest thing in the world. It goes into the “five” chord at a time when it shouldn’t go there, but when it does, it really makes an emotional song out of it. And then lyrically, I just thought it fit right in. There’s an Airstream, there’s Mexico, kind of a hint of danger. I wanted to have a little danger in this record because of what the cartels have done.
Has that changed your own interaction with Mexico?
I haven’t been down there since Terry and Jo Harvey (Allen, longtime friends and fellow Lubbock songwriters) had their wedding anniversary in El Paso and Juarez, at least 15 years ago. We were down there partying, and we had this huge club to ourselves with a full band all set up, but nobody there. And we asked some of the people why it was like that, and they said, “Oh, you haven’t heard about all these missing people?”
That was right at the beginning of it. Especially at that time it was young women just vanishing in all parts of the city. It hadn’t made the news on the state side yet. The cartels were first going at each other, and using fear tactics to scare the public. And they did. And it’s still going on. It’s kind of leveled off now, but it’s still such a dreadful thing.
What else besides the new record has been occupying your time lately?
I’ve got a record that I’m going to release sometime that I wrote for my daughter as a Christmas present when she was 3 or 4; it’s kind of a lullaby album. It’s something I passed around for friends but never put it as a record. So I’m going to put it out to a larger audience, probably next year.
You also put out a book last year, “Reverb: An Odyssey,” which seemed like a mix of biography and fiction.
It’s parts of both. The majority of it is fiction, but it’s based on certain things that had a major influence on the direction my life headed. Including getting arrested for marijuana and psilocybin and peyote on the very day that all of those things became illegal. Richard Nixon proclaimed a federal law, and those became a felony. So that had a major influence on my life.
In what way?
Well, all of a sudden I was in the Lubbock County Jail with no bail and no visible means of support. And after that, it was like I might as well have had leprosy or something. All my friends stayed away. So I ended up moving to California, and then coming down to Austin in the middle of ’69, and then going to New York City.
I got permission from my probation officer to write in once a week. So I went to Europe and sent him postcards of, like, the swans on the Blue Danube, and I’d say, “I’m so sorry I’m not in Lubbock, but I’m just letting you know that everything’s OK.” I just loved finding these amazing castles in Europe and saying, “Well, how’s Lubbock?” Just to kind of rub it in.
You also recently put out “B4 84,” the demos for your 1984 album, “Hi-Res.”
Yeah, those were the first recordings that (fellow musician) Mitch Watkins and I did. And the more I listened to it, the more I thought that this is really interesting. Because we actually used the first Apple computer, the Apple II, with a sequencer card inside of it. I was just experimenting with it, and I got Mitch to come over and we set up a little rolling drum machine and a sequencer.
When I actually showed that to MCA Records, they said, “No, we’re going to go in and spend a lot of money recording a real album.” But in a lot of ways I like the old record better, because it was just fresh and new, and it didn’t try to be a great big record.
Did anyone from Apple ever express interest in what you were doing at that time?
Well, back when I was doing that, I set up a bulletin board. That was before the Internet; it was just using a telephone modem and basically an empty phone line. So I set up this thing called Campfire Nightmares, which was a little bulletin board. And one of the first people who came on it was (Steve) Wozniak, from Apple. So I’d talk to him all the time and tell him what I was doing, and I told him about this record.
Then he came to the University of Texas to give a speech in about ’84 or ’85, and I met him. And over the years, I’ve run into him every now and then. He always comes out to the Hardly Strictly festival (in San Francisco). So I asked him if he would write the liner notes for “B4 84.”
He was gracious enough to tell the history of what was happening at that time, and how he got interested in computers, and how the Apple was the first computer that had both an input and an output. It was really the only one that could handle this card. That was something that I had never known, so I was really glad that he was gracious enough to write the liner notes.
7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday
Strange Brew, 5326 Manchaca Road