Joe Ely Interview
Guitar case full of drawings
Show Info: Port Aransas Summer Fest Concert Series
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STEAM Well I didn’t know much about you, I knew about your music, but not you. So I’ve been reading like mad to be ready for our interview.
JOE Well I hope it didn’t confuse you too much.
STEAM No, not any more than normal. You are a phenomenal guitar player but I read that you played violin. Do you still play?
JOE There was a family in Amarillo TX that made violins and we used to go to their house for dinner on Sundays and I would go out to the studio and watch him make violins. It was really fascinating to me, so my parents got me one when I was just eight. Amarillo school district had an orchestra and I played in it for about four or five years. That’s when we moved to Lubbock TX and they didn’t have the orchestra. So I sold my violin and bought an electric guitar because Buddy Holly, who is from Lubbock, was making big
hits and it was an exciting time for me. So that’s how I started on guitar; later in high school I put a band together, The Twilights, and started writing songs. No, I don’t play violin anymore but I did get that violin back about five years ago. I had sold it to a friend when I was about 14 and it went about halfway across the US before coming back to me. I’m fortunate that the violin stayed within the same family and friends - it went from Texas to Florida up to Virginia - and then I received a phone call saying to come get it from
the very guy I had sold it to.
STEAM Incredible! Tell me about the Flatlanders’ Odessa tapes.
JOE The first recording was done in 1972 in Odessa TX and there were 14 songs and it was just me, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. The tape got put away and nobody even knew it existed until just recently, so we released it in 2012; 40 years after we recorded it, it is our newest release.
STEAM It’s amazing how things come around like that.
JOE Yeah, everything’s going in one big circle.
STEAM Your violin just proved that!
JOE Yes, I’ve been fortunate that things have been coming back to me in the last few years, including The Flatlanders Odessa tape and a few other tapes from that era and getting back together with old friends. I guess music keeps you stirred into the soup of things. Every so often we get together to write
songs and then go out on the road and play.
STEAM Your last album, Satisfied At Last, was released in 2012.
JOE It was and I’m working on a few new albums right now; hopefully, to be released the end of
summer, first of fall.
STEAM I am really excited to see you at the Sharkeys Port Aransas SummerFest Concert on August 10. When I looked at your schedule I didn’t see that you come down to South Texas very often.
JOE Well, I’m really looking forward to it; we haven’t been down to Port Aransas in quite a while. In the last few years we’ve been down to Rockport and Corpus Christi, but it hasn’t been real often.STEAM Looking through all of your information I didn’t find an answer to this question so… do you write
for other people
JOE No, I don’t write for other people; I write for myself but other people have recorded my songs. Pat Green has recorded a few as well as Jerry Devine, Marty Stuart, Bruce Springsteen, just a bunch of other people. I’d never really had the opportunity or the desire to write for other people. My songs are all very personal and connected to me and what’s happening in my life and it’s hard enough to write for you, much less for someone else. I know people that write strictly for others and I just don’t see that as something I can do, but I do think it’s interesting when people find my songs. Years ago Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt recorded one of my songs and it was exciting for me because it was a song that I had written and completely forgotten about. I’d been traveling with the Ringling Brothers one summer and I’d written a song about being in the circus one late night, more like sunrise. A year or so later I sang the song to Guy Clark and he recorded it on a little tape recorder and I never played the song again; I hadn’t even written it down, so I completely forgot about it. Years later I was caught by total surprise when Guy put it on one of his albums and then Townes Van Zandt did the same. There it was a song I had totally spaced out.
STEAM OK, going back to the circus. You traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus? Where was this and how did that come about?
JOE Well, I’d been in New York City for a winter, I think it was ‘73, and I’d come back to Lubbock. I had no plans, no ambitions, nothing to go on whatsoever. One day I was sitting near Texas Tech just watching
the Ringling Brothers setting up their big tents and caring for the animals at the Coliseum. And somebody came up to me, handed me a sledgehammer, and told me to go help them. So, I was literally hired on the spot. I thought this was an interesting job – I took care of the animals, the Arabian horses
that did the tricks in the center ring, and the world’s smallest horse. I traveled around with the Ringling Brothers Circus for almost a year going anywhere and everywhere in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Then when we were in Houston I got kicked in the ribs and it broke a few, so I decided to go back to Lubbock and put a band together. When I was growing up I never had goals or ambitions or any forward thinking about growing up and
working. I had this fascination with seeing everything I could see. It was in those early years that I traveled around and learned to make do with what I could and I was fortunate enough to go over to Europe and travel around. It just kind of came to be that I had this suitcase full of songs. That’s when I
came back to Texas and put a band together to play those songs which got me a recording contract. So, that’s how I spent my life traveling around writing songs.
STEAM Well, I think you have led a very cool life.
