Joe Ely - Tales from a real Texas troubadour


Who says Americans don’t do irony? Not Joe Ely. The Amarillo-born singer, songwriter, sometime fellow traveller of The Clash and accidental founder of the alt-country movement is recalling his involvement in Tornado Jam.


Held in Buddy Holly Park in Lubbock, the town in the Texas flatlands that Ely called home from the age of ten, the first Tornado Jam in 1980 starred Ely, by then an internationally known performer, and attracted some four thousand people.


The following year, with guitar hero Stevie Ray Vaughan on the bill, the audience grew to ten thousand. But in year three, when Linda Ronstadt and Holly’s former band, The Crickets, drew a 30,000-strong crowd, the city council held an emergency meeting. There would be, they announced, no more music in Buddy Holly Park.


Ely laughs at the idea of banning music from the site named after the musician who’d brought Lubbock into the American public’s consciousness and declares, "That’s when I moved to Austin."


Holly’s ghost keeps reappearing in Ely’s life. When Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore – before they and Butch Hancock formed The Flatlanders, subsequently credited as the band that started the alt-country music form – made their first demo recording, it was produced by Holly’s father in the studio he’d built after Buddy’s death.


The house where Ely learned to play guitar, Ely discovered thirty years later, happened to be one of Holly’s former homes. Holly muse Peggy Sue became a family friend and Ely’s daughter, Marie Elena, was named after Holly’s widow, who arrived at the hospital to visit just after the birth in 1983.


It wasn’t Holly’s emphatic illustration that a smalltown boy could become a national hero that inspired Ely to get up and go, however. Jack Kerouac did that. And Ely, already writing songs and a veteran of Lubbock’s tough music bars, took Kerouac’s On the Road to heart. He joined a theatre troupe as a guitarist, appearing off-Broadway and accompanying them on a European tour that included seven nights on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1970. Then before he took the Joe Ely Band onto rock’s endless highway, he joined a circus with the task of looking after the llamas and the world’s smallest horse.


Throughout his travels he kept a notebook, jotting down scraps of stories and descriptions of characters – while in Edinburgh he also began to draw – and some of these, he says, became songs. Other recollections went into his book of road tales, Bonfire of Roadmaps, which was published recently by the University of Texas, and still others have found their way into an as yet unpublished novel, which is part truth, part fiction.


"I’ve always seen myself as a storyteller," says Ely, "and I tell you, writing a song is a piece of cake compared to writing a novel. With a song, you try to tell the whole thing in as few words as possible whereas with the book I got about forty pages in and thought, what have I started? Eventually, I began to enjoy the freedom of being able to change things – I got to do stuff I hadn’t actually done and undo stuff maybe I shouldn’t have done – but I don’t think I’ll be writing another one."


Other outlets including playwriting and creating art, which he’s exhibited in prestigious galleries across America, are unlikely to take the place of music either. Having buried four former bandmates over the past year, including the brilliant Jesse ‘Guitar’ Taylor, Ely is making the most of his musical opportunities as he enters his sixties.


"Losing friends like Jesse just makes me grateful that we managed to make music together and I’m really enjoying playing with my current group," he says.


"It’s an intimate, acoustic set-up, just guitar, bass and accordion and actually, as much as I knock Lubbock, I have to thank it, too. Because when I was growing up there, every summer the streets would be full of itinerant Mexican musicians who were working in the cottonfields – and the accordion sound I heard then has stayed with me. We’re able to cover stuff from all the different eras of my songwriting and we keep everything simple because in the end, it’s the song – or the story it tells – that’s important."


From The Herald, April 20, 2007.


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