Texas-born singer/songwriter Joe Ely, celebrating the release of his third live album, Live at Antone’s, shrugs off musical boundaries.
Considering his history, it’s no surprise that Ely’s new LP finds him combining country, rock, folk and Mexican influences to create a diverse sound.
As a solo artist, he has opened concerts for the likes of the Clash, Linda Ronstadt and Tom Petty. But his eclectic nature can be traced all the way back to his participation in a group that really never was a band, and whose sole album didn’t see wide release in the U.S. until 20 years after its recording.
“Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and I shared a house in Lubbock in the early ’70s,” Ely recalled in a recent conversation from his Texas home. “We’d roll out of bed in the morning and we’d start playing music, and we’d play music all day and into the night.
“What was great about it was that we all came from different musical backgrounds,” Ely added. “Jimmie knew about country, Butch had this deep knowledge of folk songs and I came from more a rock influence.”
They eventually recorded as the Flatlanders, “but we never really toured as a band,” Ely said. “The recording didn’t come out until almost 10 years later, in Europe, and then 10 years after that Rounder picked it up for issue in the U.S.”
Tapes of the sessions (which contain, among other tracks, Gilmore’s first recording of what would become a classic of his repertoire, “Dallas”) passed among the music community and gave the trio an almost mythological status. That larger-than-life quality was reflected in the title of their album, The Flatlanders: More a Legend Than a Band, released on Rounder in 1990.
“It was a really strange sound,” Ely said, “not at all what any of us would do by himself.” The trio reunited two years ago to pen “South Wind of Summertime” for the Robert Redford film “The Horse Whisperer.” “It still doesn’t sound like anything any one of us would come up with alone,” Ely said.
Ely was born in the north Texas town of Amarillo, came of musical age in the west Texas flatlands of Lubbock, and spent time slipping in and out of the catacombs of Paris while on whimsical jaunt with a theatrical troupe. He now lives in the Texas hill country.
Solo, Ely found himself drawn to the rock side of country-folk-rock fusion. That may have had something to do with growing up in Lubbock, home of Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and pedal-steel master Lloyd Maines.
“Buddy Holly was a huge influence,” Ely said. “We moved to Lubbock when I was 10. Buddy had just died, and everybody wanted to sound like him. There were bands forming all over the place.”
The young Ely taught himself to play electric guitar and ran across another musical influence that would linger in his career. “The migrant workers would come up from Mexico to chop cotton,” he said, “and they’d bring their music with them. It was music with such sweet sadness to it.”
Ely said he drew upon those memories when he recorded traditional Mexican songs such as “Piensa en Mi” and “La Sirena” with cutting-edge accordion player Joel Guzman of Aztex, Rick Trevino, Los Lobos‘ David Hidalgo and others in the 1999 Grammy-winning tribute to Tex-Mex border music, Los Super Seven.
The breadth of the music he created from his influences is reflected on Live at Antone’s. That album’s songs range from the dance-friendly, border-flavored “Nacho Mama” (RealAudio excerpt) to the small-town desperado tale (written by fellow Texan Robert Earl Keen) “The Road Goes on Forever” (RealAudio excerpt).
It’s a brand of music sometimes called outlaw country, “but I don’t think that term really fits at all,” Ely said. “It’s not all that outlaw, and it’s not really that country, either — it’s just stories and songs of the people I meet along the way.”
For the album, Ely fronted a crack band that included flamenco guitarist Teye, Maines and Guzman.
Nine of the 15 compositions on Live at Antone’s were written by Ely, including the uptempo love song “All Just to Get to You” (RealAudio excerpt). To craft his songs, Ely explained, he will often get in his car and head out to west Texas. “There’s something about all that open space that makes me want to fill it up with music,” he said.
But he revels in sharing the results of those solitary travels. “There’s nothing I like more than having a hot band on a Saturday night,” he said, “and I wanted this record to get the feeling that you’re in the middle of the crowd on a night when the band is really goin’ at it.”