April 23, 2009 – 4:12 am

When Joe Ely started out in the ’70s in The Flatlanders, he must have felt he was the rock guy caught between the country of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the folk of Butch Hancock. Over the years, Ely has crisscrossed rock’s terrain so many times that it’s just easier to call him an American singer, songwriter and guitarist. Matthew Lewis caught up with Ely when the musician released his 13th album, Twistin’ In The Wind, in 1998, and, of course, The Clash came up. This article was published in BigO #154 (October 1998).

With Twistin’ In The Wind, his 13th album, Joe Ely gathers the sounds, themes and musicians of his earlier, highly regarded recordings and ties them all together as neatly as a hangman’s noose.

“It’s almost like I’ve come full-circle,” said Ely, who released his first solo album (Joe Ely) back in 1977. “I feel like there’s another change coming. This album kind of completed a circle.”

That’s good news to those who still revere Ely’s early work, including remarkable albums like Honky Tonk Masquerade (1978) and Down On The Drag (1979). Along the way, he also recorded one of the greatest live albums in the history of rock, the 1981 Live Shots.

The album’s 12 songs, all written or co-written by Ely, feature performances by the blazing guitar-slingers who have accompanied Ely at various stages of his career, from kickass electric axeman David Grissom to moody flamenco master Teye.

“I was using Jesse Taylor and (steel and dobro player) Lloyd Maines, the guys that I worked with on the very first record, and David Grissom did a song, and Teye,” Ely said. “So it’s like a good majority of the people that I worked with, on records throughout my life, all got together for this. There was a real camaraderie going on there.”

That special feeling resulted in standout tracks including Roll Again If I Could Teach My Chihuahua To Sing, and the powerful opener, Up On The Ridge, among others. “It’s a little rowdier and more like the early honky-tonk records I did,” Ely said. “It brings electric guitars back in.”

Though never a commercial superstar, the Austin, Texas-based Ely has always been the kind of rare artist whose appeal transcends genre. Part brooding balladeer, part rockabilly wild man, he is a fiery, intense performer who delivers a song like no one else. He is equally at home with the high-lonesome sounds of the West Texas flatlands as with furious, headbanging garage rock. In retrospect, it is not surprising that British punk gods The Clash embraced Ely and his band in the late ‘70s, though Ely confesses to being stunned at the time.

“I was completely surprised, because we had just come in to London from Lubbock, Texas, and we weren’t like worldly musicians, we really just played the honky-tonks of West Texas,” he said. “They were singing about the problems of modern-day London, and we were singing about dust storms and the problems of relationships in the middle of the desert,” he laughed.

Ely concedes that he might have turned off some of his traditional fans when he invited The Clash to play a gig with him in Lubbock, but he doesn’t care. “That’s kind of what makes music so interesting, when different worlds collide.”

One of Ely’ s tours with The Clash resulted in the landmark Live Shots album, whose many highlights include the perhaps definitive version of (fellow Lubbock boy) Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away, and a magnificent treatment of his friend Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s haunting Treat Me Like A Saturday Night.

“That was done right at the tail end of The Clash stuff, and you could almost feel the sweat all over the tape and everything,” said Ely, who is surprisingly soft-spoken in person despite the take-no-prisoners performing style.

Joe Ely with The Clash onstage in Lubbock 1979.

Though he has never really been away, Ely is back with a vengeance this year - not only with Twistin’ In The Wind, but with the long-awaited reunion of his early, influential band, The Flatlanders.

The group, featuring Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, contributes an elegant ballad (The South Wind Of Summer) to the fine soundtrack album of the new Robert Redford-directed film, The Horse Whisperer. For a group that never released a full-length, vinyl album during its brief lifetime, The Flatlanders ended up with a surprisingly mythic reputation.

The batch of timeless songs they recorded in Nashville in early 1972, originally released only on the dreaded eight-track tape format, was finally issued on CD by Rounder in 1990, under the appropriate title More A Legend Than A Band. Ely has remained good friends with Gilmore and Hancock over the years, recording more than a few of his old amigos’ songs along the way. So why did it take the three acclaimed songwriters some 26 years to get back together in the same studio?

“That’s exactly what we wondered,” Ely said. He puts it down to their shared disdain for conventional “career moves,” and their focus on individual songs rather than the business side of music.

Ely does not rule out a more permanent Flatlanders reunion in the future. “We sat down to write one song, and we ended up writing three,” he said. “We thought, well, maybe we should continue this. It’s funny, when the three of us sit down to play, we always get that (special) feeling. We’ve been lifelong friends. We just get that feeling that there’s something larger than us that takes place through a song.”

Ely developed his mastery of American roots music through a lifetime of rambling and dues-paying. His family did not own a record player, so his earliest musical experiences were shaped by singing in the Baptist church choir in Amarillo, Texas, as a boy. When Ely moved to Lubbock at 12, his railroad-man father opened a used-clothing store, whose clientele helped expose Ely to Mexican music, which became a lifelong love.

One day when Ely was 18 or 19, he was driving in Lubbock and stopped to pick up a hitchhiker - who would turn out to change his life. The hitcher was none other than legendary Texas songsmith, Townes Van Zandt, then unknown.

“He said that he had just come from San Francisco and was heading down to Houston,” Ely recalled. “We got to talking about music and stuff. He opened up his backpack, and I was surprised to find that there was not one item of clothing in his backpack. There were about 25 record albums. He just pulled one out and gave it to me.”

The record was Our Mother The Mountain (1969), Van Zandt’s second album. Later that day, Ely dug up his friend Gilmore, and the two listened to the album all night long. The experience helped convince the teenage friends to get serious about their music. (The hard-living Van Zandt died on New Year’s Day, 1997, at age 52.)

Asked about the records that changed his life, Ely mentions the early works of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and the Rolling Stones. But there are too many influences to list. “When I left high school and went to California in the mid-’60s, I kind of just discovered all this amazing music,” he said. “I snuck into a Doors concert once in Venice Beach. It’s just millions of little things, but they all added up.”

The fruits of Ely’s long journey, though still a work in progress, can be heard on Twistin’ In The Wind.

Note: The Flatlanders are currently on tour from the end of March 2009 to the beginning of July.

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