Walter Tunis: Joe Ely's music reflects his multicultural Texas home

Contributing Music WriterJune 5, 2014 

Joe Ely embraces his rock and roots music. He plays the Southgate House Revival in Newport on Saturday.

Joe Ely

8 p.m. June 7 at the Southgate House Revival, 111 E. Sixth St. in Newport. $20 advance, $25 day of show. (859) 431-2201.

In the spring of 1978, much of contemporary music favored one of three stylistically disparate routes. At one extreme was commercial pop, which was still in the grips of the disco fallout triggered six months earlier by Saturday Night Fever. At the other was the gradual mainstream acceptance of still-emerging punk and post-punk acts like The Ramones, Devo, Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. In between all of that was the then-current state of country music, which was in the waning stages of an outlaw movement that had provided Willie Nelson with seemingly permanent residency at the top of the Billboard charts.

Somewhere in the midst of all this was the release of a record titled Honky Tonk Masquerade. Such was my introduction to Joe Ely.

Seemingly marketed as a country record, Honky Tonk Masquerade was as stylistically removed from Nashville as Ely was geographically. A native of Amarillo, Texas, who grew up in Lubbock among truckloads of Mexican migrant workers and the native music they brought with them, Ely weaved nearly every roots music resource at his disposal into the record.

The country songs sported the pedal steel colors of Lloyd Maines, which howled like the dusty West Texas wind. The Tex-Mex music asserted the accordion work of Ponty Bone, who channeled the festive sounds Ely heard emanating from the cantina situated across the road from the clothing store his father ran in Lubbock. The rockers reflected all of the music's forefathers, from fellow Lubbock expatriate Buddy Holly to Jerry Lee Lewis.

The compositions were similarly far-reaching. There were entries by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, the two expert Texan songsmiths Ely teamed with during the early '70s as The Flatlanders, a group that would quickly disband and remain dormant until 2002. There was also one of Ely's great roadhouse rock originals, the wry Lewis-flavored Fingernails ("I keep my fingernails long so they click when I play the piano"). Wrapping the whole party up was a hearty Lone Star makeover of the Hank Williams staple Honky Tonkin'.

As an unsuspecting teen turned on to the record at a college party, I was stunned. Honky Tonk Masquerade sounded deliciously foreign in its assembly of Texas inspirations but also curiously in line with the favored roots-country acts of the day: John Prine, Little Feat, early Bonnie Raitt and Ry Cooder. It also made Texas seem like another cultural universe.

I wouldn't get to see Ely in performance for another six years. By that time, he had toured with The Clash, recorded two seminal roots rock albums (1980's Live Shots and 1981's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta) and had become something of an international ambassador for Texas music. But at a 1984 festival performance in Austin, Ely turned songs like Dallas, Cool Rockin' Loretta and Boxcars into jovial yet vital anthems that asserted his strengths as a live performer.

During the '80s and '90s, Ely made his way to Louisville and Cincinnati with some regularity. But he didn't play Lexington until a 1998 performance at the now-defunct Lynagh's Music Club. That show was distinguished by an extraordinary band (it included the Dutch flamenco guitarist Teye and longtime electric guitar pal Jesse Taylor) and the fact that a stage amplifier briefly caught fire.

Subsequent local outings included a 2000 opening set for Dixie Chicks at Rupp Arena (a family affair of sorts as Chicks singer Natalie Maines is the daughter of Lloyd Maines) and a 2009 WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour date with the reunited Flatlanders.

Today, Ely, 67, still embraces rock and roots music while on Texas turf. He joined Bruce Springsteen onstage in Houston as recently as last month. But he chooses unplugged settings for out-of-state touring. Ely's regional return Saturday will be an acoustic duo performance with guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn.

It is not a rock show, but having one of the truly great Texas song stylists of our day back in Kentucky — on a Saturday night, no less — will surely set off some Lone Star sparks.

Pre-BoB bluegrass

If the Best of Bluegrass concerts that begin Monday serve as a collective preface to next weekend's Festival of the Bluegrass, then Sunday's inauguration of Bluegrass in the Mountain could be viewed as a lead-in to BoB.

Bluegrass in the Mountain, an outgrowth of the Troubadour Concert Series, will offer a series of string music shows inside the Highbridge Cave in Wilmore, the 32-acre quarry that doubles as headquarters for Troubadour sponsor Highbridge Spring Water.

Kicking off the series will be the long-running, Berea-based McLain Family Band.

Showtime is 5 p.m. Tickets are $20 for the public, $10 for students at the gate.

Reservations are suggested. Call (859) 225-4020 or email

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