Joe Ely has left Texas many times, spending some of those years busking in New York City subway stations and the Paris Metro. He traveled throughout Europe and the United States as a young man -- even ran away with the circus for a little while to tend the llamas and a pony billed as "the world's smallest horse." But always he returned, unable to shake the Lubbock dirt from his boots.
Once he came back in the mid-'70s, the Amarillo-born, Lubbock-raised Ely found he could never leave. He shrugged off advice from those in the music business who told him that if he stayed, his career would die a slow death. He should have gone to Nashville, could have gone to Los Angeles and tried to make it in Manhattan, leaving after three months.
"I was listenin' the other day to a record I did in '89, Live at Liberty Lunch, and there's the passage in there where there's songs like 'Row of Dominoes' and 'Where is My Love?' and it has that whole feelin' of bein' out in the middle of nowhere. It's distant and it's kinda desperate and lonesome, but you don't feel threatened by it. You feel like it's your home, and Texas has always been my home," Ely says from his Hill Country residence. "I've had a lot of opportunities to leave. In fact, if I had a brain in my head I would have moved to L.A. or Nashville years ago and used the whole machinery of those towns to further my whole social life and bank account. But I chose to live in Texas and to work here and to kinda base my songs around this area that I love so much: West Texas and, well, the whole state. There's something about it that's inspirational."
An amalgam of barroom rock and roll, border-town conjunto, juke-joint blues and honky-tonk country, Ely's sound is like the best and purest Texas music, crisscrossing so often there's no easily identifiable beginning or end. It's a sound that evokes a sense of place, a sense of time -- a sound as big as the "arrogantly blue sky" (as Grover Lewis once wrote) blanketing the Lone Star State.
"I've been criticized about that a lot -- about having no distinctions between kinds of music in my songs," Ely says. "I just say, 'Hey wait, I heard Bob Wills play out of the back door of a honky-tonk when I was six years old. I heard Jerry Lee Lewis play in a dust storm in Amarillo.' I heard all this stuff when I was growin' up, whether it was rock or blues. One of the earliest gigs I had was openin' for Jimmy Reed when I was 14 years old in one of my pitiful bands in Lubbock, the Twi-Lites."
Ever since Ely and longtime comrades Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock hooked up in the early 1970s in Lubbock to form the legendary Flatlanders, his music has evoked the romantic's vision of Texas -- the bone-dry plains and the blinding wide-open spaces, the muddy shores of the Rio Grande, the red-rock majesty of Palo Duro Canyon, the choking dust of the flatlands and the Gulf waters that wash against South Texas.
Throughout his eponymous 1977 debut, 1978's Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta and his contributions to last year's Songs from Chippy (about a Depression-era West Texas whore), he has created a soundtrack to a place that exists largely in memory and myth -- littered with tales of renegade lovers and innocent outlaws. They're lost souls howling at a "Cornbread Moon" and blaming their troubles on the wind; they're hopeless romantics whose lives are spent traveling "Highways and Heartaches"; they're cowboys and desperadoes hoping the good life lies hidden behind the next ridge.
Now comes Letter to Laredo, in stores this week, which evokes a desperate, timeless sense of place -- like a novel set to music, a complete and accidental tale that unfolds over the course of 11 songs that play out like self-contained mini-epics.
Letter opens with the line "I have stumbled on the plain / staggered in the wind," and tells of a man's search for a woman that takes him "from St. Paul to Wichita Falls," across desert sands and the Rio Grande -- "all just to get to you," Ely sings, with Bruce Springsteen providing the half-heard harmony. And from there, it follows an itinerary through Texas and time, down to Mexico and across the ocean, to Spain and back again, until Ely is a thousand miles from home yet still next door. The mariachi, the fighter, the lover, the warrior, the storyteller, the rancher, the fugitive -- each character is driven by deep passions for women, for family, for an imagined better life.
The title track is the CD's centerpiece: Ely tells an unknown messenger to send his lover a letter proclaiming his innocence of a crime for which he has been convicted. "I jumped bail from Sweetwater County, now I'm on the run," Ely sings against a haunting torrent of notes strummed on a guitar. "On my head is a five number bounty for a crime I never done / Take this letter to Laredo to the one I love / Tell her to stay low beneath the stars above." Like so many other tracks on Letter, the song sticks with you long after its last notes fade -- like grit between your teeth. It's far different than the synth-and-drum-machine version on 1984's Hi-Res.
"Everything almost kinda takes place in the desert or the middle of nowhere, and the record kinda feels that way," Ely says. "Maybe I read too many Cormac McCarthy books the last couple of years or something, and it's rubbin' off or something. Songs like 'Letter to Laredo' and 'Saint Valentine' all kind of have this small-town feeling out in the middle of the desert, so it's almost like a concept record except it's not. I didn't write each story to interrelate with the others, but when I was placin' the songs on the CD, I almost tried to place them to where you'd think there was a story."
