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Singer/songwriter Joe Ely wandered the world for stories, but found his real song in his Texas home


Chris Parker June 10th, 2010

Joe Ely7:30 and 10 p.m. FridayThe Blue Door 2805 N. McKinleywww.bluedoorokc.com524-0738$30 advance, $35 doorCountry singer Tom T. Hall is known for noting how some people search the world over for wha...

Joe Ely
7:30 and 10 p.m. Friday
The Blue Door
2805 N. McKinley
www.bluedoorokc.com
524-0738
$30 advance, $35 door

Country singer Tom T. Hall is known for noting how some people search the world over for what others find just around the corner. Joe Ely can attest to both sides of that equation. The Texas native spent much of his youth gathering experiences that would inform his music, but in the end, Ely discovered it was the heart of Texas that was his best inspiration.

"There's things you take from experiences in different places, but for me, it always begins in dusty West Texas, where I grew up. I can go back there and all of a sudden I get that feeling that wide-open space gives me something to fill up," he said. "There's no trees, no hills, no anything; it's just flat. There's no horizon, and all of a sudden, I want to fill it up with something. I don't get that feeling when I'm in New York City. I feel like it's already filled up."

Ely's family history with the Rock Island Railroad dates back to the turn of the century, and that wanderlust filled the country-rocker's soul. His father died when Ely was 14, so he hopped trains and hitched rides throughout much of his youth, spending time in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco chasing something, although he wasn't quite sure what.

He hooked up with a theater company in the '60s, and spent six months touring Europe, busking in Rome. The singer even joined the Ringling Bros. Circus in the mid-'70s until he said famed lion-tamer Gunther Gebel-Williams saved him from being trampled by elephants, after which Ely returned home to begin pursuing music in earnest.

"When I was a kid, I used to hear Woody Guthrie sing a song about some town in California, and I'd have to go there. I'd actually think there was something left in that town, some kind of well where that song came from," he said. "I don't chase the wind like I used to, because I've seen that Tom T. (Hall) was really right: The well is inside yourself, and so I draw from that well instead of the external well."

Before his stint with the circus, Ely returned to his old home of Lubbock where, in 1971, he hooked up with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to form The Flatlanders. While the three released only one album together, their influence would be felt for years, in the blend of different styles that would inform the Texas country sound. Each musician had a different specialty: Hancock was into folk, Gilmore loved bluegrass and country, and Ely was a rock 'n' roller. Bringing those interests together, the trio formed something wholly unique. It was a real education for Ely.

"When I first started playing music, it was right when Buddy Holly died, and everybody in Lubbock was forming bands in their garage with a Stratocaster. It was really Butch and Jimmie that really introduced me to that whole different world," he said.

That blend would continue to inform his music for the rest of his life, although he also cites other artists such as Townes Van Zandt and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

"I feel lucky to have kind of learned it all from the horse's mouth," he said.

While his music brings together the threads of blues, rock, country and folk into an oft hot-blooded flood, his lyrical approach is more understated, focusing on everyday people and untold stories.

"It's these totally insignificant people who aren't in the headlines of the entertainment section or anything, but there's a story there," he said.

In 2007, Ely took the journals he'd kept his whole life and turned them into a book, "Bonfire of the Roadmaps." Going through those old stories triggered two albums of old songs, which he rescued from his archival dustbin. A story might remind him of a song, whose scraps he'd find elsewhere in his chronicles. Slowly, he cadged the material together for that year's "Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch" and "Silver City."

"I struggled with those songs because I didn't totally remember what the melodies were, and when I started remembering the melodies, that brought a whole 'nother feeling about it, because the melody has a different way of triggering emotions," he said.

Since then, Ely's released a pair of live albums, and, last year, a new Flatlanders album, "Hills & Valleys," the group's first in five years. Although the musicians play together several times a year, new songs are slow in coming.

"If we weren't such good friends, we'd probably get into fights, because it's such a painful slow process. Sometimes we go for a week just trying to get one line correctly done," Ely said. "It's not a pleasurable experience at the time, but it's a great pleasure when we get done. That's why we do it: Because it's so interesting to see what comes out."

He's presently putting the finishing touches on a new album he expects to release on his Rack'Em Records label next month, and remains thankful for the fortune and experiences he's had.

"I feel lucky I got to spend my whole life doing what I like to do," he said. "I've lived a few years now; I'm just glad that I can still do what I like to do." "Chris Parker
 
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