Joe Ely is crossing the Midwest now, on the road because that's how he makes a living, and he considers himself to be lucky for that fact.
"I love the mystery of it all," he says during a telephone interview while on a stop in a hotel in California. "You go from town to town. Here's another venue, another show. You bring stories and I'm always collecting songs."
When he's in Austin, where he lives on the outskirts of the city, he works on numerous projects, including a mystery novel called "Mystery Reverb," but the road is never far from his mind.
"I feel pretty lucky to be 67 years old at this and still having a good time," he says.
Since Ely has built a legend for himself singing stories about the romance of highways and open sky, steep hotel bills, and misadventures in pool halls, honkytonks and roadhouses, it should come as no surprise that at the end of the early evening interview he said he was ready to leave hotel California and go out to look for a pool hall. "I've got a day off," he says. Not that he's always a night owl. It was just three years ago he was singing about how satisfied he'd become, at last, and even published a book called "Bonfire of Road Maps," all hinting at the mature desire to keep still, for once. Where does a man past retirement age get the energy, anyway? The road map is in his head still. Now he's touring with guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn for what he calls the "Western Wind Tour 2014."
The day had been spent travelling in a van, and he's gone from Mill Valley, California to a hotel destination in Southern California. For the day it has been his "State of the Union Tour," speaking like a man who has gone out to inspect his country, his back yard. The state of the union is "mixed," he says, "some places are coming back and some places aren't doing so well since the economy collapsed in 2007. "It's like one of the songs that we did as the Flatlanders, 'Homeland Refugee,' with the story about a man whose parents have taken him to California after experiencing the Dust Bowl, but then his family hits hard times in California, and he moves them back to the Dust Bowl around the (Texas) Panhandle. That's the way it is in this country. Sometimes you just have to keep bouncing around."
Ely is like Robert Redford's character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who, when asked about his shooting abilities, says he's more accurate when he moves. Being part of the action is an important part of the creative process for Ely. After a failed attempt at trying to get his hometown friends -- Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock -- in Lubbock, Texas to form the Flatlanders noticed on radio in 1972, he left west Texas in disgust, heading for New York City. He's been running ever since, a 40-year soujourn that included joining and Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus and years later, becoming a personal Texas tour guide for the Clash, and in most cases, becoming a songwriter's songwriter, achieving all kinds of critical creds as cross-over outsider, an alt-country guys baffled by mainstream country music.
"I can't make anything of it," he says one week after the pyrotechnic network broadcast of the Academy of Country Music awards show. "Everybody is singing about drinking beer and playing volleyball on the beach. Country music used to talk about the working man struggling to make a living, but something happened that turned it into a kind of Sillyland ... It's not my world and and never will be."
Not that Ely doesn't have his own world. It's populated with artists who fall under the alter-Ely's world includes an Austin-based generation of songwriters who have become seasoned heroes celebrated as the once underappreciated bluesmasters of old: James McMurtry, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, John Prine, Alejandro Escovedo -- the kind of sub-cult stars who are graced every now and then by Bruce Springsteen dropping in for a jam, or who get invited to highlight all kinds of genre-bending summer music festivals.
Ely was born in 1947 in Amarillo, Texas, but his family moved to Lubbock, where tough breaks unsettled his family life. He was 14 years old when his father died, and his mother was institutionalized due to the grief. But about that time in Lubbock, where Texas Tech made it unusual as a college town with an emerging bohemian scene, teen Ely was reading writers such as Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller; listening to Roy Orbison and hitchhiking and jumping on trains to check out towns mentioned in Woody Guthrie songs.
When he saw Jerry Lee Lewis perform on the back of a flatbed truck in Amarillo, it was all over: Ely was a rocker. After the death of Buddy Holly, he says, "all kinds of garage bands were playing all over the city. You wouldn't think of Lubbock as a cowtown, but there was a beatnik scene there. We are aware of all of those guys."
Forty years after the Flatlanders record went nowwhere in 1972, they are something of a alt-country supergroup sensation now. Ely is pretty sentimental about those formative years and those factors that led to success a half-centry later. He's currently working on a documentary about one of the hotspots for the "underground scene" in Lubbock during those years, Stubbs.
"I've got all kinds of photos and memorabilia from those days in Lubbock," he says. "I've collected a lot."
After the Flatlanders record was released only as an eight-track tape, selling very little, Ely hit the road and ended up in New York City. He returned to Lubbock a few years later and joined the circus until a rib injury sidelined him. Kept still for a while, he formed the Joe Ely Band, which became a kind of unclassifiable country rock band synthesizing all of the music of the region, and in many ways becoming one of the core Texas-based seeds for the southwestern sound. He signed with MCA Records in 1975, which over the decades became a kind of Billy Martin/George Steinbrenner relationship.
"I was on MCA Records four different times," he says. "They liked what I was doing, but they never found out what to do with it."
But Ely knew what to do: keep moving. By the late 1970s and early 1980s Ely had become a critical fave for such songs as "Musta Notta Gotta Lotta" and "Hoky Tonk Masquerade." His razor-sharp lyricism, full of concrete details and a self-deprecating sense of humor getting notice at about the time as the Blasters were arriving, Jerry Jeff Walker was nearly a household name, X was experimenting with country rock and the Boss was blowing listeners away with the American roots oriented album, "The River."
Ely's band became the opening act serving as a jump-starter-slash-mission-statement- for such bands as Tom Petty and Heartbreakers, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones, all bands that blanched at the synth-pop of new wave, seeking a guitar-oriented rock'n'roll restoration. Ely was the lead off authentic genuine article to set the mood. It was during those years that Ely, suddenly better known in England and Ireland and Scandinavia than in the U.S., met the Clash.
"It was an odd meeting of two different bands from two completely different parts of the world," he says. "The one thing we had in common was a love for rockabilly. They had just recorded Sonny Curtis's 'I Fought the Law and the Law Won,' which I had also recorded, and we hit it off. All of the sudden we had a connection, and they showed us all around London."
It was Ely doing the chorus parts of "Should I Stay or Should I Go," with the lines of poorly remembered Spanish bits remembered from his days in Lubbock, and the band sought Ely's assistance for a roots-rock oriented series of performances in Texas. Ely says the Clash had a pretty romanticized idea of where they wanted to play, "places that promoters would never book anyone ... but we eventually were able to find them places to play like a high school gym in Laredo and a bordello in Juarez: They were looking for a kind of mystical passage into another era."
That's kind of like what many of the songs penned by Ely are like, romanticized visions of life on the road and the great West. It's all very filmic. Songs have often begun with pieces of an overheard story, or, just a bit of information on a news story, an obituary, a snippet of something discovered on the road.
"That's the way it's always been for me," he says. "If I hadn't of stopped at a particular place ... I believe there are little circumstances, coincidences that led me there. Traveling around you bump into things that you wouldn't have bumped into if you wouldn't have gone there. I try to find a place for a song, and that helps me to paint a picture, with the trucks, the barbwire fences becoming a part of the song. I like to think of songs as movies with the least amount of words as possible."