Ely doesn't peddle cheap stereotypes or cliches. Like his longtime hero, Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, or El Paso author McCarthy, Ely tells familiar stories in such a way that they become new legends, larger-than-life moments. When he threatens to take back the land Pancho Villa stole from his father in "Gallo Del Cielo" (written by Tom Russell), Ely is not just the narrator of an old tale, but an active character in a very real story that unfolds over seven beautiful minutes. And when he tells of leaving for Europe after "She Finally Spoke Spanish to Me" (her only word: adios), it adds a sad denouement to a story he began in 1977 with "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me."
"This record feels like a complete circle, from the time you put on the first song till you get around to the last song," Ely says. "You feel like you've been down a certain highway in a certain part of the country, and you kind of feel like you have been to a certain place -- a musical place. I tried to actually make it to where you could feel the temperature and the dirt. 'Course, that didn't really come till halfway through the CD.
"It started out just kinda writin' songs and then I'd go back through old notebooks and current things and I'd say, 'Oh, well here's something that I wrote in El Paso in '84,' and I'd find a little passage I could use. It kinda worked with the other things I'd been workin' with. Funny how things like that work."
Curiously, Letter to Laredo is not the CD Ely originally planned to release. Eighteen months ago, he began work on a disc that would feature only Ely and his acoustic guitar à la Johnny Cash's 1994 American Recordings. But his plans changed when a friend called to tell him a European flamenco guitar player named Teye was in town and wanted to know if Ely might want to use him on any new material he was recording. At first, Ely balked at the request but just as quickly reconsidered; he had at least two songs written during a recent trip to Spain that he thought might benefit from the flamenco sound, and Ely invited Teye to his home studio.
"So I went to the studio and laid down a rhythm track, and he came in that night," Ely recalls. "And when he played, it just added this weird thing that I guess I'd always secretly loved but I never thought that I could ever use on a record -- especially when I got a slide player like Lloyd Maines, who's my all-time favorite steel guitar player and slide player when he plays Dobro. And so when I got those two guys together, man, it was like some kind of long-lost sound that I was not sure if I'd ever heard before. If I had heard it, I didn't know where from, and I didn't know what to do with it.
"Teye left the next day and I kinda rassled with this other record, but I always came back to those two songs -- 'Run Preciosa' and one that's not on this CD, a song that never completely came together for this record. I called him up in Europe a couple of months later, and he said he was comin' back to Austin, and we started workin' again on a new set of songs. And I found myself writin' new songs and pushin' the other album aside and writin' from scratch a whole new record."
Letter to Laredo is the culmination of a career that began decades ago, when Ely was a small boy first putting pen to paper in his adopted hometown of Lubbock. So much has been written of the mystical appeal of the place -- of the mysterious lights that appear every so often, of the dirt that sometimes covers the entire city in a shroud of blood-red powder -- and so much has been said of its impact on popular music. The generation of West Texas musicians who followed Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Waylon Jennings -- Ely, Gilmore, Hancock, Terry Allen, and so many others -- are a different breed of songwriter, connected to the tradition of their predecessors but taking their inspiration from Spanish authors and Eastern philosophers. They're the new breed of Texas-music outlaw -- the hard-drinking scholars raised on Holly and Bob Wills, poets who told their stories in between the notes.
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Even now, there exists a strong connection between Ely, Gilmore and Hancock: On Letter to Laredo, Butch contributed "She Finally Spoke Spanish to Me," and Jimmy Dale sings harmony on "I Saw It in You."
"I guess, for me, the first time I really felt like I understood why I was a songwriter was when all the Flatlanders were livin' in a house in Lubbock," Ely says. "Each of us had a bedroom and a big ol' living room, and would wake up in the mornin' and pull out our guitars and sing and play all day. This is when I wrote songs like 'Because of the Wind' and 'Johnny's Blues' and 'Hope's Up High' and some of those early songs that I still sing today. That was a time when I realized it was okay to [be a songwriter]. I had good friends and we kinda shared in this same vision and same love for certain kinds of music and well-written songs.
"We kinda set a course and made a lot of bad decisions and wrong turns, but we're still tryin' to keep it alive. I guess there's something about being in a room -- like in a studio or on a stage -- with a band," Ely adds. "This ol' world can be real confusing, and you can take a look around you and nothing's in harmony with anything else. But when a bunch of guys are playing the same song and everybody's listenin' as much as they're playin', something happens that is indescribable.
"It's like the whole universe seems to be okay, like the six o'clock news didn't take a few things into consideration that day. You stand back from it, take a deep breath, and everything's on course.