JOE You know there’s been some ups and some downs; some rough times, when there wasn’t enough, then other times where there was just too much. It’s never been an easy road but it sure has been rewarding.
STEAM Tell me about your new album.
JOE Well, shoot which one? I’ve got three records that I’m working on right now. I’m experimenting with the new way people are putting out albums; it used to be you put out a record with 10 to 12 tracks. Now I’m looking at collections that have a varied numbers of tracks. The first it’s a collection of 3 songs, SongsFrom the Road, that fit well together, so it’s more like an EP. The others are also sets of collections that are acoustic recordings and there are probably 30 tracks.
STEAM You have much more energy than I! Let’s switch to your art. We really feel honored to have you featured on our cover with Dry Lake Bed. Please tell me about your art.
JOE When I first went out on the road as a teenager I always carried a sketchbook in my pocket so when I was traveling around the US and with the circus, and in Europe I would draw what I saw. It has always been just something I had done. I feel that my drawings are part of my writings because I can look at them and I can remember where I was, what I was thinking, and what my state of mind was. So later on I started doing watercolors and really just anything I can carry on the road with me. In 1982 I got an Apple computer and started working with that in figuring out how it could help me with my writing and art. I started using the computer to map out my art and I was doing a lot of tour posters. There are about four different areas in my visual arts that I’ve gone through.
STEAM Looking through your art on your gallery page there’s a series called the Jail series. So I have to ask, did you spend some time in jail? Is that how you came up with these ideas?
JOE Yes I did; I was in the Lubbock jail for a while. I had been experimenting with psychedelic drugs (mushrooms and cactus) and the same day Richard Nixon proclaimed that those were illegal I was arrested for it. Anyway, that whole series is a tongue-in-cheek. A close friend of mine was good friends
with a Texas congressman named Chad Lewis who had done something wrong, I can’t remember exactly what, and he was going to jail, so I jokingly said that I’d been there I can show you how to get by. So I use the computer and video cameras and started with How To Make Jail Hot Chocolate and ended up with this tongue-in-cheek instruction manual. The series tickled the guy that had set this up so he put on an art show for it.
STEAM That’s very funny! My favorite in your Western Real Estate series is the dried up land with the bolt in the middle of it.
JOE That series is based on my thoughts of how the wild west is becoming real estate, so the series is my vision of how the land is being used, scraped, pounded, drilled, and nailed and it’s just slowly drying up until the end.
STEAM Now the Chippy series is very different.
JOE Chippy was a project I did with a friend of mine, Terry Allen. We did that series, which a lot of those became an album cover, for a play and album we wrote together in 1993, “Chippy”. It is all based on the diaries of a Texas prostitute named Chippy during the oil boom days and how she worked all the boom towns along the Panhandle. The play was picked up by the American Music Theater Festival for 11 shows in Philadelphia and five shows at the Lincoln Center in New York. It was an interesting show and we’ve recently been talking about possibly presenting it somewhere - it was
never done in Texas. All that’s really left of it is the album and the pictures that we created.
STEAM I knew you were an author, but I didn’t realize you were a playwright too.
JOE Now I wouldn’t call myself that, but sometimes projects turn into theater productions. I have always been fascinated with the different ways to tell a story and sometimes those ways find me before I find them. I think stories can be told through drawings, photographs, songs, and just in so many ways. Youknow when I was a kid I couldn’t afford camera as I couldn’t afford the film, so I drew everything. I remember coming back from Europe with a guitar case full of drawings. Now I carry a camera everywhere I go and if I’m not playing I’m out taking pictures.
STEAM Well hopefully you’ll give yourself some time in Port Aransas to take some pictures, there is some beautiful scenery! Can you tell me about your book?
JOE My book is Bonfire of Maps. I’ve always travel with a journal and when I was younger it was right next to my sketchpad and I’d write about the stories and things I saw on the road. Actually, I didn’t think my writings were things I’d share as they were personal but a few years ago someone at the University of Texas in the book department had heard about the journals through Terry Outland and asked me about them. The college just kept pushing me and finally I just agreed to let them put the stories together.
Turned out that as I’d been writing the stories over the years I’d developed my own rhythm and style. Again, I never actually expected anyone to read those. Now I’ve got a novel that I’ve written and we’re about to put it out soon. It’s called Super Reverb is a coming-of-age story in the 60s and 70s and although it isn’t a biography but it does have some truth.
STEAM Thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy schedule and I can’t wait to see you perform on August 10th
- Words by Tamma Hicks
Show Info! Port Aransas Summer Fest Concert Series
August 10 doors at 6:00pm
Sharkeys Beach Club, 2600 Hwy 36, Port Aransas TX 78373
On-line tickets sales @ www.outhousetickets.com
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