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Radio Free Arizona: Joe Ely's role in American roots rock

Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmy Dale Gilmore of the Flatlanders
Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmy Dale Gilmore of the Flatlanders
Fair Use

Forty years after The Flatlanders record went nowhere in 1972, the group consisting of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmy Dale Gilmore is something of an alt-country super group sensation now.

Ely is pretty sentimental about those formative years and those factors that led to success a half-century later.

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 "Honky 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 tastemaker 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 with Ely as 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."